It’s been nearly a decade since Keith Gavin took home the Pitt wrestling team’s most recent individual title at the 2008 NCAA Championships in St. Louis.
The annual tournament returns to the Scottrade Center this year, where Gavin reached the pinnacle of the sport by capturing the 174-pound national championship nine years ago.
The three-day competition begins Thursday, as 330 of the best wrestlers in the country across 10 weight classes will battle it out for the chance to be champions. Four Pitt wrestlers are making the trip, and all four have proven they deserve to be there among the nation’s best.
Prior to Gavin’s undefeated senior season, you’d have to go back almost 30 years to 1989 to find the Panthers’ last national champion — two-time titlist Pat Santoro, who accomplished the feat in both 1988 and 1989.
Plenty of successful wrestlers have left their mark on the Fitzgerald Field House wrestling room since, with several ACC champions and All-Americans passing through the program. Tyler Wilps came as close as possible to ending the national title drought as a senior in 2015, but lost a 5-4 decision in the 174-pound finals after two controversial coaches’ challenges in the final seconds.
None of the Pitt wrestlers are favored to top the podium this year, but that doesn’t stop the Panthers’ national qualifiers from striving toward that goal.
Junior Dom Forys, sophomore TeShan Campbell and redshirt freshman Taleb Rahmani each captured their first ACC titles at the ACC Championships March 4, while redshirt junior Ryan Solomon qualified for nationals with a third-place finish. Forys, Campbell and Solomon are all nationally ranked and seeded inside the top 15 in their brackets, while Rahmani enters the tournament unseeded.
Forys, Campbell and Rahmani’s faces will soon be added to one wall in Pitt’s wrestling room for their ACC titles. All four now have their focus on making it onto the other side — reserved for All-Americans and national champions.
Forys (19-1), the No. 6 seed at 133 pounds, fell one win short of achieving All-American status at last year’s NCAA Tournament. As Pitt’s highest-seeded wrestler, he carries the highest expectations and the team’s best chance of finishing in the top eight, but he’s shooting for more.
At a midseason press conference in December, Forys said his goal for the season was to be a national champion, and if he falls short of that, he’ll still be an All-American. Now riding a 12-match winning streak into the tournament, nothing has changed for the Pittsburgh native.
“No matter what, I’ll be happy with my results, but I’m obviously shooting for national champion,” Forys said in an interview after the ACC Championships March 4. “I’m very confident that I can do that.”
Forys’ only loss of the season came in Pitt’s Dec. 4 dual meet against the then-No. 1 Oklahoma State Cowboys. He dropped a 6-2 decision to redshirt freshman Kaid Brock, the No. 3 seed at 133 pounds. If Forys and Brock both win their first two matches, the two will meet again in the national quarterfinals.
Although Forys isn’t looking past his early-round opponents, he admitted he wants a second crack at Brock — and he’s confident the outcome will be different this time.
“We have some depth in our bracket, and I’m really prepared to wrestle anybody on the other side of that line. It doesn’t really matter the name,” Forys said. “If I wrestle Brock again, I’ll get my revenge, and it’ll feel good to do that at nationals.”
Forys will take on unseeded Corey Keener from Central Michigan in the opening round Thursday morning.
Campbell (20-2) will be making his second appearance at the NCAA Tournament, and he’s still looking for his first win at the marquee event.
He dropped a pair of close matches to more experienced opponents at 174 pounds last year as a true freshman. After making the cut to 165 pounds this year, Campbell has outmuscled and outwrestled the competition all season on his way to earning the No. 10 seed at this year’s tournament.
“Last year I had a thumb injury, I was banged up at a higher weight class, I feel like a lot more things are in my favor [this year],” Campbell said. “I’m on a win streak, I have all that behind me. I didn’t really know if I belonged there last year.”
Like Forys, Campbell carries a lengthy winning streak into nationals, as the Pittsburgh native has won 13 matches in a row.
With the added momentum of winning the 165-pound title at the ACC Championships, Campbell said he believes things will go differently for him in his second appearance at nationals, but he stopped short of predicting where he’ll finish.
“I feel confident,” Campbell said. “The goal is obviously to get on the podium, but I feel as though there’s a lot of things that are playing a huge role to how the tournament plays out.”
Campbell will battle Oklahoma’s unseeded Yoanse Mejias Thursday morning in his first-round matchup.
Forys and Campbell have been mainstays in the Panthers’ lineup all year, but the team’s breakout star this year — Rahmani — didn’t even have a spot in the lineup to begin the season.
Rahmani (23-6) battled with true freshman Jake Wentzel for the starting role at 157 pounds before the season, but Pitt’s coaches decided Wentzel deserved the spot. Wentzel compiled an 8-5 record before suffering an injury early in the season, opening the door for Rahmani.
Unlike Forys and Campbell, Rahmani doesn’t fit the typical mold of a muscle-bound, lightning-quick wrestler. Instead, the Marysville, Ohio, native consistently uses moves and techniques rarely seen in the American folkstyle circuit.
His go-to move — where he baits an opponent into wrapping him in a bear hug before reaching behind his own back, locking up his opponent’s arms and flipping them onto their back — has mystified even the most experienced competitors.
Rahmani used his unorthodox style to confound opponents on his way to a team-best 10 pins, 23 wins and an ACC title.
“I think it’s the funky style, but then the coaches, I’ve got to give credit to them. They helped me settle down a little bit and get more into the basics where I can use both, and the funky style comes out when I need it,” Rahmani said.
Now that he made it to the ACC Championships and won the 157-pound title in his first appearance, he has his focus set on the ultimate goal: the NCAA Championships.
“It still doesn’t feel that real,” Rahmani said about his ACC crown. “The season’s not over, still have another tournament which is even more important … I’d say expect anything. Anything could happen.”
Rahmani’s opening-round match Thursday morning will be against No. 11 seed Colin Heffernan of Central Michigan.
After overcoming an early-season knee injury, Solomon (17-4) rebounded with a stellar second half of the season to earn the No. 15 seed in the 285-pound bracket. His signature win came in the Panthers’ regular season finale, when he defeated Duke’s Jacob Kasper by 4-3 decision in Pitt’s dual-meet win.
The two met again in the ACC semifinals, where Kasper escaped with a 2-1 decision in overtime on his way to a second-place finish.
“He’s a tough guy, and he’s good at a lot of things,” Solomon said about his opponent. “He brought to my attention kind of what I need to work on all-around wise.”
The two are on opposite sides of the tournament bracket, so a rubber match could only take place in the consolation bracket or the national finals. If Solomon does make the finals though, it’s more likely that No. 1 heavyweight and Olympic champion from Ohio State Kyle Snyder will be standing across from him. Still, Solomon isn’t worried about who he faces.
“It’d be the same as any other match,” Solomon said about potentially facing Snyder. “He’s a great wrestler, no doubt about it. Can’t say anything bad about him. But it’s more on you if you believe you can do that, and I do believe it can happen. If we get there, anything can happen.”
Solomon’s first-round opponent Thursday morning will be unseeded Ross Larson of Oklahoma.