Jake Wentzel came to Pitt as the No. 40 recruit in the 2016 recruiting class. The South Park graduate was a two-time PIAA champion, three-time regional and WPIAL champion, a Powerade champion as a senior (when he compiled a perfect 42-0 record on the year) and runner-up at the same tournament as a junior.
Wentzel’s consistent success on the mat for the Eagles from 2013-2016 is the reason why his name is in the South Park High School wrestling record book as the all-time winningest wrestler in program history. Wentzel amassed 156 total wins to just 15 losses in a South Park singlet, boasting a remarkable .912 win percentage at the conclusion of his high school career.
Wentzel competed under former Pitt standout Tyler Nauman at South Park and also wrestled for his coach’s club team, Team Nauman, where he was a Pittsburgh Wrestling Classic participant at 160 pounds for Team Pennsylvania as a senior. With that, it really was not a big surprise that Wentzel chose follow in his coach’s footsteps, picking Pitt as the place he wanted to further both his education and his wrestling career.
What was surprising however was that the wins he was able to rack up with ease as a prep grappler didn’t immediately transfer to the next level at Pitt and in Fitzgerald Field House. It wasn’t that the talent had evaporated – it was there – and certainly still is today in 2021.
A series of serious injuries have prevented the now redshirt senior 165-pounder from living up to his true potential as a college wrestler.
That all changed during his redshirt junior season in 2020. Wentzel stayed healthy for an entire season for the first time in his college career. He put together an 18-7 record en route to being crowned the 2020 ACC Champion at 165 pounds, qualifying for NCAAs for the first time as a Panther.
“The main adjustment was just my lifestyle in general,” Wentzel said regarding the changes he made prior to breakout season last year. “I had to start taking things more serious. The biggest thing was staying healthy the whole year, making sure my diet was good, my weight was checked. I was training as smart as possible, not necessarily as hard as possible, to ensure that I could complete an entire season.”
While the 2020 campaign did end as Wentzel had hoped. Truthfully, it didn’t end as anyone in the wrestling world envisioned it would. Just a day after the full bracket field for the 2020 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, which were set to be held in Minneapolis, was announced on March 12, the NCAA cancelled all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships, including wrestling due to growing fears of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wentzel’s season may have come to an abrupt end, but he concluded 2020 on a strong note nonetheless. Pitt head coach Keith Gavin said in a post-match interview at ACCs that his 165-pounder delivered a “stand out performance” in his run to the 2020 ACC crown as the No. 4 seed, which included a pair top-10 victories.
Wentzel’s road to the ACC Tournament finals started with a dominant 8-1 decision over Duke’s Ben Anderson in the quarterfinals. He then advanced to the semifinals to face the No. 1 seed Kennedy Monday of North Carolina. Wentzel trailed 2-0 entering the final frame and came back to win it 3-2 to advance to the finals.
In the finals, what would eventually be his last match of his junior season, Wentzel faced the No. 3 seed in three-time All-American David McFadden of Virginia Tech. Wentzel fell behind 1-0 in the first, but scored a takedown in the second to take the lead. He concluded the bout with a forceful ride-out of McFadden to secure riding time and claim the ACC title, 3-1.
“I figured I’m strong on top, he (McFadden) doesn’t wanna be on bottom. He wanted a chance to end the match on his feet and I didn’t give it to him.” Wentzel said postgame of his ride-out of McFadden.
In the process, Wentzel was able to avenge earlier dual meet losses to both Monday and McFadden. He had hoped that his first trip to NCAAs would provide him the opportunity to avenge yet another earlier defeat, this one to Thomas Bullard of NC State.
Although coronavirus took away that chance in 2020 for Wentzel to exact revenge on the NC State foe, Wentzel will likely get multiple chances against Bullard this season. The two should match up at a team dual in Raleigh, ACCs, and possibly NCAAs as well.
“I was told I smiled more times (at ACCs) then they’ve ever seen in my entire life, so I must’ve been doing something right,” Wentzel said after his title-clenching win on his home mat at the Pedersen Events Center, not far from Fitzgerald Field House.
Wentzel, now a redshirt senior, is three wins into his 2021 campaign is still smiling. The Pitt captain has caried his momentum from last years conference tournament into this season.
On the young season, the South Park, Pa. native is currently undefeated (3-0) with a top-10 win over then No. 7 Tanner Skidgel of Navy to his credit. Wentzel’s is currently ranked top-7 at his weight by all major ranking services. His 5-2 decision over Skidgel (with minutes of riding time) helped Pitt mount an 11-point come-from-behind team win, Pitt’s first of 2021.
His noteworthy victory at Alumni Hall in Annapolis resulted in Wentzel being named the first Atlantic Coast Conference Wrestler of the Week of the 2021 season for the first time in his collegiate career. He was also The Open Mat’s National College Wrestler of the Week as well, but Wentzel was uninspired by the accolades.
“(It was) pretty much luck,” Wentzel said of receiving these honors. “There wasn’t much going on in the sports world. ACC-wise and Pitt-wise, I was the only person that had a ranked matchup. So, I kind of lucked into that.”
The 165-pounder went on to say that it was just one match and it is still very early so he isn’t reading too much into the individual win or the awards.
One reason Wentzel has been able to come out firing on all cylinders for his No. 12 Panthers is because his offseason training routine (thanks to his high school coach, Nauman) wasn’t lost to COVID-19 as was the harrowing reality for so many other NCAA grapplers.
“My high school wrestling coach, he (Nauman) has his own (wrestling) room (with Team Nauman wrestling club), and he gave me the code to get into that room,” Wentzel said. “I would bring in a couple of my buddies and my roommates here at Pitt and we’d work out usually (following) the same schedule as we would usually have at Pitt.”
Wentzel, like many athletes trying to train in times of a global pandemic, had to use some improvisation to train as well. In Wentzel’s case, this meant transporting his father’s in-home gym equipment to his school apartment.
While the 2020 NWCA All-American acknowledges its still to early in the season to truly evaluate exactly why he’s been so successful thus far, he said he believes it might have something two do with being a solid “three-position wrestler.”
“It’s too early to say, but I’m pretty good on top and hard to score on the feet. And on bottom I keep wrestling, I explode and get an escape,” Wentzel said. “So, there’s still some things to work on. But as of now, I just feel being a three-position wrestler and putting emphasis on each of the periods, not just one aspect of the sport (is important for me).”
Only time will tell how Wentzel’s virus-impacted senior season will unfold, but his ACC title defense won’t be an easy one. His path to a second straight conference crown will require him to beat a handful of wrestlers that Wentzel has yet to beat during his career, including 2019 NCAA Champion Mekhi Lewis of Virginia Tech.
No matter how talented his weight class is, both across the ACC and across nation at large, his goal for himself remains unchanged.
“On the mat, I’d like to wrestle as well as possible,” “Wentzel said. “It’s not out of the picture to compete for a a national title. But, the first goal is be an All-American. I’ve never even wrestled at the national tournament, so that’s obviously another goal, to make it to Nationals.”
Off the mat, the fifth-year senior (who plans to return for a sixth season in 2022) is currently earning a graduate degree in accounting.
In the end, Wentzel realizes he and all his college wrestling brethren are fortunate to be competing at all this year. While he can take solace in knowing this season – however long it lasts – will not be his final season wrestling for the Blue and Gold.
That said, Wentzel is prepared to bring the intensity – as if every match this year may be his last.