With a combined 58 seats at the Big table the ACC and the SoCon turned a few too many chairs up and walked away from Detroit, despite some very high achievements, with a would have, could have, should have showing at the NCAA Championships.
Even occasional readers of this column know of its unabashed cheerleader stance regarding Southern wrestling in general and the SoCon and ACC conferences in particular. With a record number of automatic qualifiers and some at large bids for good measure it looked promising for the SoCon and the ACC as their athletes prepared for the championships. Then the brackets came out and prospects for a massive All American total and a bucket full of deep tournament runs suddenly looked a whole lot shakier. Sadly, the latter realization played out more than early hopes. The SoCon had just one All American dream realized as Appalachian States Johnathan Millner decisively snagged his 2nd AA honor. Easily one of the most telling, and inspiring, post competition series of comments came when Millner was asked if his gaudy 2X AA success made him the face of Mountaineers wrestling. “Appalachian is a brand of itself. It’s just a priviledge to be a part of the program. I represent the “A” [in Appalachian] but the “A” is bigger than myself.” SO. DAMN. INSPIRING. The humble and gracious Millner went on…”I represent my teammates, my coaches, everyone who believed in me, my family….When you come to Appalachian, it’s a family. It’s not just you. It’s not just [to be] a face of a program. That’s not the way we operate in our program. It’s a team effort and everybody plays a part in getting us here.” You HOPE your program has some Jonathan Millners in it. For its part App State had three wrestlers competing in the round of 16 for the first time since 1992. Four time defending SoCon Tournament champ Campbell saw five of its six wrestlers fall in round one, somewhat suprising despite several less than stellar draws. The Camels dropped all three matches against much higher seeded foes, expected, but stellar heavyweight Taye Ghadiali was upset by equally young, talented and athletic Lewis Fernandes of Cornell. Fernandes would come within 1 match of AA status. Ghadiali would take an OT victory over column favorite Zachary Knighton-Ward of Hofstra before falling to Zach Elam of Missouri. #7 seed Josh Heil battled a talented Tiger grappler himself, Josh Edmonds, shutting out the Missouri  star in an 8-0 major decision. Unfortunately for Heil he ended up on the wrong end of a stylistic clash with Nebraskas Ridge Lovett. No shame in that, though, as Lovett advanced to the finals. Heils first and only consolations round foe, none other than Army team co-captain P.J. Ogunsanya, himself an AA hopeful before a late season injury relegated him to an at large bid. Ogunsanyas pin with 4 seconds left in the match sewed up Heils career and kiboshed the SoCons best chance at a 2nd AA honor. While Korbin Meink was overmatched twice, both Domenic Zaccone and Shannon Hanna had good shots at victory in their 1st and 2nd matches respectively but couldn’t quite get it done. 2X SoCon 184lb champ Caleb Hopkins was matched with and fell to Illinois Zac Braunagel, pinned Virginia’s Michael Battista, but was shown the door in an unceremonious 10-0 shutout loss to quixotic Nebraska star Taylor Venz. So, Campbell has shown conference Championship level ability is part of their nature now, and expected. The next step is the hardest: a Camel or two climbing the NCAA Championships podium. Regularly. The Scribes beloved UTC Mocs more than made up for a less than stellar regular season with a solid 3rd place finish at the SoCon Tournament and advanced four Mocs grapplers to the NCAAs. From the drop, though, UTC became the poster child for the “when bad seeds happen to good wrestlers” mantra from this year’s brackets. 2X SoCon champ, 3X NCAA qualifier Fabian Gutierrez? Seeded 20th. 2X NCAA qualifier and 2X SoCon finalist, 2021 conference champ Drew Nicholson? Seeded 29th. Worse yet, conference champ and 3X NCAA qualifier Matthew Waddell was unceremoniously dumped into the pigtail round, seeded 33rd and last! Sheesh. Even Brayden Palmers 25-7, conference runner up, 3rd place at the Southern Scuffle Tournament season merely served to relegate him to the 19th seed and a first round matchup with UNI buzzsaw Kyle Biscoglia. Only Gutierrez, the savvy, slick 6th year senior out of Colorado picked up a round one win. It was memorable, though, coming as it did over Iowas young superstar Drake Ayala. That was the first, last, and only hurrah for Coach Kyle Ruschells crew as the Mocs went 0-fer afterwards, albeit against stiff competition. Frankly, it would have required a series of significant upsets for any Moc, even Gutierrez, to mount the podium. Still, 1 win was surely not UTCs game plan, nor was the injury default prior to his consolation match for Nicholson, a