Panther Spotlight: Softball, wrestling attract kindred spirits

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Joy Cao | Staff Photographer

Redshirt sophomore Micky Phillippi recorded his fifth major decision of the year during Sunday’s 51-1 victory over Davidson.

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

Pitt softball and wrestling are at two very different places — in their seasons and status as programs.

The No. 10 ranked wrestlers are in the thick of conference play and championship contention, trying to keep pace with their storied program history. The Panthers boast 16 individual national champions over their more than century of existence, good for 13th among Division I schools.

Now, led by a former Panther and 2008 national champion Keith Gavin, the Panthers are poised to return to — and maybe even surpass — the success of the program’s post-World War II glory days.

Softball, on the other hand, is still in the middle of a program renaissance. After decades of mediocrity, the program’s trajectory shot upward as Holly Aprile stepped into the head coaching job in 2009.

Aprile led the Panthers to winning seasons in each of her first three years at the helm and had Pitt in the conference tournament championship game two years after the school’s move to the ACC. Pitt earned its first NCAA Tournament bid in program history that same year.

She guided Pitt to unprecedented success, but in 2018 Aprile left for the head coaching job at Louisville. And now her successor, Jodi Hermanek, is five games into the 2020 season and eager to improve on a disappointing first year in Pittsburgh.

But for all the striking differences between the two teams, they are both led by a pair of transfers whose journeys mirror the history of the programs they represent.

The top 10 wrestlers are led by the nation’s No. 6 133-pound wrestler, redshirt sophomore Micky Phillippi. Like the program he competes for, Phillippi is a proven winner. A trio of state championships in high school preceded a 55-14 record through his three years at the college level.

But Phillippi’s record in his first two years, while outstanding, did not count toward team success. After redshirting his first year at Virginia, he transferred to Pitt the following summer and was forced to sit out of dual meets due to NCAA transfer rules. But still, his record in open tournament competition, highlighted by a defeat of previously undefeated then-No. 2 Dalton Fix from Ohio State last January, proved his metal.

And now, in his first year of full college competition, Phillippi has not missed a beat. He owns a team best 18-1 overall record, owns a five-match win streak and, in the dual meets that have eluded him his entire career, is undefeated through nine matches.

There are certain tangible skills that come across clearly when watching Phillippi. His intensity is paired with an outstanding recognition of an opponent’s weaknesses. It’s channeled through explosive quickness and strong technique, which resulted in the piles of wins he accrued through his still-young career.

But while Phillippi is leading an elite squad fighting to summit the nation’s team rankings, a fellow transfer on the softball team is building a foundation that already existed in the wrestling program.

Junior infielder LoLo Sanchez can count on one hand how many games she’s played in a Pitt uniform, but she has already established herself as a stalwart in the batting order, following sophomore leadoff hitter Katlyn Pavalick and in the field at second base.

Before transferring to Pitt this past summer, Sanchez was an up-and-coming star at Mercer University. In her first year for the Bears, she posted a strong .290 batting average and .386 on-base percentage while finishing second on the team in doubles and third in hits.

Sanchez was named to the SoCon All-Freshman team after starting all 52 games that year, but in 2019, her playing time decreased as the year went on and the infield became more crowded.

Like her new team, Sanchez has a proven track record, but faced some adversity. The Panthers slogged through a 13-41 2019 that included a 7-17 mark in conference play. As 2020 arrives, so does Sanchez with a chip on her shoulder.

She leads the team in average, runs, hits, slugging and on-base percentage through a handful of games, but the Panthers still sit with a sub .500 record after their first weekend of the season.

Phillippi has more to prove as he gears up for the postseason, while Sanchez has everything yet to prove. Wrestling is looking to push forward, while softball waits to break through. The two teams are on opposite ends of the success spectrum, but that gap is bridged by star athletes with eyes toward more.

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