Pitt wrestling continues climb back to prominence

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Pitt wrestling continues climb back to prominence

Redshirt sophomore Micky Phillippi is currently ranked No. 4 133-pounder in the nation.

Redshirt sophomore Micky Phillippi is currently ranked No. 4 133-pounder in the nation.

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Redshirt sophomore Micky Phillippi is currently ranked No. 4 133-pounder in the nation.

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Redshirt sophomore Micky Phillippi is currently ranked No. 4 133-pounder in the nation.

By Jack Clay, Staff Writer

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The college wrestling season is officially underway. Pitt wrestling kicked off its 2019-20 campaign with the annual Blue and Gold match in the Fitzgerald Field House on Oct. 25, with the Gold team taking a narrow 22-19 victory. 

That match was simply a low-stakes warm-up. The real season is just around the corner, and head coach Keith Gavin believes his team is in a much better position to succeed than it was one year ago.

“It’s really just about the guys that we have,” Gavin said. “We had a lot of new people on the team last year, and they’re the type of kids that this is important to.”

Redshirt sophomore Micky Phillippi has been one of the team’s strongest wrestlers since he arrived at Pitt and figures to continue that success this year. The 133-pounder is ranked No. 4 in the nation this year, holding steady at his NCAA tournament ranking from last season.

Phillippi went 2-2 in that event, falling to Ohio State’s Luke Pletcher and Penn State’s Roman Bravo-Young. He’s kept those losses in the back of his mind the entire offseason, using them as fuel for the upcoming year. 

“I feel like I learned a lot from those losses,” Phillippi said. “Coach Gavin always says not to make something bigger than it is. I felt like I just got caught up in the moment of the tournament and made it bigger than it was because really it was just another match, and we do it every day.” 

Phillippi has set a high bar for himself coming into the upcoming season, aiming at a national championship. 

“There’s no specific thing, I just want to become a better all-around wrestler,” he said. “I mean, we all want to win a national title.”

The road to get there will always be difficult, but with many of the country’s top wrestlers like Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix, Rutgers’ Nick Suriano and Michigan’s Stevan Micic choosing to sit out in favor of a run at the 2020 Olympic team, the 133-pound weight class title is up for grabs. 

Pitt sent five wrestlers to the NCAA tournament last year, including Phillippi, although none were able to achieve an elusive All-American title. One of those Panthers was redshirt senior heavyweight Demetrius Thomas. He came into the event as the No. 8 ranked heavyweight, but came up short of his ranking, going 1-2 and losing out to Central Michigan’s Matt Stencel and Brown’s Ian Butterbrodt. Like Phillippi, Thomas used those matches to fuel this year’s run.

“In those two matches, the thing that really set me apart from winning and me losing was two things really,” Thomas said. “One, being overzealous at times and, two, having mat awareness to control the situation, wrestle my match and not let my opponent control me. I evaluate those small aspects to … fix the problems.”

Thomas set high goals as well for this upcoming season after a disappointing end to last year, including winning a national championship. 

“That’s what I strive to do,” Thomas said. “One goal that I do have though is simply to be an All-American. I don’t want to miss that mark.” 

As a team, Pitt earned national respect last season. Entering the 2018 season, it came in unranked and overlooked because of its 4-11 dual meet record from the year before. It went on to exceed even the wildest expectations, finishing 13-3 in dual meets, No. 4 at the ACC Championships and 34th out of 63 teams in the NCAA Championships. 

This year, Pitt ranks just outside the top 10 in the nation. For the first time in the last decade, people expect big things, and Phillippi thinks they’re ready. 

“It was cool last year to upset some teams and be kind of under the radar,” Philippi said. “And I still think we’re under the radar because in my opinion we have the potential to be a really good team this year.” 

Despite the vast improvement upon the year before, Gavin isn’t satisfied with his team’s 2019 season. He and his staff made sure that this year’s dual meet schedule is difficult as ever in order to put his team among the nation’s elite.

“Last year was tough but I wanted us to wrestle good competition every time out because, ultimately, our goal at the end of the year is to get guys on the podium,” Gavin said. “Having a 13-3 dual meet record was nice but it doesn’t mean anything … Getting guys on the podium at nationals is what we’re trying to do.” 

Giving his wrestlers a challenge was among Gavin’s highest priorities this offseason. He wants them to be more prepared than ever for the NCAA tournament. 

“The ACC is good so we’re going to wrestle some tough teams,” Gavin said. “But out of conference, we made the Ohio State dual happen, Lehigh, going back out to Oklahoma State, making sure we had those teams … Adding those teams beefs it up.” 

Another reason for Pitt’s preseason hype is its latest recruiting class. It nabbed highly successful wrestlers like Colton Camacho, Austin Cooley, Jared McGill, Luke Kemerer and Cole Matthews, many of whom are expected to contribute early in their college careers. 

“They’ve all done a pretty good job,” Gavin said. “I think Austin Cooley is in a tough group with Kellan [Stout] and him being a senior. He’s just coming off an injury, but he’s a very mature kid, so that’s nice to see … Colton Camacho has been doing a nice job of maintaining his weight, which is tough to do.” 

This year’s class has caught the attention of some of the team’s leaders as well. 

“A lot of them just live the right lifestyle and are doing the right things, which, culture-wise, is good for a team,” Phillippi said. “I feel like they just contribute well to our team and our program.”

After a season of improvement, there’s still nowhere for the Panthers to go but up. They have exciting new talent, plenty of eligibility left on most of their existing leaders and one of college wrestling’s best head coaches, who himself was a two-time All-American and national champion as a Panther in 2008. 

There is plenty to look forward to for Panther fans and it all begins when they open their dual meet season on Saturday, Nov. 9, against Campbell University in the Fitzgerald Field House.

This team has garnered a lot of hype as the season nears, but Gavin remains focused on continuing to reach for new heights. 

“Our goals are always the same,” Gavin said. “It’s just to try and get better and do what we can to try and reach our full potential.”

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