2023-24 Pittsburgh Preview
Pitt is coming off of the most successful year they have had since the return of head coach Keith Gavin to his alma mater. The Panthers won a share of the ACC dual title and crowned their first NCAA champion since Gavin, with Nino Bonaccorsi earning the title in his second appearance in the NCAA finals. Five other Panthers qualified for the NCAA tournament with Micky Phillippi and Cole Matthews both falling in the bloodround, while Holden Heller made the round of 16; Reece Heller went 1-2 and Luca Augustine went 0-2 in his first trip to the big show.
The Panthers have intensified their focus on recruiting western PA and have locked in several solid recruiting classes in a row; their current roster skews 60% for Pennsylvania natives. The classes they have put together are stepping into the lineup and will immediately be dangerous. They will enter this season with nine wrestlers ranked in the preseason and a tenth on the cusp of rankings. It was widely known that Pitt had the potential to be a power program both in the conference and nationally with its location in the middle of the wrestling hotbed; they have had great individual results since Gavin took the helm, and now we are starting to see the team success and depth being built in the lineup. The Panthers will be a solid team this year and have the potential up and down the lineup to have several on the podium in Kansas City.
Cole Matthews is looking to return to the podium after a disappointing performance in Tulsa. He added a second ACC title last year and entered the NCAA tournament at 19-1 and in position for a second All-American finish to add to his fifth-place finish in Detroit. He made the quarterfinals in Tulsa before dropping two heartbreakers; 3-1 (TB1) to Beau Bartlett (PSU) in the quarters and 2-1 (TB1) to Dylan D’Emilio (OSU) in the blood round. Matthews has spoken candidly about what he needs to improve and has a great focus coming into this season. Expect to see a more aggressive and offensive Cole Matthews this year.
Holden Heller ran through the ACC dual season undefeated but wasn’t able to keep that momentum going into the postseason. He took third in his first ACC Championships and went 2-2 in Tulsa, picking up impressive wins over Alex Facundo (PSU) and past All-American Peyton Hall (WVU). Heller provides a solid anchor in the middle of the lineup and will be in the fight for an ACC title.
Reece Heller started the season on an absolute tear going 14-2 and picking up a Midlands title before entering ACC competition in arguably the deepest weight in the conference. He went 19-10 on the season, with six of those losses to All-Americans. Heller has shown that he can go with anyone in the country and should be in the All-American conversation.
Nino Bonaccorsi: 2023 NCAA Champion - 2021 NCAA Runner-Up - 5x NCAA Qualifier - 3x ACC Champion - 2x Scholar All-American - 2023 ACC Scholar-Athlete of the Year
Micky Phillippi: 5x NCAA Qualifier - 4x Round of 12 - 2x ACC Champion - 4x ACC Finalist - 3x Scholar All-American
It will be hard to quantify the impact that Micky and Nino made on the Panther program during their time at Pitt. They both bought in fully to the vision that Coach Gavin had and were central to the rebuild of the program to the state that it is in today. The picture of Micky hugging Nino after he won the title encapsulates so much about the culture of the program and the friendships they built through their time as the leaders of this team, both on and off the mat. They set a high bar for current and future Panthers and the program is better from the impact that they left.
Bonaccorsi will stay in Pittsburgh; he was brought on staff as the Student-Athlete Development Coordinator. Phillippi will also step into a similar role as the Operations Coordinator at Brown under former Pitt Associate Head Coach Jordan Leen. They both have a bright future in coaching and I’m excited to watch their journey.
Finn Solomon transferred from NC State and will make an immediate impact at 149 fighting for the starting spot with Tyler Badgett.
Vinny Santaniello originally signed with Navy and attended Navy Prep for a year before transferring to Pitt. He was on an injury redshirt last year but has an incredibly high ceiling. His little brother, Anthony was a highly touted recruit and will be joining Vinny as a Panther.
Mac Stout is another local recruit who has a crazy amount of potential. He had a year of training with Nino as a redshirt and that impact can’t be understated.
WRESTLER TO WATCH
Pitzer announced his presence on the NCAA scene last year at Midlands by knocking off former NCAA finalist Cohlton Schultz and All-American Trent Hilger on his way to an appearance in the Midlands finals. Coach Gavin considered naming Pitzer the starter and he utilized his five dates in duals, picking up critical team points; ultimately Gavin wanted to preserve his full eligibility and Pitzer didn’t wrestle in the postseason. He will immediately be an ACC title and All-American contender.
