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Jake Wentzel, Nino Bonaccorsi reach finals at NCAA Wrestling Championships

The Pitt wrestling team is participating at the NCAA championships this weekend and the Panthers suddenly have two shots at a national title. Saturday night, Jake Wentzel and Nino Bonaccorsi will look to take home the biggest individual prize in collegiate wrestling.

165-pounder and No. 3 overall seed Jake Wentzel is headed to the finals after a 4-2 win over Ethan Smith of Ohio State. Wentzel was taken down early and faced a 2-0 deficit. But he quickly got an escape (to make it 2-1) and then showed his trademark strength, riding Smith out for the entire second period without allowing an escape.

Then, starting down in the third period, Wentzel scored a reversal to take a 3-2 lead. Adding a point for riding time, he scored a 4-2 victory. Wentzel was the highest remaining seed at 165 pounds heading into the semifinals tonight and will face No. 8 seed Shane Griffith of Stanford Saturday night for the national championship. Wentzel’s race for the title, it should be pointed out, nearly ended in the first round as he needed to hold on for a narrow 1-0 victory.

The decision to start down is one that Smith won’t likely be able to stop thinking about anytime soon. The reason, of course, is to try to gain an escape point. But Wentzel is a legitimate beast on top and few have escaped his grasp. Not only is not getting an escape point demoralizing, being down and roughed up for that amount of time has to be tiring. And Smith went from tiring himself out to then trying to ride Wentzel in the third period. It’s just a recipe for disaster.

Bonaccorsi, the No. 6 seed at 197 pounds, also advanced to the finals with a win over No. 26 seed Jake Woodley. Woodley ran off a series of upsets but was stumped by Bonaccorsi here.

Bonaccorsi didn’t dominate Woodley, but he never trailed. He scored a quick takedown before giving up an escape point for a 2-1 lead. Like Wentzel, Bonaccorsi rode Woodley out for the entire second period, building up riding time. An escape of his own gave him a 3-1 lead and the riding time point gave him a 4-1 win.

We’re used to seeing Wentzel riding out his opponents for entire periods but seeing Bonaccorsi do it was a little surprising. He typically doesn’t mind releasing his opponents and trying to score more takedowns. Obviously, though, these are better wrestlers and points come at a premium in these bouts.

Bonaccorsi will face another upset-driven candidate, as No. 4 seed A.J. Ferrari took out the top seed Myles Amine from Michigan. It’s also notable that Bonaccorsi is up a weight class this year and, reaching the final, that seems to have been a well-made decision.

Really impressive stuff from both, obviously. A team like Pitt that has fallen in that No. 10-20 slot in the team rankings most of the time doesn’t get many looks at a national championship. They had one a few years back with Tyler Wilps finishing as runner-up in a heartbreaking match. The last national champion for Pitt was head coach Keith Gavin back in 2008. Before that, the last Panthers’ national champion was Pat Santoro in the late 1980s. Opportunities like these just haven’t come all that often for Pitt.

That Pitt has two candidates for one in the same year, then, is quite rare. And, factor in that both have very manageable matchups on paper and it’s easy to get excited about the odds here. The Panthers’ program will be in the national spotlight and a great selling point for the coaches in their recruiting efforts.

Both matches will be tomorrow night on ESPN.

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