In wrestling, more than any other sport, confidence is key.
“If tomorrow was Nationals, I think I could step out there and run through the bracket,” Pitt redshirt junior, and reigning two-time 133-pound ACC Champion, Micky Phillippi said. “I don’t care who steps in front of me. And that’s just the way it has to be.”
For Phillippi, his confidence is nothing new. As a prep prospect out of Derry Area High School, in Derry Pennsylvania, Phillippi put together quite the storied career.
He was a was a three-time Pennsylvania State Champion with 170 wins and just 12 losses during his career. He also placed at top-notch high school tournaments like FloNationals and Super 32.
As a senior in 2016, he was ranked as high as No. 2 in the country at 138 pounds by FloWrestling, a result of having four consecutive 40-plus win seasons, three of which yielded PIAA titles when all was said and done.
As a WPIAL wrestling standout with a strong academic resume to match – one that saw the Derry native named the 2016 Westmoreland County Scholar Athlete of the Year – Phillipi was recruited by the best college wrestling programs in the country: Penn State, Iowa, NC State, Virginia Tech, Virginia, and Pitt, just to name a few.
In September 2015, as a junior, Phillippi committed to Virginia Cavaliers’ head coach Steve Garland. The commitment was the latest in what has since emerged as a bit of a Pennsylvania high school wrestling pipeline leading directly to Charlottesville, Virginia.
Today, eight Virginia grapplers hail from the Keystone State, including former WPIAL stars Cam Coy and his younger brother, Nick, who both attended Penn Trafford.
Phillippi fared well on the mat during his redshirt season at Virginia in 2016-17. He accounted for 25 wins, competing unattached at a variety open tournament. Additionally, 12 of victories came via pin or bonus-point decisions.
Despite the early ACC success, he realized that UVA wasn’t the school that was best for him personally or athletically.
“That whole first year of college (at Virginia), it was a big learning experience,” Phillippi said. “Once I was there, I just realized, mentally, I felt like I wasn’t in the right place.”
“(At the time, Pitt) was kind of the easy choice because it was closer to home,” Phillippi continued. “(Back then, my mentality) was ‘get away and do something different’. (But) being away you just realize, ‘wow, it would have been nice to be able to be home and be able to see your family when you want. (To) be at a place where you can grow.’”
So, going back home to Pennsylvania was exactly what Phillippi did. He transferred to Pitt, a school he, “was always a fan of growing up” in 2017. He would wrestle for newly-hired Pitt head coach, Keith Gavin, who was a Pitt wrestling alum and 2008 NCAA Champion.
“At the end of the (2016-17 school year), I knew I needed to make a move because I really wanted to win a national title. And on top of that, just want to be in the right place mentally, so Pitt was the move,” Phillippi said with a laugh.
Still, the returning home wasn’t without its fair share of challenges.
Due to the NCAA’s transfer rules, Phillippi was forced to sit out the 2017-18 season at Pitt. For the second straight year, he was forced to compete only as an unattached wrestler at open tournaments.
Most importantly, his choice to switch schools meant Phillippi had no shot at an NCAA title – his ultimate goal.
“It was hard (basically) redshirting (those) first two years, only going to tournaments,” Phillippi said. “That second year, I wrestled kids who were All-Americans. I was having good matches with them, overtime matches, and I knew I could do it. I was on their level (skill-wise).”
Even more challenging than facing All-Americans though, was having sit back and watch his Panthers’ teammates compete, wanting nothing more than to be alongside them. Wanting to attend Nationals as a competitor, rather than watching on TV.
But reflecting back on those first two collegiate seasons, Phillippi said he appreciates the growth he experienced during those unattached years – both as a person and an athlete. He also said he thinks transferring to Pitt was for his long-term aspirations in the sport.
After earning a spot in the starting lineup in 2018-19, Phillippi made one thing clear to those who watched his first season as a Pitt starter unfold. That was, the 133-pounder hadn’t lost a step over his last two seasons of limited action wrestling unattached. Additionally, he would be an instant title-contender at the weight.
Courtesy of Pitt AthleticsThat season, after a 4-1 showing, which sent Phillippi to the finals of the notoriously challenging Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invite, the college wrestling world was aware that Micky Phillippi had arrived. That 2018 tournament was what Phillippi himself coined has his “breakout event.”
After finishing as the 133-pound runner-up, not only did he to see his name begin to rise within the national rankings, which got as high as No.4 throughout the season, but also, he started racking up a plethora of ranked wins.
During that inaugural varsity season for his hometown Panthers, Phillippi went 21-4 overall with a 13-1 record in dual competition and an 8-3 mark at tournaments. The season saw Phillippi crowned the 2019 ACC Champion after compiling a record of 10-4 against top-25 opponents, which included three victories against top-10 opponents – then-No. 2 Daton Fix of Oklahoma State, then-No. 5 Luke Pletcher of Ohio State (a longtime friend, who now helps coach Phillippi at Pitt), and then-No. 6 Tariq Wilson of NC State.
