Siblings playing sports together provides great opportunities for family bonding to create incredible moments that last a lifetime. For Pitt, redshirt junior Reece Heller and redshirt senior Holden Heller are brothers that are competing at an incredibly high level this season, drawing national recognition.
The duo is currently two of the best wrestlers on a great Pitt team in 2022-23 after arriving from Hofstra in the offseason. Reece Heller is 15-3 overall, won the Midlands Championships at the end of December, is 6-2 in dual matches on the season and Intermat ranks him at No. 19 in the country as a wrestler at 184 pounds. Holden Heller is 9-4 overall and 7-2 in dual matches this season and Intermat ranks him at No. 23 in the nation at 165 pounds.
Reece and Holden Heller are a part of a wrestling family and started young, along with their brother Sage Heller. Their father, who fought as a martial artist in his 20s, taught his children Judo to learn throws and other techniques vital for any type of fighting. They soon transitioned to wrestling under his tutelage and grew to love the sport and the competition it brought.
All three brothers wrestled for Hofstra, with Sage Heller competing from 2016-22, Holden Heller wrestling from 2018-22 and Reece Heller competing from 2019-22.
The brothers made their marks at Hofstra, with Holden Heller earning a spot at the NCAA Championships in 2022 after winning the EIWA Conference Title. Reece Heller had his best season in 2019-20, starting at 149 pounds and posted a 19-13 record. Reece Heller said that while he learned and grew a lot as a wrestler at Hofstra, he didn’t like cutting pounds just to start and wanted to find somewhere he could wrestle at a more comfortable weight.
The duo decided to transfer after the 2021-22 season and preferred to go to the same school and compete together. Reece Heller said that within 10 minutes of announcing their decision to enter the transfer portal, former Pitt assistant coach and current Brown head coach Jordan Leen got in contact with them.
“We talked to him on the phone, and he came down to see us in Long Island like two days later,” Reece Heller said. “They were on top of it. That pursuit was really cool for us. We thought to ourselves, “Man these guys really want us, maybe this is where we belong type thing.”
The Heller brothers joining the Panthers made sense for both parties. The program needed top wrestlers at 165 and 184 pounds, with NCAA qualifiers in Jake Wentzel, who is currently an assistant coach at Pitt, and Gregg Harvey both graduating after the 2021-22 season. Reece Heller said that while keeping his brother around and competing at a better weight enticed him, the program as a whole is what convinced him to become a Panther.
“It was totally the perfect place to land,” Reece Heller said “I was looking for a better fit for my weight, but also just a better wrestling environment. The room here and the coaches here, it’s so good, it’s so wrestling oriented. Pittsburgh is such a wrestling place that it all really worked out.”
Reece and Holden Heller bunked as children and currently live together now. The importance of their relationship on and off the mat is something that they both said makes them better wrestlers and people.
“We know what each other needs,” Holden Heller said. “On off days we’ll come in and mess around with each other and figure stuff out. I feel like that’s part of what makes it a lot easier for us is that we’re going through the same stuff every day.”
The Heller brothers have bonded and get along with all of their teammates. They lean on the experience from redshirt seniors in Micky Phillippi, Cole Matthews and Nino Bonaccorsi, and also work with the younger guys like first-year Dayton Pitzer and Jared Keslar.
The competition from wrestling great teammates has made the Heller brothers much better over the course of their time at Pitt. They also benefit from head coach Keith Gavin and assistant coach Drew Headlee challenging them every day as well.
“I’ve definitely grown in the sense of how I view the sport,” Holden Heller said since coming to Pitt. “I never really viewed it in the way that I appreciate it and I love it and I have it fun doing it now. It’s kind of how I’ve grown the most since being here is just my appreciation for the sport and enjoying it rather than viewing it as hard labor.”
The Heller brothers both appreciate the increase in competition they’ve faced wrestling for Pitt as well. The step up from EIWA to ACC forces them to work harder to take down far tougher opponents on a consistent basis. They said that they can rebound after a tough loss because they have many opportunities to succeed throughout this season, allowing them to stay motivated at all times.
Reece and Holden Heller also both said that scrambling is a large part of their success, something that Gavin also sees a big part of their strengths as wrestlers.
“They’re fun to coach because they wrestle through positions all the time,” Gavin said. “There’s no position where they’re trying to just stalemate or get a restart. They’re trying to score. Whether the guy gets their leg or they get the guy’s leg. No matter what happens, they’re looking to score. It’s fun to coach and I think that’s the reason that they’ve been developing and getting better.”
Gavin also said that the transfer portal is a big plus for his program in a variety of ways. It allows him and his staff to bring back top wrestlers from western Pennsylvania who went to college elsewhere to come back. A great example of this is senior Dazjon Casto who wrestles at 157 pounds for Pitt, who previously wrestled at The Citadel and at Erie Cathedral Prep in high school. With Pitt being in a city and not a small town, Gavin said it also gives the program an edge over others when it comes to graduate transfers as well.
The Heller brothers have a great relationship with Gavin and credit him in part for making them fall in love with the sport again.
“I have a really great relationship with Keith,” Holden Heller said. “Keith is a super unique coach. I haven’t had a coach like him where he’s so reassuring and motivating and gets you to appreciate the sport more. Obviously, the sports really tough and he’s who I look to give me reassurance and get me feeling excited again. He’s definitely a source of energy too.”
Pitt takes on two tough opponents this upcoming weekend. North Carolina comes to the Petersen Events Center on Friday, Feb. 3 to decide who takes top spot in the ACC and No. 3 Iowa State arrives at Fitzgerald Field House on Saturday, Feb. 4 to determine how great of a squad Pitt really is this season.
Both of the Heller brothers face great wrestlers on each squad. Reece Heller takes on UNC No. 13 sophomore Gavin Kane and Iowa State No. 4 senior Marcus Coleman, while Holden Heller takes on UNC redshirt senior Joey Mazzara and Iowa State No. 5 junior Yonger Batisda.
Holden and Reece Heller proved last week against then ranked No. 7 Virginia Tech how ready they are to take on the best in the country. Holden Heller won a 2-0 decision over then ranked No. 25 redshirt sophomore Connor Brady and Reece Heller pinned then ranked No. 7 first-year Hunter Bolen at 4:32 in the second period to essentially seal the victory for Pitt and also earn NCAA and ACC Wrestler of the week honors.
“These are the duels, when I knew I was coming here, these are the duels that I envisioned myself wrestling in,” Holden Heller said. “Virginia Tech and NC State and UNC. These are the duels that I’m most excited for. Just because they’re top tier teams. They’re teams that I grew up watching. I want to go out and I want to kick their buts.”