My hope had been to cover the 2021-22 wrestling season here with reports on the matches as they occurred. But alas, the massive drains on my time never really let up and while I watched every match that was televised, I never got around to the ‘reporting’ part.
Safe to say, if you’ve watched the season like I did, you know it was one of ups and downs. A year that started with all sorts of promise never really went the way I’d hoped. The Panthers ended the regular season on a high note with a dominant win over Duke, 29-12, this past weekend, finishing with an 8-6 record while going 2-3 in conference.
Truth be told — it wasn’t a horrible year for the team. And the important thing to remember is that, ludicrous as it may sound, in a way, the season is really just getting started. It’s the postseason that matters most and the Panthers will take part in the ACC championships on March 6 and then, for those that qualify, the NCAA championships during March 17-19. The outcomes of those events will really define what kind of season it’s been.
For the regular season, though, things were a bit underwhelming for me.
The Panthers, as things stand at the moment, are not even ranked (effectively at No. 29). They sit at a decisive No. 4 out of six programs in the ACC at the moment, ahead of only Virginia and Duke. More importantly is the gap to the top. The Panthers were overwhelmed by third-ranked NC State, 26-9, and soundly beaten by eighth-ranked Virginia Tech. Those are, pretty clearly, the top two teams in the conference and while Pitt may be closer to Virginia Tech than it appears (the two are separated only by a single loss), the Panthers’ loss to No. 19 North Carolina makes any sort of thoughts about claims as the second best team in the ACC disappear rather quickly.
That’s not to suggest the team has had a horrible year so far. They had a bear of a schedule with an incredulous three duals against top ten non-conference teams in Michigan, Ohio State, and Arizona State. They even managed to defeat the Sun Devils in a 24-19 upset that was really the highlight of the season to date. But add in top ten ACC duals against NC State and Virginia Tech, and duals against Lehigh (No. ‘26’) and North Carolina (No. 23) programs, and it’s easy to see that the schedule did them no favors. As if that wasn’t enough, Pitt was also scheduled to take on No. 18 Penn in a dual that was ultimately canceled.
Why would Pitt schedule so tough? Clearly with an eye towards the postseason. Wrestling up during the regular season gives guys much needed experience against the best and, hopefully, puts them into good position for the postseason where the qualifiers will be put through a series of tough matches.
My real complaint with the year so far is the outcomes of a couple of duals against Lehigh and North Carolina. Returning as much talent as Pitt did, those are duals that you would have hoped to win. The Lehigh dual, in particular, was not even close. The Panthers lost that one 26-9 with one of its top wrestlers, Micky Phillippi, being pinned while two others, Luke Kemerer (149 pounds) and Jake Slinger (heavyweight) being majored. Pitt also failed to wrap up any bonus point victories in that one, which has sort of been a problem in my eyes much of this year.
This felt like a year when more could have been expected in the regular season. Sure, you might not expect to beat the likes of NC State, Ohio State, and Michigan, but wins against the Tar Heels and Lehigh would have kept the team in their comfort zone of being ranked around 11-15 and hopefully knocking on the door of the top ten. And as I’ve said countless times, that’s important. Pitt has proven it can get to that level and, frankly, despite the actual rankings, this still has the look of a top 15ish team. But what head coach Keith Gavin is (or should be) tasked with is getting the Panthers among the elites. I think Gavin has done a fine job at Pitt, honestly. But even he would surely admit there’s more to accomplish in talent-rich western Pennsylvania.
There seemed like an outside chance of a breakthrough this year. The Panthers returned both Jake Wentzel and Nino Bonaccorsi, its two NCAA finalists from last season that both came within a sniff of winning national championships. It returned Phillippi, a legitimate All-American threat and Gregg Harvey, an ‘on-the-cusp’ ranked wrestler at 184 pounds. They brought in transfers to compete at 125 pounds (Gage Curry) and 157 pounds (Elijah Cleary). But the Panthers still have generally fallen short as the team struggles badly for consistency at 149 pounds, 174 pounds, and heavyweight.
The real, unanticipated bright spot in my eyes has been Cole Matthews at 141 pounds. Matthews has gone from solid to phenomenal, stringing together not only victories but pins this year. He leads the team in that category at duals with five of those. With Phillippi and Wentzel struggling ever so slightly, you can make a case for him as the top wrestler on the team. I’m very excited to see what the tournament holds for him and he’s become a candidate for All-American status.
His emergence has given Pitt excellence at four of their weight classes. There’s just not enough at some of the others to get them to that next level. While the combination of Matthews, Phillippi, Wentzel, and Bonaccorsi has been incredibly strong, the Panthers have been resigned to tossups, at best, at 149, 174, 184, and heavyweight. And when you’re not scoring a ton of bonus points, that’s just far too much weakness to be a dominant team.
I’m optimistic that the tough competition Pitt has faced will help in the postseason tournaments. The records of the wrestlers probably look slightly worse than they really should be against a more balanced schedule. But there’s no doubt that much work still needs to be done to get Pitt to that top ten level and, more importantly, maintaining that on a regular basis.
The regular season could have gone worse. I fully admit that, and there have been some nice surprises along the way. But the team didn’t quite reach the lofty expectations that, perhaps, I set for them. The good news is, now the real show begins as Pitt heads into the postseason with plenty of opportunity to perform well at the ACC and National tournaments.