Family Helped Turn Pitt’s Nino Bonaccorsi into the NCAA Title-Contender he is Today
Family has always played a significant role in Pitt wrestler Nino Bonaccorsi’s wrestling career, even dating back to Nino’s days as a youth competitor.
Today, Bonaccorsi, now a redshirt junior wrestling at the University of Pittsburgh, currently ranks as high as No. 6 at 197 pounds, according to FloWrestling. Still, his family’s impact on his wrestling career is readily apparent – perhaps now more than ever before – as Bonaccorsi strives for his first ACC championship and an NCAA title amidst a global pandemic.
Bonaccorsi was a heralded high school wrestling recruit out of nearby Bethel Park Pennsylvania, roughly 12 miles south of the Pitt campus, during the 2016-2017 high school season. He ended his high school tenure with an impressive 147-21 career record as a grappler for the Blackhawks. His 147 wins are second in Bethel Park History, behind only his older brother Nick, who finished his prep career with 156 in 2011.
On the mat, the younger Bonaccorsi finished his prep career as a two-time PIAA runner-up (2016, 2017), a two-time WPIAL champ (2016, 2017), and a three-time Section champ (2015, 2016, 2017). He also racked up impressive finishes at elite high school events, including FloNationals, Super 32, and the Powerade Tournament, which he won in 2016 as a senior.
His accolades had him positioned as the No. 2 recruit in the nation during his final prep season. Bonaccorsi could have gone to virtually any school in the country, but Nino was always going to Pitt, there was never any doubt about it – Pitt wrestling runs in the Bonaccorsi blood.
“Honestly, I committed (to Pitt) pretty early,” Bonaccorsi said of making his college decision. “I always knew I wanted to go to Pitt because my dad wrestled for Pitt for a little bit (during college) and my (older) brother (Nick) wrestled there for four years. I always came to the Pitt matches growing up and everything. It (going to Pitt) was a no-brainer.”
“And, I’m a homebody, so it’s real close to home. It’s nice to have my family come to matches and everything. It just always felt right,” Bonaccorsi continued.
As Bonaccorsi explained the decision back in 2016 as a high school senior.
“I really liked Pitt because I am able to double-leg people then walk down the street and get a Primanti’s sandwich,” Bonaccorsi said in the release (later reprinted by The Pitt News) that announced the latest Panther signing class.
Pitt’s close proximity to the Bonaccorsi family home likely influenced Nino’s own wrestling career long before he even realized it – and it still does today.
Nino, who his six years younger than Nick, has been around the Pitt wrestling program since he was in middle school. Since 2011, Nino and his parents Mark and Melody Bonaccorsi, routinely watched Nick suit up for the Panthers from 2011-2016 at Fitzgerald Field House.
Nick ended his Pitt wrestling career with 72 wins and 48 losses, including 18 falls and six major decisions. He was a three-time NCAA qualifier, a 2013 EWL Champion at 174 pounds, and the 2013 Eastern Wrestling League Freshman of the Year that same season.
Taking in all of Nick’s matches at Pitt, coupled with having Nick, who was often Nino’s sparring partner, in the same house during their adolescent years, proved invaluable to Nino’s own development as a wrestler.
“I always felt like growing up, seeing what my brother and my dad were (as wrestlers), they were always my next chapter (as a wrestler),” the youngest Bonaccorsi said. “I felt like I had my mentality geared toward a higher standard of wrestling (because of them).”
“When I was in middle school, I was trying to incorporate high school style,” Bonaccorsi said. “Then when I was in high school, I was trying to incorporate college wrestling tactics and mentality. I felt like that always gave me an edge growing up. When I transitioned into college, it wasn’t a big adjustment for me.”
There certainly wasn’t a big learning curve at all for the former Bethel Park standout. As a redshirt freshman in 2017-18, Bonaccorsi recorded a commendable 19-4 record while competing in open tournaments as an unattached wrestler. During that redshirt season, Bonaccorsi earned 12 decisions, three major decisions and two pins. He even authored a nine-match wining-streak in middle of that inaugural college season.
Over the next two seasons, his first two as a starter in the varsity lineup, Bonaccorsi was able to record season win totals of 21 and 24 respectively. Over that same span, Bonaccorsi proved that he had no fear of facing, and ultimately beating, a plethora of ranked opponents.
As a redshirt freshman in in 2018-19 Bonaccorsi was a 184-pounder ACC runner-up and an NCAA qualifier. Last year, Bonaccorsi took third at ACCs (again at 184) and was an NCAA qualifier for the second consecutive season – though the event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bonaccorsi ended the 2020 campaign as a NWCA 184-pound All-American.
Bonaccorsi said he believes his instant success at the collegiate level can be attributed to his aggressive, offense-heavy style of wrestling, something that isn’t always common in the heavier weight classes.
“I always look to score points and never really wrestle just to squeak out a win,” Bonaccorsi said. “With that mindset, you learn a lot more and it takes a lot of pressure off. You’re not trying achieve this or achieve that, you’re just going to wrestle the best you can and whatever happens, it just happens.”
Heeding the advice of his dad, his brother, and Keith Gavin, Bonaccorsi’s head coach at Pitt, the now-197-pounder always strives to focus on the “bigger picture” or the “long-term,” rather than the results of any one match in particular.
