Later this week, at Enterprise Center in St. Louis Missouri, the biggest event of the 2021 NCAA Division I wrestling season will be taking place – the 2021 NCAA Division I Championships.
The pressure will be on. There will be 10 national titles and 80 All-American honors up for grabs, but to the five Pitt entrants competing, there is no pressure at all, it’s just wrestling.
The stage may be bigger, the lights may be brighter, but its just like every other event in their eyes.
The key to individual success for any of the five Pitt grapplers in action this weekend will be simple: Take NCAAs one match at a time, with no match being more important than the one that is directly in front of you.
“Yeah, it [the opening match] is really important,” Pitt fourth-year head coach Keith Gavin said. “If you lose that first one, you get a heck of a road back. I’m just getting them [to take it] one match at a time, one point at a time, one period of time, that kind of mentality is what you need to have to be successful in this tournament, or any big tournament.”
Pitt hasn’t taken the mat against another opponent since the 2021 ACC Championships back on Feb. 28, at Reynolds Coliseum, in Raleigh, North Carolina. But the fab five have still been fine-tuning, each wrestler doing so in his own way.
For Micky Phillippi, prepping has been about trying to get to his offense earlier, not waiting until the final period to put points on the board to win the match.
“It’s [about] taking every opportunity and not worrying [or not] thinking too far ahead,” Pitt 133-punder Micky Phillippi said. “I actually haven’t looked at the bracket. So, I’m just going to go into it and whoever I have, I have. One match at a time.”
Phillippi’s lone defeat on the season came in the finals of the conference tournament, a tight 3-1 decision to Virginia Tech’s Korbin Myers.
“He [Myers] did a good job in that match of not letting me get to ties or positions I wanted to be in,” Phillippi said of his ACC finals loss. “I wrestled in his positions, and I need to wrestle on my own. I think that’s the difference [in the match].”
In Cole Matthews’ case, training has been about creating positions of his own, making the opponent wrestle Matthews’ match rather than the other way around.
“This weekend, I need to get to that front headlock more,” Matthews said. [I need to] open my stance up to give myself more chances to scramble with guys. [Scrambling], that is where I’m best at scoring points instead of having a one-point matches.”
This was the approach Matthews used in his final two consolation matches at ACCs and it paid of handsomely, resulting in two wins and a combined 24 points in his favor. With that, Matthews secured a third-place finish and punched his ticket to NCAA as a No. 16 seed.
With Jake Wentzel, he too needs wrestle in ways that accentuate his own strengths, chiefly his dominance from the top position as a rider.
“At the end of the day, I’m only competing against myself,” Wentzel said of his mentality heading into the tournament. “I want to go out there and do what I know I can do. It doesn’t really matter who’s in front of me or what they’re going to do. I’m going to try and do what I want to do.”
Regarding Gregg Harvey, who relied on an at-large bid to get to the big dance, converting takedowns to points will be supremely important, something he struggled with in previous matches.
“[With] Gregg Harvey, it’s [about] getting off to a good start, and then capitalizing on his scoring opportunities,” Gavin said. “At the ACC Championship, he hit a lot of ‘almost takedowns’ [rather than takedowns].”
Despite the 6-6 standing, which is likely not the record Harvey envisioned for himself, confidence in his abilities has never been an issue.
“I knew that I could compete with those guys, even at the beginning of the year, even when I had some of those lumps and losses in the middle of the year, [I knew I could compete with the best at 184 pounds],” Harvey said. “Now that that’s starting to show and I am competing to the level that I want to that helps out a lot [with my confidence], especially rolling into this national tournament.”
“My expectations are the same as any other match or any other tournament. And that’s just wrestle to the best of my ability,” Harvey continued. “Obviously I hope to win and you want to win. But if it doesn’t come out that way, it doesn’t come out that way. You just control what you can control.”
For Nino Bonaccorsi, finishing attacks and getting out from the bottom position that the focal points of his training over the last two weeks.
I just got to wrestle how I know I can wrestle,” Bonaccorsi said. “I have a lot of confidence in myself. I know If I’m really clicking, I can do some serious damage. I know, my best is good enough to win this thing.”
At this juncture, training is done, individual adjustments have been made, and all that Panthers can do is have fun doing what they already know how to do quite well – wrestle.
“You don’t notice how much fun you’re having until it’s over,” Matthews said of the NCAA championships experience. “But I’m just enjoying it, taking it all in. You can only do this trip so many times, you can only have so many trips to nationals.”
*Complete brackets for NCAAs can be found here.
*The schedule of events and broadcast information can be found here.