2021 NCAA champion Austin O'Connor (photos courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
2022 ACC Championships Preview
39 total allocations/33 total allocations in 2021
If you've talked to me about wrestling long enough, you've probably heard me say how my favorite conference tournament is the ACC. While I'd prefer the entire conference supported wrestling, having a small, six-team tournament can be pretty wild. One upset can swing the whole balance of the team score and there's a ton of movement among the leaders from round to round. It also helps that the ACC is full of schools that have made investments into their programs within the last decade and are reaping the rewards on the mat. Half of the league is currently in the top-15 and four teams are in the top-25.
While we've come to expect the unexpected at this tournament, there's a good chance that the team race comes down to NC State and Virginia Tech. As evidenced by their dual(s) this year, the fanbases and teams are very fond of each other. That makes for great theater as wrestlers from these schools are competing with a conference title on the line and locked in a tight team race.
If you focus too much on NC State/Virginia Tech, you'll miss out on the rest of the conference as North Carolina and Pittsburgh are in the national rankings and combined to send three wrestlers to the NCAA finals last season. Virginia has a very balanced team that can make noise. Duke has some gaps, but is well-coached and has produced some excellent wrestlers.
Below is our weight-by-weight preview of the action, along with predictions for top-four finishers at all ten weights, and a team race projection. Wrestlers bolded are ones that we have pegged to receive the automatic qualifying bids available in their respective weight class.
When: March 6th, 2022
Where: Charlottesville, Virginia
How to Watch: ACC Network Extra Mat 1 Mat 2
Both 2021 ACC finalists are back and ready to write another chapter in their growing rivalry. As of now, it's technically not a rivalry since the results have favored Virginia Tech's returning All-American #18 Sam Latona. That isn't to say that his matchups with #19 Jakob Camacho (NC State) haven't been fun. Late year's dual meet ended up being one of the best matches of the year and elevated announcer Rock Harrison to cult hero status. In this year's dual, the two got heated and spilled off the mat in the closing seconds of the match. With the depth of the 125 lb weight class, a win by either could lead to an NCAA seed around ten, while a loss probably keeps them around 20.
The inside track to the third allocation belongs to #30 Gage Curry (Pittsburgh), a graduate-transfer from American, who qualified for NCAA's four times, while in an Eagle singlet. In tournament action, Curry finished seventh at the MatMen Open in December. He was undefeated against ACC wrestlers, not-named Latona or Camacho.
The other returning national qualifier at this weight is Patrick McCormick (Virginia). McCormick was third in the conference last year and currently sports an 11-10 record. Right on his and Curry's heels is true freshman Spencer Moore (North Carolina). While his ACC record is unsightly, at 1-4, Moore lost in sudden victory to both Curry and McCormick. Could he be a freshman that starts to figure things out and turns those close losses into wins. Coming in at the sixth seed is Duke's Logan Agin, who is 10-10, but 0-3 in the ACC, with bonus points in all three losses.
1st) Sam Latona (Virginia Tech)
2nd) Jakob Camacho (NC State)
3rd) Spencer Moore (North Carolina)
4th) Gage Curry (Pittsburgh)
What a weight class for the ACC with five wrestlers ranked in the top-21 and all earned allocations for the conference. Returning All-American #5 Korbin Myers ran the table and finished unbeaten in ACC duals for a second straight season. He's only lost to fellow All-American #4 Michael McGee (Arizona State) this year and is riding an eight-match winning streak. Myers' 2021 ACC finals opponent Micky Phillippi (Pittsburgh) is back. Phillipi has a pair of ACC titles to his credit already; however, he is looking to figure out Myers. The Hokie has won both of their meetings, though the margin of their 2021-22 dual was 2-1. Because of a loss to #20 Joe Heilmann (North Carolina), Phillippi will start as the three seed.
After the returning finalists is a three-man round-robin of quality competitors who have all beaten each other this year. Heilmann is the second seed and #21 Kai Orine (NC State) is the fourth seed, ahead of #19 Brian Courtney (Virginia). Courtney and Orine hit in round one, with the winner taking on Myers. Orine took the dual meeting, 10-5. Heilmann also has a win over Orine, but fell to Courtney in sudden victory.
Duke's representative is Drake Doolittle, who is 4-19 on the year with bonus-point losses in three of his four ACC contests. He'll assume the sixth slot.