team standard bearer. Only Gutierrez is gone next year from this group, and there’s young, hungry wrestlers sprinkled throughout the lineup. The Mocs will want, scratch that, NEED 157lb Lincoln Heck, 165lb Nicholson, and 197lb Logan Andrew back and at 100% for next season. The Mocs have talent, coaching, desire, and support. What they don’t have is great depth. The depth is growing at the Citadel where the Bulldogs sent 2 of their best in some time to Nationals. Heavyweight Mike McAleavey and 157lb Dazjon Casto advanced from a successful SoCon tournament where eight of 10 Bulldogs posted wins. At the NCAAs it got better for Coach Ryan LeBlancs Bulldogs. While McAleavey took two tough losses to finish a stellar career as a 2021 Conference champ, 2X finalist and 2X NCAA qualifier Casto sparked the scene with perhaps round ones biggest upset. The Bulldog senior, nicknamed “Cheese”, took defending 149lb National champ Austin O’Connor of UNC to overtime and to his back for a huge win. Casto was bumped to the backside in a razor thin defeat to 6th ranked Jared Franek of North Dakota State. “The Cheese” was just warming up, though, as Casto earned back to back victories over a pair of tough ACC wrestlers. Those wins propelled Casto to the Bloodround, where a pair of third period takedowns had the Citadel star come up 1 point short of AA status. Oregon States Hunter Willitts took the 7-6 win but Casto took the White and Blue to heights it hasn’t seen in years. A stellar senior class departs the Citadel this year but the recruits are always ready and plentiful. Quality seniors are also on the way out at Gardner-Webb, but Coach Daniel Elliott will certainly smile in knowing some of his very best return. That includes SoCon 165lb champ R.J. Mosley, who will be aiming at his 2nd conference crown and 3rd NCAA trip next season. Mosley, like all but one of the 10 SoCon champs, faced off with a much higher seeded 1st round foe, falling to Izaak Olejnik of Northern Illinois. Mosley took his talented foe to overtime before losing by a rideout point. His consolation match against Nebraskas Bubba Wilson was eminently winnable. It went the Cornhuskers way, though, 3-1. Mosleys season included a 7th place showing at the Scuffle and an 18-6 record prior to NCAAs. He, along with 184lb Jha’Quan Anderson, will help usher in a mixed crew of vets and young talent for the Runnin’ Dogs in 2023. VMI, Davidson, and Presbyterian concluded their competition at the SoCon tournament while Bellarmines ended with the regular season. Summaries of the year from Head Coaches Jim Gibson of VMI, Andy Lausier of Davidson, and Ned Shuck of Bellarmine will be featured next week.
A whole lot was expected from the ACCs 6-pack of 100 proof squads at this years Championships. 40 spots in Detroit. Loads of All Americans returning. Two National champions back and ready to claim crowns at new weights. Multiple national finalists ready for a final run at glory. As it turns out, (2) things just didn’t quite work out for the Atlantic Coast Conference. A heartbreaking Championship Finals rideout loss after OT by Virginia Techs Mekhi Lewis to Carter Starocci of Penn State. Semifinal defeats handed to both of NC States Hidlay brothers by Starocci and fellow Nittany Lion Aaron Brooks, the latter winning in OT. The WolfPacks #2 seed Tariq Wilson came in battling issues and finished on the podium but definitely off form. 157lb Ed Scott, seeded 4th, lost a quarterfinals match to National finalist Quincy Monday of Princeton. Then Scott was victimized by a roll through pin call in the Bloodround and didn’t place. 4X NCAA qualifier and Super senior Thomas Bullard went 1-2 and out. VT AA Korbin Myers and UNCs defending champ Austin O’Connor both finished lower on the podium than before, with O’Connor severely hobbled. Pittsburghs two returning National finalists, 165lb Jake Wentzel and 197lb Nino Bonaccorsi, failed to place. Virginia and Duke ended the season without any All Americans. So yes, it was not the lofty finish for the ACC so many, including the Scribe, would have bet cashmoney on. Now, if you please, stay for the half full part of the narrative. Need to start with the 8th place finish by Virginia Tech, the Hokiest highest spot at seasons end since 2018. 