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College Wrestling

After Long Layoff, Pitt Wrestling Thankful to be Competing

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When Pitt Wrestling head coach Keith Gavin, and team captains Micky Phillippi (133) and Nino Bonaccorsi (197) met with the media earlier this week, all three echoed similar sentiments in that they were happy to bring home a solid win against a tough Navy squad last Sunday. But, happiness with the victory aside, the trio are just grateful to be on the mat in 2021.

“We’re happy that it is the opening week of the season because there was a lot of uncertainty there,” Gavin said. “To actually be competing and to have competed already, we feel pretty lucky to be able to do that. We’re looking forward to this weekend, for another tough dual.”

Gavin added that he was, “really concerned” the season would even happen this year. That concern was certainly justified.

On Nov. 12, the Ivy League canceled all winter sports, including wrestling. The Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference followed Ivy’s lead, cancelling all winter sports as well. With that, Lock Haven and Ivy League grapplers are among those that won’t see the mat this season or compete for national titles in March.

For Phillippi, there was a comfort in just being able to wear a Pitt singlet again. The last time the 2020 ACC champion and NWCA All-American had that opportunity was nearly 10 months ago at the conference tournament.

“It was cool to wear the Pitt singlet and be able to actually represent (the University) because it’s been a while,” Phillippi said. “We’ve all been itching to get out there and wrestle and compete. It sucked to end the season the way it did because we never really got to prove what we what we worked for all year.”

The lightweight went on to say, “Last year was a learning experience to never take things for granted because you never know what’s gonna happen.”

Well, what has happened this year is a vastly different college wrestling season then wrestlers, coaches, and fans alike are accustomed to.

In 2021, the season will be drastically condensed, Pitt wrestlers are subject to three weekly COVID-19 tests, they practice in two separate groups rather than one large group as a team, and wearing masks in and out of the facility is the new norm for student-athletes and coaches.

Additionally, the Panthers will wrestle their home duals in a fan-less Fitzgerald Field House. Only senior parents will be in the stands to watch as the Panthers try to steal an ACC title from a highly-touted NC State team that is currently ranked No. 4 in the latest NWCA Coaches Poll.

While these adjustments may seem like a lot to handle, it’s a small price to pay to be able to have a season at all.

“We’re doing what we have to do, we’re just reacting,” Phillippi said. “We’re just fortunate to be here. We’re are all OK with the protocols because, if it means we can wrestle, it’s worth it.”

Despite all the changes and challenges this season brings, one area that hasn’t suffered is Pitt’s conditioning.

Against Navy, multiple Panthers were able to find their offense, earning bonus-point victories and upset wins when the team needed them most.  These extra efforts ultimately helped Pitt seal the deal, overcoming an early double-digit deficit to leave Alumni Arena in Annapolis with a 22-14 victory Sunday night.

The 11-point Pitt come-from-behind victory started when then tenth-ranked Wentzel defeated Navy’s then No. 7-ranked senior, Tanner Skidgel, winning by 5-2 decision while recording nearly two minutes of riding time. The victory was the first of five straight by the then 14th-ranked Panthers.

Wentzel’s win earned the reigning ACC champ recognition.  He was named the first Atlantic Coast Conference Wrestler of the Week of the 2021 season for the first time in his collegiate career. The South Park, Pa. native also took home National College Wrestler of the Week honors awarded by The Open Mat and the Office Depot/Supra Student-Athlete of the Week.

Pitt brought the dual to a close with back-to-back technical falls by Nino Bonaccorsi at 197 and Jake Slinger at heavyweight.

“I like to score a lot of points and I like to get my offense going,” Bonaccorsi said of his 24-point performance on Sunday. “The coaches have been instilling in me that I have to ‘take it’ from people whether it is hard or not.”

Knowing the team was trailing in the team score heading into Bonaccorsi’s match, he knew he needed to do more for the team.

“What drove me that match was that our team was down, so I knew we needed some big points,” Bonaccorsi said. “I felt like I had to put out for my team and I think that drove me a little bit. I’ve enhanced my skillset so feel like I can go out and take my offense to people whether they like it or not.”

These ranked-vs-ranked individual upsets and offensively-charged high-scoring matches will be paramount for the Panthers as they strive for the first ACC wrestling title in program history under fourth-year head coach Keith Gavin.

N.C. State is returning the same core it had last year, having lost zero to graduation, its title-winning lineup remains unchanged.

Whether Pitt upsets and N.C. State who the ACC foes meet later this month for a dual in Raleigh, or not, Gavin likes his squad’s chances come postseason time.

Gavin said he feels this 2021 Pitt team is better suited for tournaments rather than dual meets, due to multiple guys who could “be big point scorers in the ACC tournament.”

Either way, Gavin knows he and the Panthers have a talk task a head of them.

“There’s little room for error,” Gavin said when asked about a possible ACC team title in 2021. “But if we have a good day, I think that we can do it.”

The key to success for Pitt wrestling in this odd 2021 campaign is taking the season on match at a time.

This week, the Panthers, who have seen a rise in both their overall team ranking and many individual rankings, are focused on No. 17 Lehigh who comes to the Field House to battle No. 13 Pitt Saturday at 5 p.m..

Unfortunately, for a rivalry match that would traditionally draw quite the crowed in a normal year, The Fitz will be will be eerily quiet with a sparce crowd of select Pitt parents.

Regardless, Wentzel, a guest on Packer & Durham this morning, put the entire 2021 season in perspective.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with this season. The Navy dual could have been my last dual of the season,” Wentzel said. “So just going out there and competing like it is my last time, I think every match you need to go in with that energy, especially in these weird times.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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