Saturday, the Panthers, currently ranked No. 13 according to the latest NWCA Coaches Poll, will battle rival No. 17 Lehigh at the Fitzgerald Field House for the first fan-less Pitt home meet of 2021. The meeting is the 65th all-time for the Pennsylvania foes.
The Panthers are 1-0 on the year after defeating Cary Kolat’s Navy Midshipmen 22-14 on Sunday at Alumni Arena in Annapolis, Maryland.
The Mountain Hawks of Lehigh, who had their Jan. 2 opener against Hofstra cancelled due to COVID-19 issues within the Hofstra program, will open their 2021season with the in-state rival Pitt Panthers in a top-25 showdown.
Two Mountain Hawks appear in the latest InterMat rankings, led by senior Brandon Paetzell, who is ranked fourth at 125. Senior Jake Jakobsen is ranked 15th at 197. Three Mountain Hawks appear in rankings from both FloWrestling and Amateur Wrestling News. Lehigh has seven wrestlers ranked in the top 33 by The Open Mat and five by Trackwrestling. Various outlets rank two different Lehigh wrestlers at 141, senior Luke Karam and freshman Connor McGonagle.
For Pitt, five Panthers appear in the latest FloWrestling rankings, including Micky Phillippi (No. 6 at 133); Cole Mathews (No. 16 at 141); Jake Wentzel (No. 8 at 165); Gregg Harvey (No, 22 at 184); and Nino Bonaccorsi (No. 5 at 197). As a team FloWrestling ranks the Panthers at No. 15, although NWCA Coaches Poll places Pitt slightly higher at No.13.
After leading the Panthers to a dramatic 19-18 victory at Lehigh last season, Pitt head coach Keith Gavin is looking forward to another matchup against the defending EIWA conference champions.
“With this being a shortened season, every opportunity is huge,” Gavin said. “We’re especially grateful to everyone who has helped make it possible for us to compete at home again. We have a ton of respect for Lehigh and expect another challenging dual against them.”
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Lehigh at Pitt, 5 p.m., ACC Network Extra
• Look for Pitt to get off to a faster start at the lighter weights. While the Panthers have to combat some inexperience in the earlier bouts, two-time ACC champ, Micky Phillipi should be able to put up more than three points toward the team score on Saturday. Look for the Derry native to earn a bonus-point victory.
“I got off to a slow start in my match (Sunday), I think I could have scored earlier,” Phillipi said of his match at Navy. “I’m going to go out there and score early, score often.”
• Expect Cole Mathews to have a bounce-back performance and boost his national ranking. After suffering a sudden victory loss Sunday against a ranked opponent in a match where he didn’t exactly have the best approach – by trying to preserve a lead rather than scoring additional points to extend his point margin.
“Cole Mathews is skilled and talented enough,” Gavin said to the media Wednesday. “He scored early (against Navy) and tried to manage the clock for the rest of the match. That’s just such a stressful way to wrestle. It’s a bad strategy and we talked about it. He had a great practice yesterday.”
• Watch for the back half of the Pitt lineup to carry momentum into Saturday’s meet. Against Navy, Pitt rallied to win the final five bouts of the dual meet, with the last two bouts coming by way of technical falls. The five straight wins helped the Panthers erase an 11-point deficit and ultimately win the dual. Expect the upper-weights to look strong in their 2021 home debut.
• Pitt will rely on their team captains to come up big. In tough rivalry duals you have to lean on veteran leadership to help the team pull out a win. Phillipi, Harvey, Wentzel, and Bonaccorsi will be expected to not only win, but also earn a bonus-point victory or two in the process.
• Wentzel needs to keep his foot on the gas. He started the season strong. Sunday, 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 not only earned the South Park, Pa native a jump in the rankings (No. 8 in the latest Flo rankings), but also earned him multiple weekly and national accolades from a variety of outlets. Despite his early success in 2021, plus his status as a reigning ACC champ, some outlets have the senior picked to finish third or fourth within the conference. With that, Wentzel will likely be wrestling with a chip on his shoulder all season long.
Saturday’s dual will be followed by a series of extra matches which will count towards a wrestler’s season record. The Mountain Hawks return half their lineup from last year’s EIWA triumph but only two of the five are expected to compete against the Panthers.