2021 NCAA champion Austin O'Connor (Photo/Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
North Carolina Tar Heels
â€œWe know we are right up there with the best in the ACC and the country and we can prove it with the schedule we have this yearâ€ Associate Head Coach Tony Ramos
UNC has been quietly building a powerhouse in Chapel Hill. Coleman Scott and company have had strong recruiting classes recently and their results nationally have continued to improve every year. Austin O'Connor captured the first national title of the Coleman Scott-era last season with a thrilling win over Sammy Sasso from Ohio State and is back to provide veteran leadership to a scrappy team that is anxious to push Virginia Tech and North Carolina State from atop the ACC. â€œWe have a strong schedule this year, we hit top Big 10 programs with Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin then we have all the battles in the ACC. One I think is really big though is Campbell. They have a good, experienced team and they are always ready to fight. I think that kind of match is really fun for the whole state of North Carolina." The Tar Heels have a strong lineup with eight potential starters ranked in the Intermat Preseason Rankings with the team at #15 in both dual and tournament rankings. They have the talent to make some big noise this year, I'm excited to see what they can do.
The Tar Heels lineup is headlined by National Champion Austin O'Connor who will be making the move up one weight class to 157. O'Connor may have surprised a lot of people knocking off Sammy Sasso last year but he has built a very strong resume since arriving in Chapel Hill. He placed 3rd as a freshman with a 34-6 record and entered the NCAA tournament as a #2 seed with a 25-1 record before it was canceled, last season he was undefeated at 13-0. O'Connor looks to continue his run through a new weight class and will be a force to watch all year.
Zach Sherman was an All-American last year at 141. He was expected to go that weight again with Khizan Clarke transferring in to go 149. Coach Ramos said that as preseason went on Kizhan was weighing out lighter than Sherman and that they worked out the weight change between themselves. Sherman will step into one of the deepest weights in the conference as he looks to earn his way back to the podium in March. 149 will be a weight that can tip a lot of conference duals this year; in addition to Sherman, Tariq Wilson, Bryce Andonian, Josh Finesilver and Jared Verkleeren are all ranked.
Kennedy Monday and Josh McClure are the two starters that have graduated and are no longer in the program.
Kizhan Clarke transferred from American University to join the UNC Law School as a 2L and will step in as the starter at 141. Clarke had a fantastic season in the COVID-shortened 2019-2020 season and was named NWCA Honorable Mention All-American after finishing the year 37-7. Clarke did not wrestle last season as American did not compete until the EIWA Championships.
â€œColeman is breeding a champion mentality in the UNC room and that's what I will need to become an NCAA Champion. UNC School of Law is also a very prestigious program that will set me up for success in the legal communityâ€. Clarke could play a major role in moving the Tar Heels up the ACC ladder.
WRESTLERS TO WATCH
Spencer Moore will be a name that you will hear throughout the season. The true freshman from Kentucky wrestled at the Cadet World Championships-you read that right-this summer in Budapest and will be the starting 125 pounder for the Tar Heels. The 17 year-old finished high school in three years and is ready to make an impact in Chapel Hill. Coach Ramos about Moore, â€œHe never backs down in the room, he always battles no matter who he is wrestling. He is getting better every day and has a lot of potentialâ€.
Keep an eye on the 174 and 184 spots throughout the season as there will be ongoing competition for the starting spots. Clay Lautt was the ACC Champion at 174 in 2020 and was penciled in by most as the starter coming into this season. Gavin Kane who was slotted in at 184, knocked off Lautt in the wrestle-off at the beginning of the season. With those updated results, Kane entered the season ranked #22 at 174 and Lautt ranked #17 at 184. Mark Chaid is also making a push for the starting spot at 184, so this will be an interesting lineup battle to watch this season.
125: Spencer Moore
133: #11 Jaime Hernandez NCAA Qualifier
141: #15 Kizhan Clarke NCAA Qualifier (American)
149: #5 Zach Sherman 2021 All-American, ACC Runner-Up
157: #2 Austin O'Connor 2021 National Champion, 2x All-American (3,1) 2x ACC Champion
165: Sonny Santiago
174: #21 Gavin Kane
184: #20 Clay Lautt 2x NCAA Qualifier ACC Champ, ACC Runner-Up
197: #26 Max Shaw NCAA Qualifier ACC 3rd Place
285: Brandon Whitman 2x NCAA Qualifier ACC Runner-Up (2020)