3 All Americans for a staggering 9th year in a row, folks. The Hokies stand only with Penn State, Cornell, and Iowa in that rarified air. The wrestling world and the sports fan world in general is now acutely aware of Bryce “Air” Andonian. The 149lb Hokies junior flipped foes and predictions to finish 3rd. Andonian pulled off a near impossible feat, defeating two All Americans twice each in a three day span to earn his bronze. HOKIE HOKIE HOKIE HI TECH TECH FLYIN HIGH. Three returning All Americans, (3) ever improving talent at almost every weight class, and ready to start recruits like TJ Stewart have the Hokies looking good indeed going forward. Their titular rival and constant conference co-favorite, 4X ACC champ NC State does lose a lot. 5X AA Hayden Hidlay and 4X AA Tariq “the Freak” Wilson have finished their WolfPack wrestling careers. Que Lastima, you say? No, mi amigo, the Pack will be back stronger than ever. 3X AA Trent Hidlay will anchor the back end, along with 197lb Isaac Trumble. SOMEONE of several highly talented heavyweights will finally break through to lock down the last spot in the WolfPack lineup if Tyrie Houghton, 1-2 at this years NCAAs, hasn’t already done so. The terrific trio of Jakob Camacho, Kai Orine, and Ryan Jack will lead from the lightweights, and there’s no shortage of high quality talent, some old, some new, to fill in from 149-174 along with Scott. Get familiar with the names Donald Cates, Luke Ahrberg, Derek Fields, and Alex Faison to name a few. UNC won where expected and sometimes when they weren’t favored during the season and carried that into the NCAAs. Everybody seems to be on the Austin O’Connor bandwagon for his gutsy, injury hampered charge up the backside of the tournament. The Tar Heels defending champ was damaged goods coming in and his heroic run to 11th seed to 8th place and AA status was inspiring to all. It seemed especially helpful to his Tar Heel teammates as UNC finished with 3 AAs for the first time since the glory days of 3X champ TJ Jaworsky and crew in the mid 90s. Coach Coleman Scott’s crew finished 18th and took top honors in an unusual but telling category: the team that, cumulatively, outperformed what was expected of them by seed. 174lb Clay Lautt, seeded 10th, finished 7th, one of 3 ACC stars on the 8 man podium at the weight. 141lb Kizhan Clarke, seeded 15th, finished his college career in high style with a five round run to the finals. The American University transfer and Law School student set a near impossible bar for himself academically and athletically and then cleared both with aplomb. He will be missing from UNCs 2022-23 lineup but O’Connor can return along with 2021 AA Zach Sherman. Will they? In a post championship interview with GOhiocasts Coach Coleman Scott seemed fairly positive. “You can look at this tournament as being an All American as a senior, as being satisfied, or as I’m not satisfied. I can build on that. I can be better. I can put myself up into the finals. I can be in that top echelon. You know, I think we’re going to have a strong squad next year with some older guys finally.” Scott feels Clarke may be the only wrestler they lose from this team. NCAA qualifiers Joe Heilmann and Gavin Kane can definitely return for another run next season. Young stars like Sonny Santiago, Cade Lautt, Clay’s brother, Jace Palmer and Canadian Champion Lachlan McNeil will spread talent throughout the Tar Heel roster. The Tar Heels and Pitt are neck and neck for 3rd place in the ACC currently, leapfrogging each other year to year while working on closing the gap between themselves, the Hokies and the WolfPack. As to Pitt, the Panthers have finished in every place but last or first the past 4 years at the ACCs and hit Detroit with 2 returning AAs who were National finalists. It did not go well for the Panthers established stars as 2021 runners up 165lb Jake Wentzel and 197lb Nino Bonaccorsi, along with hard luck 133lb Micky Phillippi, fell in the Bloodround, failing to place. Still, the Panthers had some bright spots. 141lb Cole Matthews continued his stellar regular season with an impressive run to 5th place. Matthews is definitely back for next year. However, Bonaccorsi, Wentzel, Phillippi, 157lb Elijah Cleary and 184lb Gregg Harvey are all listed as redshirt seniors. With the Covid-19 free year and other ways to access extra seasons it’s up in the air who of the Panthers All Americans and NCAA qualifiers, if any, return for next season. In his 16th season as Virginia Head Coach Steve Garland saw a seesaw regular season with too many close losses. By five to Virginia Tech and two to Northwestern, no shame as the Hokies and Wildcats both finished Top 10 in the Nation with multiple All Americans. By one to UNC and by six to four time SoCon champion Campbell. A limited and winless home record. You get the picture. The Cavaliers chose to chunk the seasons remembrance album and reset post-season. More than half of Virginia’s team placed at the ACCs. Eight Cavaliers qualified for the NCAAs, the second most in school history. The seeds there were not kind to UVA either as only 157lb Jake Keating was matched against a lower seeded foe, 1st round. At the Championships 133lb Brian Courtney pulled back to back shockers upsetting the 8th and 9th seeds after needing an at-large bid to make the field. Four Cavs joined him in action on day two, the best first day showing for UVA since 2015. On Friday, though, Virginia saw their season end a day short of expectations. 