1st) Korbin Myers (Virginia Tech)
2nd) Micky Phillippi (Pittsburgh)
3rd) Joe Heilmann (North Carolina)
4th) Kai Orine (NC State)
5th) Brian Courtney (Virginia)
One of the biggest breakout seasons in the country happened in the ACC as #5 Cole Matthews (Pittsburgh) rapidly shot up the rankings. An ACC third-place finisher in 2021, Matthews has been on a tear after suffering a loss to #14 CJ Composto (Penn) at the MatMen Open. Matthews rebounded to finish third and 11 straight wins. Fans started to take notice in early-January as Matthews handed Micic a loss in a one-sided, 11-5 affair. Maybe the most crucial match of this streak was when he edged #6 Kizhan Clarke (North Carolina) 3-2 and handed the Tar Heel his first (and only) loss of the year. Clarke was a graduate transfer from American University that was an EIWA fourth-place finisher and the #15 seed at the 2020 National Tournament. His best win thus far is a decision in sudden victory over three-time NCAA All-American #10 Chad Red Jr. (Nebraska).
#21 Ryan Jack (NC State) and #23 Collin Gerardi (Virginia Tech) are the other two at this weight that earned allocations for the conference. Jack hung tight with both Matthews and Clarke. His bout with Gerardi, in their schools much-anticipated dual, was considered a toss-up, but Jack generally controlled the entire contest and won 4-3. Gerardi's best win over the year was a 3-2 decision over #24 Cael Happel (Northern Iowa) in Virginia Tech's demolition of UNI.
Virginia's Dylan Cedeno is the fifth seed and could be capable of breaking into the top four. He only saw action in eight bouts this year; however, Cedeno was able to hang tough against some good competition. The sixth seed belongs to Patrick Rowland (Duke), who is 5-19 and has lost by major decision in all of his ACC bouts.
1st) Cole Matthews (Pittsburgh)
2nd) Kizhan Clarke (North Carolina)
3rd) Ryan Jack (NC State)
4th) Collin Gerardi (Virginia Tech)
One of the most anticipated ACC matches of the year came in the NC State/Virginia Tech dual meet at 149 lbs when #3 Tariq Wilson (NC State) remained perfect against #8 Bryce Andonian (Virginia Tech). Wilson never let Andonian get into favorable positions and generally cruised to a 9-3 win. The two-time NCAA third-place finisher is now 13-0 on the year and 27-1 over the past two seasons. The last time that Wilson lost to an ACC opponent? It was in the 2020 conference finals to #18 Zach Sherman (North Carolina). Well, those two could meet again in the semifinals, provided Sherman gets by a tough #31 Jarod Verkleeren (Virginia) in the semifinals. Sherman has wrestled an incredibly difficult schedule (7 of 8 losses came to top-ten opponents) this year, which is partly responsible for his 5-8 record. He'll need to place in the top-four or he'd be ineligible for an at-large berth due to his match total. Verkleeren is a graduate transfer from Penn State who is looking to snap a four-match losing streak. Prior to that skid, he had won 10 of his last 11.
Andonian will be on the bottom half of the bracket as the two seed, alongside #14 Josh Finesilver (Duke), the three seed and sixth-seeded Dan Mancini (Pittsburgh). The last time Finesilver and Andonian met, the Hokie dispatched Finesilver in only :21 seconds. Finesilver has had plenty of success at bracketed tournaments this year with a runner-up finish at the Keystone Classic, along with titles at the Battle at The Citadel and the Southern Scuffle. Though Mancini struggled in ACC competition, he did finish the regular season with a winning record, at 13-12.
1st) Tariq Wilson (NC State)
2nd) Bryce Andonian (Virginia Tech)
3rd) Zach Sherman (North Carolina)
4th) Josh Finesilver (Duke)
Sometimes we'll get upset about missing out on a marquee matchup during the dual season. That was the case when a bout between #4 Austin O'Connor (North Carolina) and #7 Ed Scott (NC State) didn't materialize. But now, the upside is anticipation has built towards this meeting and there's general uncertainty as to how this match would play out. O'Connor is stout defensively and is great with reshots and go-behinds. Scott will throw the kitchen sink at you. Something's got to give!
The 2021 NCAA champion at 149 lbs, O'Connor, has had a successful move up to 157. He lost to #11 Peyton Robb (Nebraska) in mid-November, but has only won since. Scott had a breakout performance at the Collegiate Duals, defeating #21 Jarrett Jacques (Missouri) and pinning #9 Kaleb Young (Iowa), before downing #8 Quincy Monday (Princeton) a few weeks later. These two did meet last season at 149 lbs and O'Connor prevailed by major decision; however, Scott was a true freshman and has drastically improved. There's no doubt this will be much closer.
Before an O'Connor/Scott matchup, the NC State star will have to get by second-seeded Jake Keating (Virginia). Keating handed Scott his first official loss of the year in an 11-10 shootout. He was an ACC finalist last year at 165 lbs.
