For years, many Pitt fans have been operating under the belief that if the Panthers could just get all — or even most — of the most talented football players from the WPIAL stay at home and play for Pitt, the fortunes of the program would rise significantly.
Perhaps it stems from the ever-popular Dave Wannstedt’s desire to “build a brick wall” around Western Pennsylvania, but for whatever reason, the feeling that the key to Pitt’s football lies in those football players that grew up in the 412 area code is a pervasive one.
Of course, it was never completely true, and it certainly isn’t now, with just four consensus four-star players coming out of the last two classes.
But there is a place where that wall around Western Pennsylvania might be just the thing that leads the Panthers to greater success than they’ve ever had: Keith Gavin’s wrestling room.
Pittsburgh has been notable as a wrestling hotbed for quite some time, and that’s the reason that the city was selected to host the 2019 NCAA wrestling championships late last week.
At those championships, the former wrestlers of the WPIAL showed the dominance of the region.
Here’s what an all-WPIAL team would’ve looked like:
125 pounds: Spencer Lee, Franklin Regional, champion
133 pounds: Luke Pletcher, Greater Latrobe, 4th place
141 pounds: Michael Carr, South Fayette, No. 6 seed, did not place
149 pounds: Josh Marcua, Franklin Regional, No. 23 seed, did not place
157 pounds Jason Nolf, Kittanning, champion
165 pounds: Vincenzo Joseph, Central Catholic, 2nd place
174 pounds: Ethan Smith, Greater Latrobe, No. 19 seed, did not place
184 pounds: Zack Zavatsky, Greater Latrobe, 8th place
197 pounds: Jake Woodley, North Allegheny, No. 18 seed, did not place
285 pounds: none
That’s two champions, a runner up, and two more All-Americans — a team that scored enough points to come in second place — and that’s without even considering the possibility of someone moving a weight class.
You’ll notice that Pitt had three WPIAL wrestlers in the championships, Micky Phillippi from Derry at 133 pounds, Nino Bonaccorsi from Bethel Park at 184 pounds and Kellan Stout from Mt. Lebanon at 197 pounds. None were even the highest-placed finisher amongst WPIAL wrestlers at their weight class.
In his second season as head coach, Gavin made significant strides. After finishing 4-11 in his first season, the Panthers went 13-3 in 2018-19 and were one of the most-improved teams in the country.
Wrestlers like Bonaccorsi, Phillippi and fellow NCAA qualifier Demetrius Thomas at heavyweight were all wrestling their first seasons at Pitt, and even greater things should be expected of that trio going forward.
From Pitt’s typical starting lineup, just one wrestler will not be returning: senior LJ Bentley at 125 pounds.
So there’s plenty of reason for optimism going forward, even as the Panthers sit two days removed from the end of the 2018-19 season.
But the real job for Gavin and assistants Jordan Leen and Drew Headlee will be to reverse that trend above. One of the key factors in Gavin’s tenure as a Pitt head wrestling coach will be his ability to get more of that talent to come to Pitt.
He’s seemingly being given greater assets in that regard than his predecessors, which athletic director Heather Lyke trumpeting plans for a brand-new wrestling venue as part of her Victory Heights plan and the opening of a regional training center that’s currently hosting former Franklin Regional and Penn State star and international wrestler Nico Megaludis.
Megaludis is one of many local stars that went up the road to State College for their collegiate wrestling, and it seems hard to blame them. The Lions, once again NCAA champions for the fourth straight year and eight of the last nine, seem like an unconquerable foe for not just Pitt, but for nearly all of the wrestling world.
But it wasn’t all that long ago that the Lions were much more easily beaten. In 2009, before they hired coach Cael Sanderson, Penn State was 8-10 and finished 17th at nationals. They wrestle in a 90-year old building.
The magic that is Penn State wrestling was started with an incomparable hire in Sanderson and has continued, largely by getting results from Western Pa talent like Megaludis, Joseph and Nolf and then working outward.
As much as it may seem wrong to Pitt fans to be following in the footsteps of their hated neighbors, that’s the blueprint for Gavin and Pitt.
At long last, it’s time someone built that wall.