Wrestling: Panthers finish 8th in Vegas

By Mike Furlong

Wrestling as a top-10 ranked team for the first time since 1963, the Panthers finished in eighth… Wrestling as a top-10 ranked team for the first time since 1963, the Panthers finished in eighth place out of a field of 34 teams at the Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas last weekend.

The finish was a bit of a disappointment for the Panthers, who rose from No. 11 to No. 8 in national rankings following a thrilling win over Michigan last week.

“It’s a heck of a tournament out there in Las Vegas,” head coach Rande Stottlemyer said. “To finish in the top 10 in the team scoring means something to us. We still could have done a lot better, but tournaments like that are some long days, so we did pretty well.”

Pitt’s highest place winner was redshirt junior Matt Wilps, who placed third at 197 pounds. Wilps — ranked No. 6 nationally in his weight class — won five bouts in the event, including a 5-3 decision victory in the consolation finals over No. 21-ranked Alfonso Hernandez of Wyoming. Wilps lost 6-5 in the semifinals to No. 5 Matt Powless of Indiana on a last-second takedown by Powless to end the bout.

“Matt has been a steady part of our lineup this season,” assistant coach Matt Kocher said. “In the semifinals, against the kid from Indiana, [Powless] went out there and scored the first takedown and controlled the match. Late in the match he went straight at Matt and threw everything except the kitchen sink at him. [Powless] hit an inside trip as time expired to get the win. I give him a lot of credit for it, he’s a good wrestler.”

Four other Panthers finished in the top 8 at the tournament — Anthony Zanetta, Tyler Nauman, Tyler Wilps and Ethan Headlee.

“Overall we could have done a lot better as a team,” Kocher said. “It’s bound to happen. We’ve wrestled against some really good teams, so we’re bound to take a step back at some point. We’re still working some guys back from injury, so we’re still improving.”

Zanetta had a seventh-place finish after a 4-2 record at the invitational. Zanetta won two bouts in the championship round, including a 20-5 technical fall over Shane McQuade of Wisconsin. Zanetta, ranked No. 13 in the nation, lost his next bout to No. 14 Steve Bonanno of Hofstra by a 11-3 score. After a win in the consolations, Zanetta lost to No. 7 Trent Sprenkle of North Dakota State and dropped to the seventh place bout. In the final bout, Zanetta defeated No. 17 Tyler Iwamura of Cal-Bakersfield 3-1 in overtime.

“Zanetta has looked the best that I’ve seen him in his career so far this season,” Kocher said. “He stumbled in Las Vegas and gave up a lot of points, but he should be able to bounce back for us.”

Nauman finished fourth at 149 pounds after two losses to David Habat of Edinboro. Nauman defeated Habat 6-5 earlier this season at the Buffalo Open. The redshirt senior Panther   , now ranked No. 4 in the nation, won two bouts with ease to start the tournament before the 5-2 upset at the hands of Habat dropped him to the consolations.

In the consolations, Nauman won three close bouts to get into the consolation finals with a rematch with Habat. Nauman won 3-0 over No. 7-ranked Craig Eifert of Cornell and followed with a 2-1 victory over No. 31 Justin Accordino of Hofstra and an 8-6 overtime win over Josh Wilson of Utah Valley. In the third-place bout, Nauman lost again to Habat, this time with a 5-3 score.

“I always felt that the more you wrestle the same guy, the harder it becomes to still beat him,” Kocher said. “After Tyler beat him earlier in the season, that kid [Habat] left Buffalo thinking he could beat Nauman. [Habat] had nothing to lose wrestling against the top seed and went in and beat Tyler. That’s something Tyler needs to work on. He has to find a way to beat that kid again.”

Tyler Wilps finished in eighth place at 165 pounds. The younger Wilps won two bouts before a 3-2 loss to No. 4-ranked Paul Gillespie of Hofstra dropped him into the consolations. After a 3-1 victory over Kyle Eason of West Virginia, Wilps lost by fall to No. 10 Robert Kokesh of Nebraska. In the seventh-place bout, Wilps lost 4-2 to No. 17 Dan Yates of Michigan. Wilps totaled three wins in the tournament in his first season in the starting lineup for the Panthers.

Headlee entered the event ranked No. 21 in the nation following his season debut against Michigan. Headlee placed seventh in the tournament after four wins. He lost in the quarterfinals 3-2 to Ryan DesRoches of Cal-Poly and dropped into the consolations. Headlee lost again in the consolations to land in the seventh-place bout, where he won 7-0 over Kurtis Julson from North Dakota State.

Senior heavyweight Zac Thomusseit missed the Cliff Keen Invitational, a week after his stunning overtime win against Ben Apland from Michigan catapulted the Panthers to a dual-meet win and their first trip into the top 10 since 1963. Thomusseit was replaced in the lineup by freshman Joel Yahner, who finished 1-2 at the event.

“It’s one of those things where Zac wasn’t 100 percent, so we decided to wrestle Joel Yahner instead,” Kocher said. “Yahner wrestled better than he has and even pinned one guy and turned another.”

Pitt placed eighth in the team scores. The top three team finishers were Ohio State, Michigan and Wyoming. Eastern Wrestling League rival Edinboro finished seventh as a team, one place ahead of of Pitt. Pitt defeated Michigan last week in a dual meet and will get opportunities to match up with Ohio State next week in a dual meet and will see Edinboro in February.

“It really says something about our schedule this season,” Kocher said. “We wrestle a tough schedule this year and that will help us. It’s important to give us a name by wrestling against the best. Our goal is to be the best team that we can be, and that requires us to wrestle the best teams. Wrestling against these kinds of teams will mean a lot to our guys at Nationals [NCAA Championships], because they will see these guys again.”

Pitt will match up with Ohio State, the Cliff Keen Invitational team champions on Friday night at the Fitzgerald Field House at 7 p.m.

“I’m confident in our guys,” Kocher said. “We’re a strong dual-meet team because we have 10 good guys and can win at every weight. Zac Thomusseit will be back in the lineup for us, and that should complete our team. We’re a better team now than we were last week. Ohio State is good also and they have some aces on their team, but I think we can come out on top.”