Briar Priest 8-4
Finn Solomon 16-3 (NC State)
Jared Keslar 11-4
Mac Stout 8-4
Dayton Pitzer 7-3 2-1 ACC Duals
TOP OUT-OF-CONFERENCE DUAL
I am incredibly impressed by the schedule the Panthers have put together this season; it is shaping up to be one of the tougher schedules in the country. Their non-conference slate includes #18 Illinois, #12 Oklahoma State, and #11 Arizona State at home and trips to #22 Maryland, #24 Lehigh, #7 Ohio State and #10 Iowa State. They will also be competing in the National Collegiate Duals over winter break and will face #10 Iowa State, #2 Cornell and Little Rock. It is hard to pick one out-of-conference dual to highlight but I am very excited to see a rematch of the dual with Iowa State that last year went down to criteria. Selfishly, I wish they weren’t pooled with ISU at the Collegiate Duals and had the chance to face another top-10 team, but getting two chances to see that lineup will be great for the Panther squad. This team will be battle-tested going into ACC competition.
#17 Tournament #15 Dual
125: #32 Colton Camacho:18-9; 3-2 ACC duals
133: #33 Vinny Santaniello: Did not compete in his redshirt year
141: #8 Cole Matthews: 21-3 5-0 ACC Duals - 2x ACC Champ - 4x NCAA Qualifier
All-American (5th in 2022) - R12 2023
149: Finn Solomon: 16-3 (RS at NC State)
Tyler Badgett: 16-12 2-3 ACC duals
157: #28 Jared Keslar: 11-4 (RS)
Brock McMillen: 3-6 (149)
165: #13 Holden Heller: 16-8 5-0 ACC Duals - 2x NCAA Qualifier (R16 2023)
174: #24 Luca Augustine: 15-11 3-2 ACC Duals - NCAA Qualifier
184: #12 Reece Heller: 19-10 2-3 ACC Duals - NCAA Qualifier
197: #18 Mac Stout: 8-4 (RS)
285: #9 Dayton Pitzer: 7-3 2-1 ACC Duals (RS) - Midlands Runner-Up
What Would EIWA Conference Realignment Look Like?
With the large NCAA conferences being in the news cycle as of late, it feels right to discuss the potential of a realignment with the EIWA. Conference realignment “is so hot right now” in the words of Zoolander - so it has me asking, what would it look like? When would it occur? What other questions do we need answers to? The EIWA is the only wrestling-specific DI conference in the nation. This is part of what makes it unique. In a pessimist opinion, this also makes it susceptible to fading away forever. I say this because every school in the EIWA has a parent conference the school is part of where other sports are played. A perfect example of this is the Ivy League schools. There is no Ivy League wrestling conference tournament, so they are included with the EIWA schools at the end of the year.
This makes the perfect transition to how this article came to fruition. By the looks of it, the Ivy League teams will eventually withdraw from the EIWA to start hosting their own conference championships. I use the term “eventually” because it’s been discussed over the past few seasons with no real timeframe. It does appear to be picking up steam lately and will become a reality. Let’s assume the Ivy League schools leave. The conference would become an 11-team conference once Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Penn, and Princeton withdraw.
Of the remaining teams, there is a hodge-podge of parent conferences represented. Actually, six to be exact. This is not a normal conference. It’s not uncommon for a wrestling conference to absorb a team from another sports conference because the school’s main conference does not have wrestling. A prime example of this is Missouri. Every sport in the athletic department competes with the SEC. We know the SEC does not have a wrestling conference, so the Missouri wrestling squad is a Big 12 Conference affiliate. There are a few examples of this elsewhere.
The Patriot League is home to American, Army, Navy, Lehigh, and Bucknell. The American East conference is home for Binghamton. The CAA is the sports conference for Drexel and Hofstra. Long Island and Sacred Heart each call the Northeast Conference home in their athletic department. The lone division 3 school, Franklin & Marshall, belongs to the Centennial Conference. One can see why the EIWA is such a unique conference. It’s the perfect conference for all of these teams without a place to call “home” in the wrestling landscape. The geography and academic standards are all similarly associated to each other.
The EIWA has had a respectable number of NCAA qualifiers over the past few seasons. Note that the Ivy League did not compete during the 2021 season, so let’s ignore that data and look at the postseason since then. The EIWA allocated 45 automatic qualifiers in 2023 and 41 in 2022. According to the data, the Ivy League accounted for 22 of these allocated spots each season. Half of the automatic bids from the conference were from Ivy League schools. To break that down even further, Penn led the way with 14 over that span, while Cornell had 13. Again, this only looks at wrestlers who earned a qualifying spot for NCAAs before the conference tournament. These numbers dictate how many wrestlers advance to the championships at each weight class. Once we include the total number of actual participants, the numbers alter slightly, but the trend remains. In both 2022 and 2023, the conference gained 10 wild card spots each year. This brought the total number of NCAA participants from the EIWA to 51 in 2022 and 55 in 2023.
