Pitt wrestling riding smooth start to 2021 season

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Bader Abdulmajeed | Senior Staff Photographer

Nino Bonaccorsi competes against Virginia’s Michael Battista in February 2020.

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

A new year brings a new semester at college campuses around the country. Just as the academic year pivots to a fresh calendar, so does college athletics. Soccer and volleyball have ended their fall campaigns and an arduous 2020-21 football season came to a close on Monday night as Alabama topped Ohio State 52-24 in the national championship game.

Now basketball enters the roaring gauntlet of conference play and the nation’s wrestling programs will follow not far behind. But beginning with the return of NCAA competition in September, postponements, cancellations and long layoffs for many teams across sports replaced the typical grind of travel and dense competition schedules.

While sports like volleyball or soccer — which by rule involve less person-to-person contact — were relatively successful at keeping COVID-19-related interruptions at bay, contact sports like football and basketball have struggled to keep athletes isolated from the virus.

Pitt wrestling has already competed in a trio of dual meets unencumbered by a positive test or contact tracing, and head coach Keith Gavin is optimistic that the nature of wrestling — in addition to a shortened schedule of seven matches as opposed to the typical 14 to 16 — will help keep COVID-19 from derailing a promising season.

“It’s actually been easier than some of the other sports because it’s more individualized, so for example, our 125-pound will never touch our heavyweight,” Gavin said. “They’ll never be around each other. There’s never even a reason for them to even be in the same practice. So with the contact tracing, if we had a case or whatever then it would maybe be one or two guys with the contact tracing. Some of the other sports, if someone gets something, then it’s the whole team.”

Gavin said the program has done well to follow COVID-19 safety protocols so far and it has paid dividends. The Panthers are 3-0 and hold a No. 12 national ranking after dual-meet wins over Navy, No. 17 Lehigh and ACC foe Duke.

Although the record is unblemished, Pitt’s wrestlers feel that they have another level to

their game left to be unlocked.

Redshirt junior Micky Phillippi said lingering offseason rust was evident early against Navy, and even though the Panthers walked away with a win, they made it a point of emphasis to wrestle complete matches with heightened intensity.

“It was a little shaky at first,” Phillippi said. “The dual was tied going into 197, I want to say. We pulled it out, came together and showed we’re a strong team.”

Pitt did just that in its following meet, when it beat down Lehigh 24-9.

Phillippi is trying to keep his head focused on the match in front of him, but the weight of last year’s shortfall in the ACC Championships to NC State still pushes the Panthers to strive for loftier goals.

The No. 4 Wolfpack appear poised to run the conference for a second straight year, but Gavin is convinced that this year’s Pitt team is better equipped to challenge the defending champions in tournament play.

“We have probably a better tournament team than we do dual meet team,” Gavin said. “We have a number of guys who can be big point-scorers for us in the ACC Tournament. With only six teams, there’s little room for error. But if we have a good day … then we can do it.”

And that confidence comes despite the departure of not just an elite wrestler but seasoned veteran leader as well in heavyweight Demetrius Thomas.

Thomas’ career was cut short of a final trip to the National Tournament, but it’s decorated nonetheless. In 2020, his final year as a Panther, Thomas was an ACC Champion, NCAA Qualifier, National Wrestling Coaches Association All-American and All-ACC honoree. He also earned Pitt Athletics’ Blue-Gold Award, which is presented to the male and female senior student-athlete “who best represents the student-athlete ‘ideal’ based on academic scholarship, athletic achievement, leadership qualities and citizenship,” according to the athletic department’s website.

Replacing his presence on and off the mat will not be an easy task, redshirt junior Nino Bonaccorsi said.

“I think he’s one of those guys that doesn’t come around too often,” Bonaccorsi said. “To try and replace him, I think the best thing we can do is try to implement what he’s been doing and try to instill that in our guys. He went out every match and gave it his all and I think that’s inspirational and something we can try to instill in our guys.”

The good news for Pitt is that Thomas’ departure — while a significant loss — is only one of the few significant ones taken this offseason. The Panthers are still blessed with an experienced roster, led by former All-conference and All-American honorees Phillippi and Bonaccorsi and anchored by the team’s other veterans.

There are high expectations for Pitt to build off of its 2020 with a brilliant 2021 and no time to waste. Gavin knows that there is little room for error.

“We only have six more dates left until the ACC Tournament,” Gavin said. “You don’t have that many opportunities and it’s kind of crunch time already.”

Contributed reporting done by Alex Lehmbeck.

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