BLACKSBURG, Va. — It was a tense moment, but Micky Phillippi couldn’t stop the grin from growing across his face.
As the redshirt freshman from Pitt jogged out to the mat for the ACC Wrestling Championship bout for the 133-pound weight class, Toni Basil’s catchy one-hit wonder from 1981 “Hey Mickey” blared over the loud speakers. Phillippi, recently nationally ranked as the fifth best wrestler in his weight class, didn’t see it coming.
“They tried to get a smile on my face before I go out there,” Phillippi said with a laugh. “If you’re loose, you’re good. I just tried to go out there and have fun.”
Each wrestler in championship matches on Saturday at Cassell Coliseum got to have custom songs play while they ran out to the floor. Pitt assistant coach Drew Headlee took the liberty of choosing Phillippi’s song for him.
“We chose it against his will. That’s been his song all year,” Pitt head coach Keith Gavin said. “He doesn’t like it, but we all like it, and it’s 4-1, so we win.”
Phillippi won on Saturday, as well. He admitted that the song loosened him up, and the Derry, Pennsylvania native notched a 4-1 win over N.C. State’s Tariq Wilson to take home the ACC Championship for his weight class. Phillippi, the No. 1 seed in the six-man bracket for his class, was also named ACC tournament MVP.
Joining Phillippi at the top spot on the podium for Pitt was Demetrius Thomas, who beat North Carolina’s Cory Daniel in the championship match for the 285-pound class.
In all, Saturday on the campus of Virginia Tech was a good day for Pitt wrestling. The Panthers saw two wrestlers crowned as conference champs and had four men qualify for the NCAA Championships, which will be held in Pittsburgh later this month.
“With Micky and Meech getting the wins, I’m happy for those guys,” Gavin said. “I thought Taleb (Rahmani) and Nino (Bonaccorsi) wrestled well too, they just came up short.”
For Phillippi, the ACC title is another bright spot in what was an exceptional rookie wrestling campaign for him as a redshirt freshman. He now has a record of 19-2 and lost just one ACC bout all year. On Feb. 14, Virginia Tech’s Korbin Myers bested him, 5-3.
But Phillippi got some revenge in the semifinals, getting a 2-1 overtime win over Myers in his home gym.
In the finals, Phillippi was going up against a wrestler he hadn’t faced before in Wilson, but he remained confident and stuck to what he was best at. After a scoreless first period, where he missed on a shot, Phillippi chose to start on bottom and quickly scored a point for an escape.
“I feel comfortable there. We work on (starting on bottom) a lot on the room and work on situations like that,” Phillippi said. “No matter what, I always feel comfortable going down, because I know I can get out. It’s just being confident in your position.”
Phillippi then scored on a nearfall and then escaped once more, giving him a 4-1 advantage at the final whistle.
“I worked all year, my whole life for this. I just tried to be aware,” Phillippi said. “He’s obviously a good wrestler, a great competitor. I respect him a lot, but I was aware of what he had, but I also wasn’t afraid of what I had to do. I tried to get after him right off the bat.”
For Thomas, although he was a No. 2 seed in the heavyweight bracket, the road to the finals wasn’t easy. In the semifinals, he faced a tough challenge from Virginia Tech’s Billy Miller, who took an early 5-1 advantage over him.
But Thomas settled in and clawed his way back, getting a reversal and a pair of takedowns on his way to a 10-9 victory.
“Early on I was very zealous and just trying to pull out points as fast as I could,” Thomas said. “I realized it wasn’t going my way and I just told myself to relax and be calm and stay the course.”
The championship bout between he and Daniel of the Tar Heels would be somewhat of a season tiebreaker. Thomas beat Daniel 3-1 at the Cliff Keen Vegas Invite earlier this season, but then Daniel topped him 7-5 in Pittsburgh.
“I knew coming in that I would possibly have Daniel in the finals and it was a rubber match for us,” Thomas said. “I really wanted it from really the past few weeks until now. I’ve been training, just trying to clean up my technique. It paid off.”
Thomas looked tired early on, but a Pitt coach yelled out to him, “Keep working Meech!”
An escape and a takedown were all Thomas needed, taking a 3-2 win.
“It was the same approach. I tried to keep a high pace and tried to make sure I got good shots and tried to make sure everything was clean,” Thomas said. “I can find myself sometimes getting sloppy later in the periods when things don’t go my way and I just start shooting random shots. I tried to stay consistent today.”
Bonaccorsi and Rahmani also appeared in championship matches for Pitt, but were unable to get the best of their opponents. Rahmani took an 8-2 loss to N.C. State’s Hayden Hidlay in the 157-pound title match, while Bonaccorsi was a dealt a 4-1 defeat in the 184-pound championship by Virginia Tech’s Zack Zavatsky.
While Pitt took home two crowns, they fell short in team points, finishing fourth with 41 points. N.C. State claimed the team title, securing 93.5 points.
The day was a bit top heavy for Pitt. While all of its wrestlers that were seeded No. 2 or higher advanced to the final, the Panthers’ six other wrestlers combined for zero wins.
“It was weird. We had four guys do really well, and then we had six guys not do well. We had four guys in the final and nobody else won a match, so that’s a strange tournament to have,” Gavin said. “Some of them lost matches that they won earlier in the year. We wrestled hard and wrestled well, it’s just a tough conference right now and there’s a lot of really close matches and we came up on the wrong end on a lot of those close matches today.”
Pitt’s lone senior competing, L.J. Bentley, was a No. 5 seed in the 141-pound class. He fought hard, but fell in a 6-3 decision to Duke’s Josh Finesilver in the first round. Bentley was outdone in his bid for redemption too, losing a 5-1 decision to North Carolina’s A.C. Headlee in the consolation bracket. The Twinsburg, Ohio native finished his senior Pitt campaign with a 15-10 record.
But Gavin is hoping that perhaps Bentley or another worthy Panther will receive an at-large bid to the NCAA championships. Kellan Stout and Gregg Harvey could be candidates too, as they also finished with winning records.
Either way, the Panthers are hoping to accomplish big things in front of their home crowd when the national tournament comes to town on March 21 to 23.
“It’s going to be a dream come true,” Phillippi said. “Pittsburgh is the wrestling mecca in the United States, and it’s 100 percent the truth. You look at all these other teams – Iowa, Penn State, N.C. State – there’s dudes from Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh area. It’s going to be really cool. That city loves wrestling.”
It’s been more than a decade since Pitt has seen one of its wrestlers win an individual NCAA championship. The last one to do it was Gavin, taking the 174-pound title in 2008. To say that it would be special to end that drought in front of their home crowd would be a massive understatement.
“It’s going to be a great event. Pittsburgh is a wrestling town, so the fans are going to be there and they’re going to be rowdy, so it’s going to be a fun environment for wrestling,” Gavin said. “For us, it’s just focusing on one match at a time and hopefully we put on a good performance there.”