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Pitt Wrestling: Youth and inexperience in lighter weights at forefront of Panthers' issues

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Photo used with permission of the University of Pittsburgh athletics department - www.pittsburghpanthers.com

Last year, Pitt's wrestling squad saw numerous highs including an upset of No. 5 Oklahoma State and an ACC regular season championship. This year's version, however, has taken a significant step back.

I haven't had a chance to cover the wrestling program as much this year as I would have liked, but Pitt stumbles into its final dual meet of the season against West Virginia on Sunday afternoon with only an 8-7 record. That's a stark contrast to last year's 13-3 finish and the Panthers were 13-1, losing their final two duals by a total of only six points.

The Panthers' most recent defeat, a 28-9 trouncing at the hands of a top 20 Michigan team, gives them five losses in their past six contests. Four of those (to Virginia, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma State, and North Carolina State) were to programs that Pitt beat only a year ago. And while the Panthers didn't best Michigan last season, the 18-13 final score was a far more respectable showing than the 19-point rout on Friday.

Earlier in the season, Pitt also lost to Lehigh - another program they beat a year ago. Altogether, the Panthers are 1-6 against ranked programs.

Pitt is still a Top 20 program right now, but could fall out after the Michigan loss. Overall, there's no denying that the team hasn't lived up to expectations placed on them nationally (they began the season ranked 14th/15th, which was good for second in the ACC).

Part of the problem, no doubt, can be attributed to many roster changes this year. In particular, the team's youth and inexperience in the lower weight classes has been a big reason for much of the struggling. The team returned many starters, including Mikey Racciato (149 pounds), Ronnie Garbinsky (157 pounds), Tyler Wilps (174 pounds), Max Thomusseit (184 pounds), and Nick Bonaccorsi (197 pounds) --but the Panthers are also breaking in several inexperienced wrestlers at the lighter weights.

At 125 pounds, freshman Dom Forys is a respectable 14-10 (7-6) in duals, but as expected, hasn't been able to entirely replace senior Anthony Zanetta, who racked up more than 100 wins in his career and was 5-1 in ACC duals last year. Pitt also had to replace senior Shelton Mack at 133 pounds and redshirt freshman Nick Zanetta hasn't been able to effectively do that, either. Mack was a top 20 wrestler while Zanetta has been a .500 grappler this year.

Forys and Zanetta are both capable and will prove to be good wrestlers over time. But both are still finding their way around and have faced some difficult matchups in Pitt's brutally tough schedule.

In addition, the Panthers have had perhaps the biggest issues at the 141-pound class. They were supposed to have a ranked Edgar Bright there, but Bright has missed most of the season. He has been nearly perfect this year with a 6-1 record when he's been able to wrestle, but has scarcely gotten onto the mat. In his place, Travis Shaffer and Ben Ross (who moved up from 125 pounds) haven't accumulated much success with a 5-15 combined record on the year.

Beyond those classes, Pitt is also struggling a little at the 165-pound weight with more inexperience there in redshirt freshman Cody Wiercioch. He's another wrestler that should ultimately pan out for the team, but he and senior Troy Reaghard have combined to be only about .500 on the year. For Pitt, though, that at least hasn't been a downgrade in win-loss production from Geno Morelli (who transferred to Penn State), who was only 14-15 last year.

Those first three classes I mentioned have been problem points for the team this season and often have had the Panthers playing catchup in meets, needing success in the heavier weights to fight back in matches. Against lesser opponents, Pitt has been able to overcome that. Giving away so many points early on, however, makes it difficult to beat the better teams.

A good example of that can be seen in those aforementioned last five team defeats where all five opponents have been ranked. In the 125 ,133, and 141-pound weight classes, Pitt has won a total of only one bout in 15 opportunities. That's put the team significantly behind each time and has been too much to overcome.

The Panthers have had some success this year, but not nearly enough of it. Much of the reason can be attributed to the team's youth and inexperience in the early matches.

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