Wrestling: Panthers reach for national success

By Mike Furlong

After back-to-back Eastern Wrestling League team championships and a season in which eight… After back-to-back Eastern Wrestling League team championships and a season in which eight wrestlers qualified for the NCAA Championships, the Panthers have set their sights on a new milestone — to become one of the top 10 programs in the country.

The polls seem to agree that Pitt — who could be leaving the EWL for the Atlantic Coast Conference after this season — has grown since nationals. The team is now ranked No. 15 in the nation after finishing in 34th place at nationals last March.

Going into the competition — held last year in Philadelphia — the Panthers had three wrestlers ranked in the top 7 in their weight classes. Yet the team ultimately didn’t finish with any wrestlers in the top 8 of their weight classes, leaving Pitt with no All-Americans for the first time since 2006.

One wrestler especially disappointed with his and the team’s performance was junior Anthony Zanetta. Zanetta won his opening match at 125 pounds at Nationals before a loss dropped him into the consolation round. In the consolations, Zanetta won one match before having his season end with a tough 5-3 decision to Sean Boyle of Michigan.

“I think that we didn’t reach our expectations at nationals,” Zanetta said. “But those are the things that can make a team stronger. We remind ourselves of that feeling from last year. It wasn’t a good way to finish a season, but it makes us hungrier. Our goal is top 10 at nationals. We want to take this program to the next level. We want people to see that a guy is from Pitt and know that this guy will be a tough match.”

Zanetta, entering his third season in the starting lineup at 125 pounds, looks to become the catalyst for the team’s success. With a career record of 53-22 and two EWL individual titles, Zanetta has become one of the hardest workers on the squad, staying late after practice to drill more on technique and to run more sprints.

“I always think that when I’m done with wrestling, I want to be known as a guy that helped this program.” Zanetta said. “As a team we need the mentality to be offense, offense, offense. We want to be known as a tough team that goes at you, and that’s what I try to do.”

Time and again head coach Rande Stottlemyer — now in his 32nd year in his position — has stated that the team doesn’t ever defend anything, that they are always on the offensive, even after two consecutive EWL titles.

“We aren’t defending anything. We’re going to go out there to chase it down, just like the last two,” Stottlemyer said. “Once you start defending something, you start losing progress. Nobody is giving speeches about it, our guys just know it.”

Its third consectutive Eastern Wrestling League title is a good challenge, but the team’s goal to finish in the top 10 at the NCAA Championships in March is what really gets them riled.

“I know at least I have a poor taste in my mouth about such a poor NCAA Tournament last year,” Stottlemyer said. “I know I would have bet my house on us having a few guys on the podium. We went back to the drawing board to go at it this year.”

When EWL duals kick off Dec. 11 at Cleveland State, the Panthers will appear to be in the midst of the next chapter of a three-team race between Pitt, West Virgnia and Edinboro. Both West Virginia and Edinboro are currently not ranked in the top 30 teams in the nation, but each team is returning a solid core group of wrestlers currently projected to be the best at their weight in the EWL.

The matchups with West Virginia and Edinboro could be especially bitter considering the recent history between the teams. Edinboro was the perennial power of the EWL before being defeated by Pitt in the last two seasons. Despite recent Panther success, Edinboro has not been a pushover opponent. The teams fought a hard championship match last year, which Pitt won on bonus points from a Zanetta pin.

“Overall, it looks like West Virginia and Edinboro are going to be the teams to beat again,” Stottlemyer said. “You know teams like Clarion and Lock Haven have a few pretty good guys, but they have too many holes.”

After completing their Blue-Gold Match on Oct. 28 and deciding on their starting lineup, the Panthers seem to have a strong top-to-bottom group of guys.

Including Zanetta, the Panthers have five wrestlers that have won EWL individual titles in the past and an additional two wrestlers that have placed at the EWL tournament.

Redshirt senior Tyler Nauman enters the season at 149 pounds after three EWL titles at 141 pounds. Nauman begins the year ranked in the top 10 in his weight class in his pursuit of a fourth trip to the NCAA Tournament. Nauman is a returning All-American after a fifth place finish two years ago.

The Panthers had an interesting dilemma that seems to have solved itself after the Blue-Gold Match. The Panthers had two returners that had won individual titles at 197 pounds. Matt Wilps, coming off of a redshirt season, was the EWL champion in 2009, and Zac Thomusseit was the champion last year and was just one win short of becoming an All-American.

In the Blue-Gold Match, Wilps won his match at 197 pounds by fall over freshman Jordan Shulman. Thomusseit also won his match by fall over Mike Gregory, a transfer from UNC-Greensboro. Thomusseit will try and replace at least some of the production that two-time EWL champion Ryan Tomei contributed last year.

“It was kind of annoying for me last year to not be involved in the wins and losses throughout the season,” Wilps said. “I knew what I was signing up for taking a redshirt. It was good because I was able to have a season for me to work on my technique. Hopefully that translates well, because my goal is to be All-American and maybe even to win it. There’s no secret, I want to get into the lineup at 197 [pounds].”

Besides sharing the fact that they have both won titles at 197 pounds, both Wilps and Thomusseit will have their younger brothers joining them in the lineup.

Sophomore Max Thomusseit returns at 184 pounds after a freshman season in which he won 27 bouts on his way to a second-place finish in the EWL.

“He [Thomusseit] has really bought into what we’re doing,” Stottlemyer said. “He’s going to be a guy that’s going to be out there in the guy’s face for seven minutes and could be in the top 10 percent of the guys in the weight class.”

Tyler Wilps is entering his second year at Pitt after a redshirt season in which he went 13-9 in open tournaments. Wilps won the spot at 165 pounds over senior Karl DeCiantis in an 8-2 decision. Wilps has the support of his coach — Stottlemyer spoke very highly of his ability.

“Little [Tyler] Wilps seemed to have had a particularly good summer,” Stottlemyer said. “It’s kind of crazy but he’s a good leader himself too. He’s still young, but he’s a pretty good leader. I think he could be a pretty good 165-pounder.”

Joining Tyler Wilps, there are two other wrestlers getting into the starting lineup for the first time. Freshman Travis Shaffer enters the year as the starter at 141 pounds after a stellar high school career at Derry Area High School. Shaffer compiled a career record of 149-22 and was a four-time Pennsylvania state place-winner, including a championship at 140 pounds in his senior year.

Also getting into the lineup as a freshman is Nick Bonaccorsi at 174 pounds. Bonaccorsi was a standout wrestler at Bethel Park, compiling a high school record of 156-28. Bonaccorsi went 44-1 in his senior year on his way to a third-place finish at the Pennsylvania state championships.

Max Thomusseit and redshirt senior Ethan Headlee are the only returning starters that did not wrestle at the Blue-Gold Match. Headlee — who has three seasons with 20 or more wins — has wrestled at both 165 pounds and 174 pounds in the past and will possibly be a matchup with Tyler Wilps or Bonaccorsi at some point during the season.

The Panthers will kick off their season on Nov. 6 at the Buffalo Open. They will likely send out more than their starting 10 wrestlers, as last year in their first open tournament at Clarion they sent 20 wrestlers. Fourteen of them placed.

“We’re pretty good top to bottom,” Stottlemyer said. “I feel that we’re a better team than we were last year. You know we have other teams looking at us thinking that we got some real horses coming back for us.”