Pitt assistant wrestling coach Drew Headlee recognizes that last season was a major disappointment — especially by the team’s self-created standards.
“Anyone not standing on that championship podium would say last season was a letdown,” Headlee said of the team’s 8-8 campaign in 2014. “They expect better of themselves. It’s been motivating them for this summer to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
After several seasons of national success, Pitt wrestling took a step backward last year, the first in which it did not win an ACC regular season title. But coaches and players on the team said there is reason for optimism for the future, namely in some of the younger wrestlers the team will lean on.
Last season was not without positive results, though. In his senior season, Tyler Wilps reached the National Championship finals at the 174-pound weight class, earning All-American status in a controversial loss to Penn State’s No. 1 Matt Brown. In all, Pitt had five wrestlers record victories at Nationals, including rising redshirt sophomore Ryan Solomon.
Because of roster restrictions, Solomon was forced to wrestle up a weight class against larger opponents at the heavyweight class, instead of his more comfortable 197-pound class. Solomon said he learned a lot from wrestling bigger competition, but is looking forward to bumping back down a weight class.
“It was a little tough wrestling with the big boys, and hopefully I can be back down at the 197 weight class I want to be at,” Solomon said. “I want to make it to the national tournament and stand on that podium.”
While the Panthers will refuse to make excuses this upcoming season, slight regression would be understandable. The team is losing ACC champions in Wilps and Max Thomusseit, who combined to post a 178-58 record in their Pitt careers.
For a team with few rising seniors, Headlee said the Panthers may utilize some younger wrestlers, incoming members of the incoming recruiting class.
“We only have two seniors (Ronnie Garbinsky and Nick Bonaccorsi), and I think they’ll do their part,” Headlee said. “But right now we’re looking for younger guys to also step up and be leaders on and off the mat.”
Headlee pointed to two wrestlers in particular — rising junior Edgar Bright and rising sophomore Dom Forys — to spearhead that charge. Solomon added rising junior Mikey Racciato to Headlee’s list of Panthers to watch.
“I love watching Mikey wrestle,” Solomon said. “He’s that kind of funky wrestler, at any point he can get a pin for us, it doesn’t matter if he’s against the No. 1 guy in the country. I definitely say Edgar will break out, but I think Mikey will too.”
Racciato pointed to Solomon’s weight class realignment as a major boost for the team, and added that Bright’s return from a medical redshirt last season will help the team.
“[Bright] is one of the strongest kids I’ve ever wrestled,” Racciato said. “I’m just glad he’s on my team.”
As a true sophomore last season, Racciato won the ACC championship at his 149-pound weight class en route to a 22-10 season. He said everyone on the team has a goal of earning All-American status, and as a team they want to return to the ACC summit.
Even wrestlers untested in college competition have a chance to provide major contributions this year. Headlee pointed out that wrestler skill trumps age, saying “if you can make the lineup as a freshman, you’re going to be in there.”
On June 23, head coach Jason Peters announced a 2015 signing class of 14 members, with Pittsburgh native TeShan Campbell and Robert Lee highlighting the list.
As a 170-pounder in high school, Campbell won the PIAA State Wrestling Championship and boasted an undefeated senior season on top of playing running back for the Penn Hills football team.
Lee was a state finalist in each of his four years at Kaukauna high school in Wisconsin, ranking No. 18 nationally at 138 pounds.
Despite his high school dominance, Racciato said the transition from high school to starting as a college freshman can be difficult, a task he experienced firsthand.
“Realistically, you’re going to take some losses,” he said. “There was a point where I lost four or five times in a row that season. I didn’t even lose that much in my high school career. Every match is a grind, so I’d tell them to take it one match at a time.”
Headlee said that Campbell could move into Wilps’ vacant 174-pound slot and start.
“That’s not to say the spot is his, however. There are guys fighting for the spot,” Headlee said, adding that between one and three freshmen could step into the starting lineup. “It will be a fun little battle in the fall to see which freshmen are rising up and seeing which upperclassmen they’ll be competing with.”
Part of last season’s 8-8 disappointing regular season (2-3 in the ACC) resulted from Pitt’s performance against top competition. The Panthers went 1-7 against ranked opponents, with the lone victory coming in its second match of the year on Nov. 6, in which Pitt defeated No. 10 Edinboro, 25-13.
In the previous three seasons, Pitt went a combined 36-11, including a perfect 6-0 record against ACC opponents in 2013. Racciato said the team is eager to return to its dominance in its opening year in the ACC.
“Everyone wants to win dual meets,” he said. “We’re going to be a pretty young team, but I think we’ll be competitive in the ACC.”