“Wins and losses are going to happen, they come and go,” Bonaccorsi said of the nature of college wrestling. “In college you learn pretty quick that no one’s gonna roll over for you. They’re not gonna make it easy for you. You have to go out expecting a war.”
Bonaccori, like every other NCAA Division I wrestler, saw his 2020 season come to an abrupt and premature ending due to the coronavirus pandemic. Similarly, accompanying offseason was marred with change and uncertainty surrounding the 2021 season, Bonaccorsi’s redshirt junior campaign.
As he has done so many times through his wrestling career, which spans well over a decade, Bonaccorsi turned to family to help him train for the upcoming season.
Once news broke that the remainder of the 2019-20 season had been cancelled, just days before the pinnacle event of the college season – the 2020 NCAA Division I Championships – which were supposed to take place at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota – Bonaccorsi headed home to his family in Bethel Park.
“I was back to work relatively quickly (after the cancellation), maybe that next day or two, just because there was nothing to do,” Bonaccorsi said. “I have a good setup at home (at my parents house), I have a nice gym, nice weights and everything. (With public gym’s closed due to the virus), I went back to ‘old school’ training, it was like almost like a, like a Rocky-style environment.”
Bonaccorsi’s Rocky-inspired training sessions, most of which took place in the backyard, included the following: curing, pressing, and throwing large rocks; resistance running with a large sled wrapped around his waist; deadlifting a trailer; using planks for weighted pull-ups; and live sparring with his brother Nick and father Mark.
“(My workouts were) pretty much all these outside things that maybe weren’t built for working out with and (I) incorporated them into a little workout,” Bonaccorsi said with a laugh.
As for his nutritional needs, that’s were he relied on his mom, Melody, more specifically her home cooking, to replenish what he had lost during his grueling daily outdoor workouts.
As unconventional as his offseason training methods may have been, Bonaccorsi says he enjoyed them, stylistically speaking. And, he believes that the alternative training techniques, as “old-school” as they may be, were helpful.
Now, roughly six weeks into the 2021 season, one in which Bonaccorsi serves as one of the four team captains, a title he is honored to have. The redshirt junior is currently 6-1 this season. He has one fall, one technical fall, and one major decision to his credit. He also boasts an upset win over FloWrestling’s then-No. 2 Jay Aiello of Virginia, a signature win which earned the upper-weight significant accolades.
Watch the three key takedowns by Nino Bonaccorsi in his huge victory over No. 3 Jay Aiello from Virginia!#pinzburgh » #H2P pic.twitter.com/kJ0sx505Ss
— Pitt Wrestling (@Pitt_WRES) January 30, 2021
As for what Bonaccorsi goes on to accomplish this season, the sky is the limit, but one thing is for certain, per his dad and brother’s advice: He won’t make any one match – whether it’s a win or a loss – bigger than it is.
“I give (national rankings) very little attention,” Bonaccorsi said with a chuckle. “Those are just numbers. It’s not like if you go out against the guy ranked higher than you, he starts off with more points or anything. Every match always start 0-0. So, it really doesn’t mean anything.”
“If you took the NCAA tournament, with the same seeds, and ran it again the very next day, you’d see a different result every time because rankings don’t matter,” Bonaccorsi said. “Especially at this level, where everyone is so good. You can’t go by who’s ranked higher and that stuff, it’s just of noise.”
Since he started his college wrestling career, the goals have remained the same: Win and ACC title and win NCAA crown.
While those may seem like the same goals many NCAA Division I wrestlers have, the difference for Bonaccorsi is that both he and his head coach, Gavin, believe they’re attainable.
“(Nino) likes that underdog mentality,” Gavin said. “You just have to be consistent whether you’re supposed to win, or you’re or you’re not, but I also think it’s a little bit of a stylistic thing.”
“At this point, I don’t see Nino losing too many matches where they guy is willing to mix it up with him (on offense, like the Jay Aiello match),” Gavin continued. “We were pretty confident that (win) was going to happen for him against Virginia. In his career, he’s been like that. If there’s a lot of points on the board, if it’s more of a shootout, he’s gonna win. But he’s got to get comfortable beating the guys that are gonna just try to shut him down (offensively).”
Bonaccorsi has the rest of the 2021 season, plus two more in a blue and gold singlet if he chooses. He said he hopes that when he leaves, there is a photo of him in the team wrestling room next to his head coach. That currently empty spot on the practice room wall is reserved for Pitt’s next national champion – Bonaccorsi said he believes that can be him.
While Bonaccorsi’s college career has an expiration date of 2023, he is likely to be competing (and possibly even coaching) the sport long after 2023.
“I definitely want to do that, hit the freestyle circuit,” Bonaccorsi said. “I’ve been doing freestyle since I was little so I’ve grown to love it. (Coaching) is definitely in the cards (too). I want to stay involved in wrestling, whether that’s competing, coaching or a little bit of both. Wrestling has don a lot for me and I want to give back.”
No matter where wrestling takes Bonaccorsi, or how long he remains in the sport, it’s safe to his family will remain present every step of that journey. Wrestling is a family bond in the Bonaccorsi household, that will never change.