Pitt wrestling lost its third straight match on Saturday, and fell to 0-2 in the ACC. No. 17 North Carolina beat Pitt 19-16 on the back of Austin O’Connor’s pin over Robert Lee. The bouts were even 5-5, but overcoming a pin is no easy task. To make matters worse, Jake Wentzel may be out for the season.
It is quite possible Pitt fans have developed unrealistic expectations when it comes to heavyweights winning the dual. I mean, you can’t win every time, can you? In the last five years or so, Pitt has won in almost every single instance of this situation. With the team score 16-16, Meech Thomas was in position to do it again. He was up 5-1 in the third period. Then he clamped despite clearly being in control. Did he lose focus? “I think so… he didn’t need to lock hands there,” head coach Keith Gavin offered.
In a casual conversation after the match with Nino Bonaccorsi and a Pitt alumnus, Nino frustratingly identified the locked-hands call as a turning point in the heavyweight match. The alumni quipped, “yeah, they’ll get ya.”
It was Tyler Wilps.
After the penalty point made the score 5-2, a Cory Daniel escape, takedown, and ride out erased the four-point lead, and took it to overtime. Daniel scored again to end it. Gavin believes Meech made an avoidable technical error: “he has to get off that single leg, he had him stretched out and the guy sucked it up. That happened twice, once on the high crotch, once on the single.” This wasn’t their first meeting this year either. “Those guys had a really close match in Vegas so we knew that would be a tough one. I thought Meech wrestled well, he just had to slam the door.”
Prior to the decisive heavyweight bout, Pitt wrestled very well in several matches and less than desirable in others. One of the standout performances was senior LJ Bentley.
“I told him ‘whatever [you] had in [your] mind, do that every time,’ because he was really locked in. You could tell he was in a groove… that was probably the best I’ve ever seen him wrestle.” Gavin was proud of one of his leaders.
LJ had a quick match the last time he was on the mat, getting pinned by Kaid Brock in 32 seconds. He was sick for the Virginia Tech match, so it has been two weeks since he’s seen competition. “Individually, I knew I had to focus every day when I came in the room, nothing crazy from a technique perspective, just dialing in and sticking to the routine. What I had going this past week in the practice room, and my preparation in general, allowed me to go out there and wrestle to my fullest potential.”
Changing one weight class, either up or down, is fairly common in wrestling. But two, that’s a different story. “I knew after ACCs last year with such a big weight cut, I wanted to move up. After gaining weight and putting on the proper muscle in the off-season, I felt that 141 was suitable, not just for me, but also for the team.” LJ was always a big 125 pounder, and with Micky at 133, moving up two spots just made sense. He is noticeably bigger this year, and has competed closely with some of the best in the country. He lost 4-2 to No. 9 Josh Alber of UNI, who beat Brock Friday night.
“Absolutely, I consider myself an All American. That’s been the goal, that’s what it is for this year, nothing has ever changed. Any of these guys, I don’t think they can handle my speed… I look forward to going to ACCs, taking care of business, hopefully make it to Nationals, and make some noise here in Pittsburgh.”
In addition to Bentley, winning matches for the Panthers were Micky Phillippi, Taleb Rahmani, Nino Bonaccorsi, and Kellan Stout.
Micky squared off against Gary Wayne Harding, a two-time NCAA qualifier and runner-up at the Southern Scuffle, who transferred from Oklahoma State this season. Harding also has a win over former Pitt 133 starter Dom Forys. After losing his prior two matches, Micky bounced back and mostly controlled the tough veteran. “That kid’s been around for a while, he has a lot of experience. He’s a tough kid, he’s very stingy. So we knew it would be a hard fought match… it got a little iffy in the second period, but [Micky] did a nice job of finishing,” Gavin stated.
Taleb and Kellan had somewhat similar days. They both wrestled unranked opponents, but with respectable records. At 157 Josh McClure was 15-7 and at 197 Brandon Whitman was 16-6. They both took care of business, with Taleb winning 5-3 and Kellan 4-0.
Nino faced a familiar opponent. He hasn’t wrestled Chip Ness before, but his brother has. Nick Bonaccorsi beat Ness in the ACC tournament several years ago for the last automatic qualifying spot up for grabs in a thrilling match. Nino said he didn’t ask his brother (now a police officer for the City of Pittsburgh) for any advice, he just wrestled his match. His coach agreed, “Nino’s going to get everybody’s leg. The big thing for him is finishing his attacks and bottom. That was nice to see. He’s been close to beating those guys so that was a nice win.”
The team loss is tough to take from a fan’s point of view, especially with Meech being so close. Yes, Wentzel didn’t wrestle, but Kennedy Monday didn’t wrestle for UNC. Taleb beat him this year, but he is their best wrestler. Pitt has two matches next Saturday against Davidson and Gardner-Webb. It will be a good opportunity to tune up some issues before facing ACC leading North Carolina State on Sunday.