Wrestling: Two Panthers earn All-American status at NCAA Championships

Dustin Gabler | March 18, 2012    

Senior Tyler Nauman and junior Matt Wilps earned All-American status as the Pitt wrestling team… Senior Tyler Nauman and junior Matt Wilps earned All-American status as the Pitt wrestling team placed 15th at the NCAA Championships this weekend, its best finish since taking 13th in 1989.

It’s the first time since 2007 that two Panthers earned a spot on the podium at nationals.

Nauman, who earned the sixth seed in the tournament at 149 pounds, won his first three matches with relative ease in the national tournament. His 9-5 decision win over No. 3 Cole VonOhlen of the U.S. Air Force Academy placed him into the semifinals and earned him All-American status as a top-eight finisher.

“It is a huge relief to have earned All-American status for the second time,” Nauman said. “I really wanted to get back on the podium this year.”

After defeating VonOhlen, Nauman matched up against No. 6 Dylan Ness of Minnesota for a chance at the finals. He got down early in the match but recovered to tie it at 5-5 late in the third period.

Ness had over a minute of riding time, so he was assured the game-winning point if Nauman couldn’t come through with a tilt. Nauman’s attempt to earn back points failed, and he fell out of the running for the national championship.

“I wish I would have got to my offense faster in the semis,” Nauman said. “That would have allowed me to wrestle my match. Instead, I got behind and had to try to come back, which I was able to do, but not enough.”

Nauman lost his first match in the wrestleback portion of the bracket, giving him a chance at third place. This put him in a match with familiar foe Justin Accordino of Hofstra. A tight 4-3 decision over Accordino placed Nauman fifth on the podium.

“I feel I wrestled a good tournament,” Nauman said. “A little less than I would have liked, but overall I wrestled well.”

The senior 149-pound wrestler’s career comes to an end at Pitt with a final season record of 30-6, earning his second All-American finish. His career record of 140-31 places him third on the all-time wins list at Pitt with 39 falls, also third all-time.

Wilps entered the tournament as the third seed. The junior 197-pounder won his first two matches easily with decisions of 7-3 and 11-6.

He then matched up with sixth-seed Brent Haynes of Missouri, and the two wrestled to a tie through the regulation. In overtime, Wilps pinned the Tigers’ wrestler to earn his first All-American status and a trip to the semifinals.

In the semifinals, he met a familiar opponent in second-seeded Chris Honeycutt, who had defeated Wilps twice this season before Wilps’ upset of the Edinboro wrestler in the EWL championships. Once again, Wilps found himself in overtime tied at 3-3. This time, Honeycutt was able to earn two back points after his escape in his period on the bottom and held on to his three-point lead.

After falling into wrestlebacks, Wilps won his first match to advance to the third-place match. With third place on the line, he fell to fifth-seeded Cayle Byers of Oklahoma State, 3-2.

Wilps returns next year with a chance to be the top-ranked wrestler at the beginning of the season.

At the two lowest weight classes, 125 pounds and 133 pounds, Pitt’s wrestlers came one match short of All-American status.

Junior Anthony Zanetta lost 6-3 to Frank Perrelli of Cornell in the quarterfinals. He then went on to lose 10-4 in overtime to Hofstra’s Steve Bonanno, who was seeded 12th, after jumping out to a 4-1 lead.

“Being one match away from All-American just helps me realize how bad I want it,” Zanetta said. “There’s always room for improvement. When you think you’ve wrestled your best, you’re wrong. You can always do better, and that’s what I need to expect out of myself.”

Zanetta will look to return to the NCAA Tournament for a fourth time next year to compete for his first All-American status.

Shelton Mack fell in his second match but fought back for two wins in wrestlebacks to put him in a one-match position to earn All-American status. He lost a 6-1 decision to tenth-seeded Chris Dardanes of Minnesota.

“Being so close to being an All-American lights a fire for me,” Mack said. “It lets me know what I need to do to be in the same position and become an All-American next year.”

Mack said he also enjoyed the atmosphere of the three-day tournament in St. Louis.

“Being able to witness, let alone be a part of [the atmosphere], gave me a ton of experience in itself.”

Senior Ethan Headlee went 2-2 for the Panthers. It was Headlee’s fourth trip to the national tournament.

Surprise NCAA qualifier P.J. Tasser went 0-2 at the national championships as a heavyweight, but was hampered by a knee injury that he suffered in his first match.

“You never want to make excuses,” Tasser said. “Hurting my knee certainly didn’t stack the chips in my favor, however.”

While many programs across the nation would be thrilled to have two All-Americans, the Pitt wrestling team wanted more.

“I think two All-Americans, as a team, is very disappointing and unacceptable in a way,” Zanetta said.

Tasser also turned to the fact that the Panthers were very close to having more All-Americans as a reason for their disappointment, despite the fact that they turned in the best performance by a Pitt wrestling team at the national tournament in 23 years.

“As a team, two All-Americans is a great accomplishment, but we were so close to having four or five of them,” Tasser said.

“It definitely lights a fire for next year.”

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