Duke heavyweight Jonah Niesenbaum (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
Every year there are wrestlers that have â€œbreakoutâ€ seasons. Whether it's wrestlers that are coming off a strong redshirt season, or young wrestlers who have a big jump from experience in the next season, it is always fun to see which athletes separate and improve from year to year In this article series, I am going to highlight a wrestler from every school in each of the seven different conferences that have the potential to breakout. That could mean anything from making a surprising splash at the national tournament, to qualifying for the first time, or even getting some important dual wins for a school. Up next, the six schools that make up the ACC Conference.
Duke - Jonah Niesenbaum, 285lbs (Jr)
Going into his fourth year as a starter, Niesenbaum already took a big jump last year. After a 4-26 record in his first two years, he finished 16-11 in 2021-22. He had close matches with multiple ranked wrestlers and pinned Michael Woulfe of Purdue who was a past qualifier. Niesenbaum will need to take another jump to make his first tournament though, as he went 0-2 at ACC's. However, his 2022 development was a big step in the right direction.
NC State - #30 Joey Milano, 174lbs (Fr)
Milano is coming in as a starter after a very active redshirt year that saw him go 25-6, while winning multiple open tournaments at 184lbs. It sounds like the plan now is for him to drop down to 174lbs, where he will be looking to make an instant impact for the Wolfpack. His best win was over 2021 qualifier Deandre Nassar, and he had a 55% bonus rate. With the graduation of four-time All-American Hayden Hidlay, Milano looks like a candidate to truly break out this season.
North Carolina - #21 Lachlan McNeil, 141lbs (Fr)
McNeil was the #8 P4P recruit in the 2020 class and took a grayshirt year in 2021. In 2022, he had a solid redshirt season that saw him go 6-1, including a win over Ryan Jack of NC State. Over the summer he also made the Canadian freestyle team at 65kg. He placed 2nd at the Commonwealth Games and went 0-1 at the World Championships. With four years of eligibility and a wide-open 141lb weight class, McNeil is someone that could end up competing for a podium spot for many seasons to come.
Pittsburgh - #20 Holden Heller, 165lbs (Jr)
In 2021, Heller was a third-year starter for Hofstra and won EIWA's. He then qualified for his first NCAA tournament at 157lbs where he went 0-2. Heller took a redshirt while still at Hofstra and wrestled at both 165lbs and 174lbs. At 165lbs, he had wins over qualifiers Ashton Eyler, Matthew Olguin, and Danny Braunagel. Now at Pittsburgh, Heller will look to be an instant impact wrestler for the Panthers and is already well on his way up the rankings.
Virginia - Gabe Christenson, 285lbs (So)
A top 50 recruit in 2020, Christenson was originally at Iowa and redshirted but didn't wrestle any matches. He transferred to Virginia for the 2022 season and went 10-6 at 197lbs behind Jay Aiello. Now it looks like the plan is for him to move up to 285lbs and start. Christenson is still looking for a significant win, but he has the resume and potential to be someone to look out for in his first year as a starter.
Virginia Tech - #28 Eddie Ventresca/Cooper Flynn, 125lbs (Fr)
One of the most intriguing lineup battles of this season, Virginia Tech has two standout freshmen coming off great redshirt years. Ventresca was the #65 overall recruit in the Class of 2020 and had a grayshirt year in 2021. Cooper Flynn was the #22 overall recruit in the Class of 2021. Ventresca went 15-6 including two wins over Flynn, who went 15-3. Both were 2-1 decision matches and both wrestlers won different open tournaments. Fans will likely see both make appearances at various duals and tournaments. Ventresca has the edge right now, but this is a lineup battle that could last until later in the season.