157lb Jake Keating went out first, while Courtney, 197lb Jay Aiello and 165lb Justin McCoy all lost in the Bloodround, matching conference rival Pitts level of “so close but so far” frustration. So what’s next for Virginia? Many times the rigorous academic path at Thomas Jefferson’s school precludes any consideration of extra time on campus, so again it’s uncertain which if any of the Cavaliers stars who went to Detroit return for more action. Their NCAA qualifiers were, virtually all of them, seniors, 5th years, or Grad students. At Duke it just seemed the past, well, for some time that the Blue Devils flag was borne by the Finesilver brothers. Two sets of twins dispersed across the lineup, Duke had all four in action in back to back seasons from 2017-2019 and all had great success. 149lb Mitch Finesilver was a 3X ACC runner-up, ACC champ, and an All American. This year the last two Finesilvers along with 197lb Kaden Russell and Hvt. Jonah Niesenbaum led a return to respect and full roster status for the Blue Devils. Under Coach Glen Lanham Duke has shown flashes of tournament brilliance though their often limited roster precludes consistently fielding a highly competitive dual meet squad. The 7-10 regular season was a triumph of sorts highlighted by a Southern Scuffle title for 149lb Josh Finesilver, a fifth place finish for 174lb Matt Finesilver, and a very good 9th place team showing. The ACCs were a different kettle of fish, though. Stacked with All Americans at virtually every weight, Duke found traction hard to come by come conference time and only the Finesilvers were able to set a date for Detroit. Both Josh and Matt made day two before finishing a great Blue Devils-Finesilver family wrestling run. There may, however, be a post script. An UNIMPEACHABLE source from within the program noted that while Russell and hvt. Ben Frye have finished their Blue Devil careers, one of the Finesilvers stands on the precipice of return pending, among factors, Grad School acceptance. Along with 2 more years of up and coming Hvt. Niesenbaum and a smattering of good light and middleweight talent getting better the Blue Devils are poised to do some damage. Said someone somewhere who knows.
To sum it up, the SoCon and the ACC did well enough to get noticed but not enough to move the needle of National perception much. 11 All Americans between the two conferences, 6 of them repeat winners-good, needs to be better. Every ACC team with at least 2 qualifiers-good, needs to be better. 5 of 8 eligible SoCon teams with NCAA representation-good, needs to be better. They will be.
A Non wrestling note, sad and happy
February 21st, 2022 the World suffered a loss it only barely recognized but will suffer from for decades, if not a century more. That amount of time is the measure of rarity in the births of people the likes of the late Dr. Paul Farmer. Poorly phrased for “the likes of” simply will not be seen again in our or your children’s lifetime. A rail thin bespectacled joy spreading Colossus, Farmer was an “Ologist” if you will. A person whose breadth and depth of knowledge, skill and practical application spread over so many fields it was difficult to catalog them all. His passion was health, his cause was the advancement of medical treatment and knowledge, his workplace was the World. Not OUR world, but the world of the indigent, the starving, the diseased, the repressed, the homeless and the landless. Where day after week after month after year after decade Dr. Paul Farmer labored to renew, rejuvenate and raise up those the World neither sees nor gives care to, at every moment beset by handicaps and dangers financial, political, and natural. His skills saved thousands, if not tens of thousands. His shared knowledge and its application has benefited, and will benefit, literally, millions. When he did not awaken that morning in Rwanda the collective good of life itself felt a tremor of sadness. “Mountains beyond Mountains” by Tracy Kidder puts to words, as well as anyone, the early portions of the who, what, where and when of this man. Nothing written, sung or spoken can encapsulate or explain the why, other than to say it was right.
(1) SHOUT OUT to column favorite Brian Smith and his Missouri Tigers for ANOTHER Top 10 finish. Unashamedly a fan of #TigerStyle, even if the roll in this column is heavily with the non Top 20 teams.
(2) A particularly annoying phrase drummed into all Best Buy “customer service reps” some years back as the ONLY allowable terminology in place of “no.” Tolerated the store, HATED the practice.
(3) The Hokies 125lb Sam Latona, a 2021 All American, shined late in the season but missed AA status this time. If as expected he slides up to 133, VT will have a very talented lineup down low with Latona and Andonian as AA anchors. 2X Finalist and 2019 National champ Lewis will team with uber-talented hvt. Hunter Catka, back from redshirt, for upper end Hokie caused mayhem.