With these marquee wins, Phillippi not only gained confidence in abilities, but also proved that his success on the mat could translate from the high school level to the collegiate level, something not all prep stars who go Division I can say.
Phillippi attributes his ability to consistently win at the college level to simply “not overthinking.
“Wrestling is wrestling. You can’t make it bigger than it is,” Phillippi said. “We go out there every day and train our butts off. You just have to believe that you put yourself in the right position to win. I just went out there and believed in myself from the beginning.”
While Phillippi had a solid rookie season, he knew there were still some changes he needed to make heading into his sophomore campaign in 2019-20.
At the top of that list of offseason adjustments, Phillippi wanted to become a more complete three-position wrestler, something he said he felt he lacked both as a prep wrestler and even at times during his first year as a starter in the Pitt lineup.
The adjustments paid off. Last year, as a redshirt sophomore, Phillippi was 25-1 overall, which included both a 12-match winning-streak and a 13-match winning-streak. He was unbeaten,14-0, in dual meets as well. Similarly, nine of Phillippi’s victories were wins over ranked opponents.
Phillippi ultimately ended his coronavirus-shortened season by being crowned ACC Champion at 133 for the second consecutive season – defeating Louie Hayes of Virginia and Jaime Hernandez of North Carolina to take the conference title. As a result, Phillipi was named a 2020 NWCA All-American.
For Philippi, that momentum has carried into this condensed 2021 campaign. On the year, Phillippi, who is one of four Pitt team captains’ is 5-0. And, he has proven he can win in virtually every way.
Through five contests, Phillippi has won via fall (1), technical fall (1) and decision (3). He has proven he can win in low-scoring affairs as well as offensive shootouts. Currently, Phillipi sits as a consensus top-5 wrestler across all major ranking services.
— Pitt Wrestling (@Pitt_WRES) January 17, 2021
Phillippi says he believes the strong start to 2021 is a result of placing greater importance on scoring as many points as possible every match.
“I go out there and try to score from each position,” Phillippi said. “I try to be well-rounded. On my feet, I have to get takedowns. On bottom, I try to get out as soon as possible. And on top, I want to ride you out. I don’t want anyone to believe that they can beat me in any position.”
Phillippi has remained steadfast that that his ultimate goal as a collegiate wrestler is to stand atop the podium and claim an NCAA title, not just this year in 2021, but also in 2022 and 2023 seasons, after which his collegiate career with Pitt will conclude. Phillippi’s 2021 campaign will not count against his eligibly, a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether Phillippi can end his career with three national titles to match the trio of PIAA crowns he captured as a prep star at Derry Area in 2013. 2015, and 2016, that remains to be seen.
But, in the meantime, Phillippi will heed the advice of his coaches, making sure to take each season one match at a time.
Wrestling in what is arguably the deepest weight class in the country, 133 pounds, Phillippi will have an uphill battle to the title he so desperately covets. That said, in true, confident but not cocky, Phillippi fashion, he isn’t fazed by the challenge, rather he welcomes it.
“Honestly, it (133) has just been it’s been where I fit best. (in the lineup),” Phillippi said. “I don’t have to kill myself to make weight, but I’m also not small for the weight either.
Phillippi went on to say that 133 pounds is the weight that he has made a name for himself within college wrestling. He has proved he can contend at this weight, so that’s what he plans to do this year and in the years to come.
“I don’t think there was any reason to run from competition,” Phillippi said. “I showed that I can do it (at 133). And I believe that I can do it. I’m confident the weight. I feel good and healthy at the weight.”
Looking ahead, but only one match at a time, because that’s all Phillippi allows himself to do, he and his Panthers’ teammates will hit the road, heading back to the place where his college career started: Charlottesville Virginia. Pitt’s Jan. 29 Dual with Virginia will be Phillippi’s second time going back to UVA wearing an opposing singlet.
“It’s definitely different, Phillippi said of returning to his former school. “You almost feel like a trader. But I did what was best for me. And I think they understand that. We all respect each other. Now it’s just me going into another (gym) and wrestling. I had to do what I had to do to put myself in a position to be the best I could be and my ex-teammates and my ex-coaches understand that.”
In February of last year, Phillippi, in a Pitt: Beyond the Script interview, succinctly encapsulated his the passion for the sport, which still holds true today.
“It’s an addicting thing (wrestling),” Phillippi said. “Getting your hand raised is addicting. Being out there is fun. There’s an adrenaline rush. At the end of the day, I can’t blame anyone but myself (for my performance), and I like that.
Phillippi has had his hand raised on 51 times in 56 tries during varsity matches wearing the Blue and Gold. He will almost certainly add a few dozen more W’s to his Pitt resume before he places his his wrestling shoes at the center of the mat in Fitzgerald Field House and walks away – some of which Phillippi said he believes will come in the NCAA Championship finals.