You also can't just pencil O'Connor in to the finals. He'll likely have to deal with #18 Elijah Cleary (Pittsburgh) in the semis. The Ohio State transfer has really shined for the Panthers this year. He captured a title at the MatMen Open and pushed O'Connor to the brink in a 2-1 loss.
The rest of the bracket featured Wade Ungar (Duke) in the fifth slot and Connor Brady (Virginia Tech) as the sixth seed. Ungar's 11-15 record is a little deceiving as he was in a bunch of close matches and eventually broke through with his win over Brady. The Hokie is looking to snap out of a funk that's seen him go "0-for" in conference duals.
1st) Austin O'Connor (North Carolina)
2nd) Ed Scott (NC State)
3rd) Jake Keating (Virginia)
4th) Elijah Cleary (Pittsburgh)
5th) Connor Brady (Virginia Tech)
You may not realize it, but Pittsburgh's #14 Jake Wentzel (Pittsburgh) is quietly headed towards his third ACC Championship. But as we've seen, time and time again, nothing is given. Wentzel's well aware of this as he was an NCAA finalist last season, but has been challenged early and often and has a 14-5 record. While most of his losses have come against high-caliber opposition, that number seems high for a returning finalist. Another number Wentzel has is a zero in the loss column against ACC competition.
The closest Wentzel came to losing in conference action was to #20 Thomas Bullard (NC State), who took the Panther star into sudden victory, before falling. Bullard being a thorn in Wentzel's side has been a reoccurring theme, as he was the only opponent to defeat the Panther prior to the NCAA finals. Bullard's defensive style is enough to give most opponents fits.
Before another Wentzel/Bullard rematch, the NC State 165 lber will have to get by Virginia's #22 Justin McCoy. Earlier this season, McCoy lost to Bullard 4-1. It remains the only loss on the docket for McCoy this year. Could he avenge it and get his first shot at Wentzel?
With only three automatic bids available Clayton Ulrey (Virginia Tech), Sonny Santiago (North Carolina), and Gabe Dinette (Duke), will look to crash the party. Dinette was winless against the ACC field, while Santiago's only victory was against Dinette. Now Santiago missed all of February as Isaias Estrada got the nod for the Tar Heels. Ulrey beat Dinette and Estrada, plus he has some quality wins outside of the conference.
1st) Jake Wentzel (Pittsburgh)
2nd) Justin McCoy (Virginia)
3rd) Thomas Bullard (NC State)
4th) Clayton Ulrey (Virginia Tech)
This is the weight class they're all talking about. Normally, it would be because there are a pair of past NCAA runner's-up in the bracket, along with two other high-caliber wrestlers, ranked in the top-16 nationally. But what everyone's discussing is precisely where "in the bracket," the top-three wrestlers fall. On Tuesday, the brackets revealed #9 Clay Lautt (North Carolina) as the one seed, #5 Hayden Hidlay (NC State) as the two seed and #6 Mekhi Lewis (Virginia Tech) the three seed. That means Hidlay and Lewis will clash in the semifinals, rather than the finals. The three have exchanged wins over each other, so any combination of the seeds were bound to upset a fanbase or two. Lautt's fall over Hidlay helps him get the one seed. The rationale is understandable, especially when you are focused on ACC results, but the optics are strange and most fans probably expected and anticipated a Hidlay/Lewis final.
With all the talk about the bracket and one-three seeds, #16 Matt Finesilver (Duke) has been overlooked, a bit. The two-time national qualifier started the season with 17 consecutive victories, before an off performance at the Southern Scuffle. That "off" tournament still netted him a fifth-place finish. Finesilver currently has a 2-3 ACC record, which is understandable given the loaded weight class. He needs to be accounted for before looking ahead to a Lautt vs Hidlay/Lewis final.
Justin Phillips (Virginia) and Hunter Kernan (Pittsburgh) round out the weight class. Neither picked up a win against conference competition; however, Kernan majored Phillips' teammate Victor Marcelli in an "Extra Countable Match."
1st) Hayden Hidlay (NC State)
2nd) Clay Lautt (North Carolina)
3rd) Mekhi Lewis (Virginia Tech)
4th) Matt Finesilver (Duke)
Here's another weight where five of the six competitors will punch their tickets to Detroit on Sunday. #3 Trent Hidlay (NC State) comes in with a perfect 15-0 record and is the returning champion. Hidlay amassed bonus points in all but two bouts this year. The most recent was a 2-1 win over long-time rival #14 Hunter Bolen (Virginia Tech). The pair have met five times collegiately, including once in last year's ACC final. Bolen won the first three in their series, but Hidlay has reversed course and taken the two most recent meetings. The deciding factor in this year's dual was a point for the Wolfpack All-American for an illegal cutback on Bolen.