It's evident how the six Ivy League schools are exceeding the expected average number of qualifiers per team. They make up approximately one-third of the conference (6 of 17 teams) and produce half of the automatic allocations. The emergence of the Ivy League wrestling schools has been discussed before, but these numbers show it to be true. Let’s not forget about the three NCAA Champions in 2023 representing the EIWA were all from Ivy League schools. To even further prove this point, the EIWA had seven All-Americans in 2023. Six of them were Ivy League guys. The lone non-Ivy All-American was Josh Humphreys of Lehigh, who is out of eligibility. This highlights the depth of the EIWA, as a whole conference, but proves the Ivies are much more top-heavy. This is in large part due to Cornell’s dominance in both the EIWA and NCAA alike.
What would two separate conference tournaments look like? Going off past results, Cornell would probably still be the top dawg in the Ivies with the remainder chasing them down. Coach Leen taking over at Brown will increase the competition. Plus, a new head coach (Dubuque) at Princeton will expectedly continue to close this gap. The Ivy League wrestling teams are all on the right path to creating a very viable conference, albeit very small in size.
Another hypothetical idea to consider is the addition of other conference teams. Once the Ivy League has an established conference tournament, what is stopping both Yale and Dartmouth from getting on board with varsity wrestling teams? An eight-team conference is a great number for wrestling, when looking at bracketing. It’s a perfect scenario to seed all 8 wrestlers and complete the tournament in a single day, if desired. I’m not sure what the consensus for a single-day conference tournament is, but I prefer two days. It just feels right to me. Also, let’s not hold our breath on Yale and Dartmouth adding wrestling to their athletic lineup.
How about the EIWA? It’s hard to see anyone overcoming a Lehigh squad with the Ivy schools gone. Lehigh is already a perennial threat to be in the top-three currently. You would see a plethora of teams looking to challenge them at the top. Similar to the previous paragraph, let’s explore the idea of expansion. What teams could join the EIWA – since 11 members seems like a bizarre number. We know Morgan State recently applied to join the conference. That’s an obvious option, if accepted. We mentioned Drexel and Hofstra belonging to the CAA. Campbell is also a CAA program in other sports. Would they be willing to jump ship from the SoCon? This would really expand the conference geographically, making them the furthest team south. Their North Carolina location may not be ideal for the teams closer to the northeast like Sacred Heart, Hofstra, LIU, and more. George Mason used to be in the CAA, over a decade ago. They would be another option to join, as they would need to leave the MAC. For the record, I am not for teams leaving other conferences to join the EIWA – it is simply a hypothetical scenario. Both teams mentioned have seen steady improvement and we would hate to see any switching of conferences disrupt that growth.
The Ivy League separation will add a large wrinkle to allocations across the board. The EIWA having such a large conference equates to more upsets at the conference tournament. With an increased number of overall matches, and larger brackets, we are more likely to see upsets occur. With two smaller conferences, the allocations are basically split in half. The conference tournament would make it much more difficult to qualify for NCAAs, as each weight would most likely only allocate the top two place-finishers. A few weights would get a 3rd place finisher through, if lucky.
No one asked for my opinion, but I’ll conclude with it. The history of the conference is full of tradition. A handful of these schools have competed in over 100 seasons. We’ve seen many teams come and go from the EIWA. Many have gone into large conferences like the Big Ten and ACC. We’ve seen programs get cut without notice. At 17 teams, it is currently the largest and oldest conference in the country. I understand the desire for the Ivy programs to have their own conference. The potential for upsets, as mentioned before, is so intriguing with large brackets. Splitting the conference will eliminate much of this potential. Not to mention some of the rivalries that came from this conference may end up going by the wayside. Cornell and Lehigh seem to have a nice rivalry going to see who the king of the EIWA is. Many of the fans would love to see this rivalry continue. Drexel and Penn had a friendly rivalry, which has steadily dissipated as they both encourage bettering one another via the Pennsylvania Regional Training Center. But, there is always room for more rivalries once conferences are realigned. It is part of college athletics, and one of those aspects we will need to deal with – whether we like it or not. Whatever the outcome is, whenever the decision is made, the most important thing is for the student-athletes having the opportunity to better themselves for the future. Any current EIWA or Ivy League institution will already provide that. Nothing will change on that front, and that’s a great thing!
EIWA Podcast (September 2023): Featuring John Clark
Perhaps the "Most Interesting Man in Wrestling" John Clark, head coach of Sacred Heart University, sits down to talk with EIWA correspondent Austin Sommer. Coach Clark explains his well-rounded athletic background that includes a past playing soccer and hockey in addition to his wrestling prowess. Coach Clark is also in the process of getting his doctorate and teaches a class at Sacred Heart. The two also discuss SHU's strong schedule, large roster, and much more.