Pitt’s wrestling team opened strong with an impressive 32-4 win over Cal State Bakersfield. That, of course, is significantly better than last year when the Panthers eeked out a three-point win over them on the road.
This year’s squad is significantly different from last year and there are new guys in the mix along with some guys making weight changes. But if this match was any indication, head coach Keith Gavin looks like he has a nice collection of talent that is ready to rebound from last year’s disastrous season.
One thing I thought was great was ex-wrestler Dom Forys sitting in on the commentary. He provided a lot of useful insight and it’d be great to have him back in there for future matches. For a guy out there doing this in his first time out, he was phenomenal. If you’re like me and can follow a match but can’t catch all the technical nuances of every move, etc. you probably got a lot of value out of how he explained what each wrestler was trying to do in each bout.
Just as a whole, something I was really impressed with was the team’s ability to keep guys down, locked in, and pick up riding time. They just dominated Cal State Bakersfield and didn’t let up or allow guys to get easy escapes. Another great job was done at the end of periods with several guys getting very late takedowns just before time expired. That has to be really demoralizing for guys and it was a great job by those goes to go hard for the full period. The overwhelming themes that rung true for me was this was a team that paid attention to detail and wrestled hard through every single period. You didn’t see that all the time last year.
At 125, Pitt started Brendon Fenton, a freshman. That’s a change from last year, obviously, as the former 125-pounder L.J. Bentley has moved up to 141. Not a whole lot of scrambling around here but Fenton was super impressive, riding his opponent all of the second period and, with a couple of takedowns, he won 5-3 to give Pitt a 3-0 lead.
At 133, Pitt is going with transfer Micky Phillippi. Phillippi is a highly-touted transfer and comes in ranked No. 14 in the country. He is only a freshman, despite technically wrestling a year at Virginia and sitting out last year with the transfer. He got a year of eligibility back, which is why he’s still technically only a freshman. He had a tough bout as his opponent was also ranked in the Top 20 at No. 18. Phillippi was even more impressive scoring a fast takedown, and then picked up an escape and takedown at the end of the second period on his way to a 7-3 win, putting Pitt up 6-0. Forys, Pitt’s 133-pounder, will not be easy to replace, but Phillippi got off to a great start.
I wasn’t surprised what we’d see out of Bentley at 141. He struggled a bit last year but if tonight was any indication, he could have some good success there this season. He looked really good, racing out to a 6-0 lead on his way to a 12-1 major, putting Pitt up 10-0. Moving up two weight classes seemed like it might be a bit challenging but he’s seemingly made the adjustment with little trouble. Impressively, he maintained a lot of his quickness even with the added weight and that was evident in a tremendous takedown where he ducked under an opponent’s grasp and slid right behind him.
At 149, sophomore Dallas Bulsak is another new wrestler for Pitt, a local kid from South Park. Bulsak got off to a quick start but was soon dominated, losing 17-3. The silver lining was that he limited Cal State Bakersfield’s points to four instead of five, which it would have been if he lost by another point. Bulsak’s loss would turn out to be the only one of the night for Pitt.
Pitt returns Taleb Rahmani at 157 and he should be one of the team’s better wrestlers. Rahmani is ranked at No. 10 at his class in the nation. Rahmani got four quick takedowns, quickly releasing his opponent to pick up as many points as possible, and added a fifth at the end of the first period, winning 18-9 for another major victory, putting Pitt ahead 14-4.
Jake Wentzel is another returning guy and he’s at 165 pounds. Wentzel was a guy that had a lot of success as a redshirt freshman, finishing just over .500 on the year, and I hope to see a good year out of him. He won 6-2, increasing the lead to 17-4.
At 174, we’ve got another guy making a weight change as Gregg Harvey moves down from 184 this season. Harvey, like a few others, looked pretty dominant and repeatedly cut his opponent loose to try to gain more points. He didn’t get the major but won 13-8 and put together a complete match after trailing early.
Next at 184 was the highly anticipated debut of Nino Bonaccorsi, a redshirt freshman. Even though it was his dual debut, he was 19-4 in tournaments and ranked No. 16 in the country. Nino is the brother of Nick Bonaccorsi, who starred at Pitt a few years ago, and he’s expected to be a great wrestler. Nino was dominant with a 15-5 major win and pushed Pitt’s lead to 24-4.
Kellen Stout returns at 197 and he’s going to be interesting to follow. Stout struggled last season and, at least entering the season, this has to be considered a question mark at this point as he was only 3-9 in duals last year. Stout was one of those guys that did a great job with riding time, accumulating about four minutes at one point. An early takedown and the riding time helped him to a 3-0 win.
With the lead at 27-4, Pitt went with a junior college addition in Demetrius Thomas at heavyweight. Like they did at 133 with the Forys graduation, Pitt has another tough guy to replace here with Ryan Solomon graduating. Thomas has some impressive credentials in the NAIA as he was a national champion as a freshman and a runner-up last year while at Williams Baptist University. How Thomas transitions to Division I remains to be seen but he looked great in his debut with an early takedown, a fast escape in the second period starting down, and subsequently, another fast takedown followed quickly by back points to go up 9-0. He wound up with an incredible 18-2 technical fall win and that ended the match as Pitt won, 32-4. Heavyweight matches are often slower and plodding but Thomas was extremely quick on his feet and I can see him being a handful for some guys along the way.
All in all, it was about as dominant as you can get. This was just an extremely impressive showing and while the competition will get more difficult, it’s a far cry from how they started last year, barely beating this same team.
This is a super young team with six of the ten starters being underclassmen. And a seventh can probably be counted to some degree with Thomas not previously wrestling at the Division I level. There will be some growing pains against the more talented, experienced programs. But this is also a team that has a lot of promise and whenever you can start that many young guys, it’s a good indicator that the future will be bright.