Bader Abdulmajeed | Staff Photographer
The City of Pittsburgh will host the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at PPG Paints Arena starting Thursday morning and running through Saturday evening. With Pitt hosting for the first time since 1957, it’s fitting that the Panthers will send five wrestlers to enjoy the hometown advantage: redshirt freshman Micky Phillippi, junior Demetrius Thomas, redshirt junior Taleb Rahmani, redshirt freshman Nino Bonaccorsi and redshirt junior Kellan Stout.
Phillippi is the headliner for Pitt, snagging the No. 4 seed among 33 competitors in the 133-pound division. He was the most dominant Panther throughout the season, achieving a 19-2 record — including a nail-biting win over No. 1 seed Oklahoma State first-year Daton Fix back in January — along with an ACC title. Phillippi’s only losses came to No. 14 seed Virginia Tech redshirt junior Korbin Myers and No. 3 seed Rutgers junior Nick Suriano.
In the first round, Phillippi will face off against No. 29 seed Fresno State redshirt freshman Gary Joint, who compiled a 17-13 record on the season. Joint also faced Fix and Suriano, losing 7-3 and 15-4, respectively. Phillippi should be favored to advance deep into the bracket, setting up a potential rematch with Fix in the Friday evening semifinal.
Pitt’s other ACC champion, heavyweight Demetrius Thomas (26-4), drew the No. 8 seed in the 285-pound division. Usually wrestling in the final bout of each match, Thomas was clutch for the Panthers all season long, including victory-sealing performances against NC State and Duke. This will be Thomas’ first time at the NCAA tournament, but he’s no stranger to the big stage — he won an NAIA national championship as a first-year at Williams Baptist University before coming to Pitt.
Thomas will face Stanford redshirt freshman Haydn Maley (23-10) in the opening round. Given his superior experience and penchant for big matchups, Thomas should be expected to topple his first two lower-seeded opponents, likely setting up a rematch with No. 1 seed Oklahoma State redshirt senior Derek White — who narrowly defeated Thomas 9-8 in January — in the quarterfinal.
Rahmani (16-6) earned the No. 12 seed at 157 pounds and will wrestle Oklahoma redshirt sophomore Justin Thomas (21-9). Rahmani is no stranger to the NCAA Championships, having qualified his previous two seasons. He’s also no stranger to Justin Thomas — the two faced each other in early January, with Rahmani winning by a close 3-2 decision. Rahmani will look to topple Thomas again and set up a chance for revenge over NC State redshirt sophomore Hayden Hidlay (20-2), who beat Rahmani twice this season, in the second round.
Bonaccorsi (19-6) picked up the No. 13 seed in the 184-pound competition, where he’ll challenge No. 20 seed Utah Valley senior Will Sumner. Rematches are common, and this bout is no different — Bonaccorsi handily defeated Sumner via 17-4 major decision last season. Ample time has passed between then and now, but Bonaccorsi will hope to duplicate that result to advance in his first NCAA Championships.
Stout (12-8), also making his tournament debut, will be Pitt’s lone underdog in the first round, serving as the 197-pound No. 23 seed and taking on No. 10 seed Virginia Tech redshirt senior Tom Sleigh (21-6). Stout faced Sleigh in his most recent match, a 4-3 loss in the ACC Championships on March 9. The two also met in conference play earlier this season, with Sleigh taking that match 3-1. It’s a longshot, but Stout will look to deny Sleigh the three-peat by pulling off a first-round upset.
Pitt hasn’t had a national champion since current head coach Keith Gavin won at 174 pounds back in 2008, and although the chances of a Panther going the distance are slim to none, the home fans may push some of Pitt’s wrestlers to outperform expectations.