Before we see round six of Hidlay/Bolen, the Hokie star will have to get through a promising freshman for the Tar Heels, #11 Gavin Kane. Kane stunned Bolen with a 3-1 win in sudden victory during their dual. He also racked up a boatload of points in major decisions over #25 Michael Battista (Virginia) and Gregg Harvey (Pittsburgh).
Battista is someone who's shown flashes in the past, but seemingly put it all together this year for Virginia. He got his hand raised in 12 of his first 13 matches and finished the regular season with a 14-4 mark. One of his wins was of the 9-5 variety over the 2021 national qualifier, Harvey. Harvey is kind of a "hard-luck" 8-8. Actually, 8-7 since one loss came against Mark Hall at the MatMen Open. Six of those seven losses came against top-24 opponents.
The final piece of this weight class is Duke's Vincent Baker. Baker comes in with a 10-17 record and is looking to snap a seven-match losing streak.
1st) Trent Hidlay (NC State)
2nd) Hunter Bolen (Virginia Tech)
3rd) Gavin Kane (North Carolina)
4th) Michael Battista (Virginia)
5th) Gregg Harvey (Pittsburgh)
This looks like an opportunity for the ACC to potentially pick up an at-large berth or two as there are five conference wrestlers currently in the national rankings and only three allocations in play. The top seed is #15 Isaac Trumble (NC State), who is unbeaten against ACC foes and comes in with a seven-match winning streak. Trumble's smothering top game has manifested itself in shutouts in each of his last three outings. One of those came against #9 Nino Bonaccorsi (Pittsburgh), the returning NCAA finalist at this weight. Bonaccorsi is more dangerous on his feet, so these matches with Trumble are always an interesting style-contrast. Even last year, when Trumble didn't get the postseason nod for NC State, he still defeated Bonaccorsi, 6-1. That proved to be Bonaccorsi's only loss prior to the NCAA finals.
In order for Bonaccorsi to get another shot at Trumble, he'll need to get by #16 Jay Aiello (Virginia). The 2020 ACC champion, Aiello, has yet to slow down Bonaccorsi's offense. In all four of the Panther's wins over Aiello, Bonaccorsi has put up at least seven points. Aiello's had a solid year highlighted by a 6-1 win over All-American and 2021 NCAA semifinalist Jake Woodley (Oklahoma).
#27 Max Shaw (North Carolina) and #31 Dakota Howard (Virginia Tech) are the two ranked wrestlers in the conference that weren't able to acquire conference allocations. Both finished third in the ACC last year and earned a trip to St. Louis. Howard was at 174 lbs, while Shaw was here. The two did not tangle in the regular season as Mark Chaid got the call for North Carolina in the dual.
Since we can't assume that the ACC will get two bids here, the first-round matchup between Shaw/Howard is huge for a possible at-large. The loser would meet the loser of Bonaccorsi/Aiello and likely go 0-2, without placing.
The sixth seed is Kaden Russell (Duke), who comes into the tournament with a .500 record. While he had some ugly conference losses, Russell managed to keep Trumble to a 2-1 decision. He's definitely someone who could shake the bracket up.
1st) Nino Bonaccorsi (Pittsburgh)
2nd) Isaac Trumble (NC State)
3rd) Jay Aiello (Virginia)
4th) Dakota Howard (Virginia Tech)
The final weight class is led by #14 Nathan Traxler (Virginia Tech), who came to the Hokies as a grad transfer from Stanford. Traxler has been as good as advertised with a 17-2 record and seven pins thus far. Traxler gets the top seed, but he does so without a flawless conference mark. One the last weekend of the regular season, #31 Quinn Miller (Virginia) knocked off Traxler 4-3. Two days later, he rebounded against NC State's Owen Trephan. It looks like Tyrie Houghton gets the call for NC State in a weight with two other highly capable competitors.
Houghton won all three of his ACC duals and sports a 21-8 record. The rest of the field at 285lbs features four wrestlers that scored wins over each other with Miller, Jake Slinger (Pittsburgh), Jonah Niesenbaum (Duke), and Brandon Whitman (North Carolina) have traded wins with each other and are all capable of coming away with a third-place finish on Sunday night.
1st) Nathan Traxler (Virginia Tech)
2nd) Tyrie Houghton (NC State)
3rd) Quinn Miller (Virginia)
4th) Jake Slinger (Pittsburgh)
1st) NC State
2nd) Virginia Tech
3rd) North Carolina