PITTSBURGH — The numbers from Pitt’s performance in the 2020 ACC Wrestling Championship at Petersen Events Center practically jump off the page, as the Panthers turned in an impressive showing on their own campus, nearly pulling off an upset for the overall title.
Here’s a sampling:
2 As a team, the Panthers came in second place. Last year in the same event, they finished fourth. In head coach Keith Gavin’s first year in 2018, the Panthers were dead last in sixth place.
The second-place finish is Pitt’s second since joining the conference and tied the 2014 Pitt team for the best finish at an ACC Tournament.
77 Pitt scored 77 team points in the championship. That’s a year-over-year increase of 36 points from 2019. In the 2018 and 2019 tournaments, Pitt scored 74.5 points COMBINED.
Not even the aforementioned 2014 team scored as many points as this year’s squad, with topping out at 67 that year, making the 2020 Panthers’ ACC Tournament performance the best in school history.
Pitt has had three champions on two other occasions, but none since Gavin’s arrival in 2017, which is yet another sign of the growth the program has shown in three years of his leadership.
7 The brackets won’t be set in stone until Tuesday, but as things stand after the ACC Tournament, Pitt will send at least seven wrestlers to the 2020 NCAA Tournament in Minnesota.
Pitt had four wrestlers in Cleveland in Gavin’s first season in 2018 and five wrestlers at PPG Paints Arena in 2019. The seven participants is the most for Pitt since the Panthers had eight in 2014.
And there’s still a chance for more at-large participation. In particular, nationally ranked 197-pounder Kellan Stout has a chance to be selected for an at-large spot after coming in third on Sunday. The ACC had just one automatic bid in his weight class.
To summarize, Pitt has the best team of Gavin’s era and the steady progress he’s made in his time at Pitt — combined with the fact that the Panthers feature just three seniors — should leave the arrow pointed even further up in the future.
“They’ve made a lot of progress, I think even from [the start of] this year,” Gavin said after the tournament. “Jake Wentzel beat two guys today that he lost to previously. … We’re wrestling well at a really good time and I’m happy with it.”
So, all’s well in Pitt wrestling, with a head coach that won the school’s last NCAA individual championship in the sport seemingly well on his way to finding his direct replacement while lifting the team to a new peak in the ACC.
That doesn’t even begin to factor in the already announced construction of a new on-campus venue for wrestling (along with gymnastics and volleyball) to replace the 68-year-old Fitzgerald Field House as the team’s home, with a new dedicated practice area for wrestling and the ability to host wrestling-centric events like Sunday’s all the time.
That brings us to the final number that jumps off the page for Pitt, though this one does not do so in a positive way.
1,714 The official attendance for Sunday’s championship was just 1,714, a shockingly low number.
For comparison’s sake, the Big Ten sold out two days’ worth of tickets at the 8,000-seat Rutgers Athletic Center for its tournament over the weekend.
That figure of 1,714 doesn’t even represent half the capacity — or even a typical dual-meet crowd — at the outdated Field House that Pitt hopes to replace. In the 12,000-seat Pete, it was practically an empty house, with the upper deck and end zones completely empty and the middle sections sparsely populated.
Furthermore, Pitt fans were barely a plurality, with NC State, North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech all brining vocal cheering sections.
The lack of local support is mystifying. Pitt had no other marquee events on Sunday and neither did Duquesne or Robert Morris. The Steelers are in the dead of their offseason, the Pirates are in Bradenton and the Penguins played an early game, giving folks plenty of time to stick around in the city and potentially see a championship when the final round started at 7 p.m.
The lack of interest extended beyond the general public. The area’s newspaper of record, the Post-Gazette (with apologies to my friends at the Trib), chose not to cover the event. Similarly opting out were each of Pittsburgh’s three major TV stations and Pitt’s flagship radio station, 93.7 The Fan.
Wrestling is a niche sport, there’s no question about that. But Pennsylvania is the epicenter of its popularity. The PIAA state championships routinely draw in excess of 40,000 at Hershey’s Giant Center. The 2019 NCAA Tournament in Pittsburgh saw over 109,000 cross the turnstiles at PPG Paints Arena.
The are more Division-I wrestlers and more NCAA All-Americans from Pennsylvania that from any other state in the country. Seven of Pitt’s 10 championship contenders hail from Western Pennsylvania. Another is from the eastern part of the state. Two more WPIAL alums wrestled for other ACC teams on Sunday. This is a wrestling hotbed.
If not for what appeared to be a refereeing error in the 141-pound semifinal, Pitt could have won the program’s first ACC Tournament championship in any sport, in an event held on Pitt’s campus, and done so in front of only a few hundred of the school’s own fans.
We’re not talking about winning a conference tournament championship in chess, checkers or tiddlywinks. It’s not lacrosse (which Pitt doesn’t yet have), or tennis (which Pitt no longer has) or even something fan-unfriendly like swimming and diving or cross country.
We’re talking about one of the most important sports in Pitt’s history nearly winning the school’s first conference postseason title (in seven years, mind you) and there being basically no one other than the friends and families of the wrestlers in the place to see it.
As I said, I don’t understand the lack of support. Pitt generally draws better than that for dual meets. Perhaps coronavirus fears kept people away. Maybe the rare late-winter appearance of the sun was enough to convince most Pittsburghers to spend the day outdoors. Perhaps the event was not sufficiently marketed.
Pitt’s students being on spring break certainly didn’t help, but the student body typically contributes little to Pitt’s wrestling crowds.
At the end of the day, the lack of support put an uncomfortable question mark on what should have been a triumphant Sunday for Gavin’s squad.
The Pitt team had a historic season and continues to grow to new heights in the ACC and nationally, and the young core of the team will be back for seasons to come.
But if nobody cares, what’s the point?