Pitt wrapped up its season at the NCAA Division I Championships last weekend without an All-American wrestler for the second year in a row.
After a season marred by senior 149-pounder Mikey Racciato’s curious absences and dismissal, a midseason coaching change and now sophomore TeShan Campbell’s impending transfer, it’s safe to say the Panthers have had better years off the mat as well. Still, there were definite signs of progress from last year — namely the team’s three individual ACC championships after crowning zero in 2016.
Those three ACC champions — junior Dom Forys, redshirt freshman Taleb Rahmani and Campbell — traveled to St. Louis for the NCAA Championships along with redshirt junior Ryan Solomon, who qualified as a heavyweight for the third time with a third-place finish at the ACC Championships.
Solomon had the team’s best performance at the NCAA Championships, winning three matches and falling one win short of becoming an All-American. Both of his defeats came in close battles with top-five opponents: No. 2 seed Connor Medbery of Wisconsin and No. 5 seed Nick Nevills of Penn State.
“I think I wrestled well — we all wrestled pretty well,” Solomon said. “Obviously it’s not what we wanted for any of us. I wanted to be an All-American and came up just shy of it. But looking at the positives, I know what I need to do to get to that top eight and hopefully the top of that podium.”
Solomon’s downfall — and what he’ll need to improve next year — was his inability to get up from the bottom position in both of his losses.
Against Medbery, he trailed 1-0 entering the third period and needed an escape to tie the score, but Medbery held him down for the remainder of the match in a 5-0 decision. The situation repeated against Nevills as Solomon failed to escape down 1-0 in the final period of a 2-0 defeat.
Forys, meanwhile, entered the tournament as Pitt’s highest ranked wrestler with a 19-1 record. He, too, came one win away from All-American status as a sophomore in 2016, but this year, he took a step back with a 2-2 record at the NCAA Championships.
“There were a lot of emotions going through my head after I came up short. I kind of choked a little bit,” Forys said. “Watching my match, I can see I was trying to hold onto positions. I didn’t try to score points. I just kind of clammed up.”
Going into the tournament as the No. 6 seed, Forys admitted the pressure of being projected as an All-American may have affected him.
“There’s a lot of outside factors that happened at the tournament that I didn’t really deal with the right way and let the atmosphere and environment and pressure of the tournament get to me, being seeded top-eight,” Forys said. “Overall, it was just kind of a big learning experience to put into perspective.”
After starting the season as a backup with a 2-4 career record, Rahmani emerged as perhaps the Panthers’ most exciting wrestler while leading the team in pins and wins. As a defending ACC champion, though, he likely won’t catch his opponents by surprise next year the way he did against so many unsuspecting foes this season.
“I won’t be as much of an underdog next season as I was this year. People will be scouting me,” Rahmani said.
Rahmani entered the tournament unseeded and drew a returning All-American, No. 7 seed Dylan Palacio of Cornell in his first-round match. Rahmani lost a 9-1 major decision but did put Palacio on his back as time expired. He said the nerves of competing in his first match at the national championships got to him, but they wore off after facing Palacio.
“I should have started going after him earlier instead of letting the name Palacio get to me,” Rahmani said. “He was a big name, returning All-American … [I was] a little bit nervous going against a big name like that.”
Rahmani rebounded from the defeat to pick up an 18-7 major decision win in his second-round match for his first win at nationals.
“I didn’t want to go 0-2,” Rahmani said. “It made me feel like I actually belong here if I’m not getting destroyed by the top guys.”
Looking forward to next year, the unorthodox 157-pounder doesn’t expect his opponents to stop his signature move: Rahmani allows his opponent to wrap him in a bear hug, then he reaches behind his own back, locks up both of his opponent’s arms and flips them onto their back.
“It will definitely be harder because they know it’s coming, but I think I’ll still be able to get it. Just [have to] set it up differently now,” Rahmani said.
After a few days of rest, all three returning qualifiers plan to switch to the freestyle circuit as they begin offseason training to prepare for another run at a national championship next season without Campbell.
“I definitely think we’ll be back in that top 25 next year at least,” Solomon said. “I definitely think that we can be in that mix for an ACC title as a team.”