Pittsburgh 197 lber Nino Bonaccorsi (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
The Panthers continue to grow and find success under the guidance of Coach Keith Gavin bringing home another top 25 finish at the NCAA tournament last season. Cole Matthews is the top returning placer, earning his first All-American accolades with a 5th place finish at 141 lbs. The Panthers had a heartbreaking Friday night at the NCAA tournament with three wrestlers falling in the bloodround. Micky Phillippi suffered his third loss in the Round of 12 while Jake Wentzel and Nino Bonaccorsi fell after appearances in the NCAA Finals the previous season; the bloodround is cruel.
While there will be a strong core returning, there will be a lot of changes in Pittsburgh this season. Associate Head Coach Jordan Leen is no longer with the Panthers, as he accepted the head coaching position at Brown; this caused a shift in the staff with Luke Pletcher moving to assistant coach from the Volunteer position and recent grad Jake Wentzel has come on staff as the volunteer assistant. The Panthers graduated starters Gage Curry (125), Elijah Cleary (157), Jake Wentzel (165) and Gregg Harvey (184) but will still have a veteran-heavy lineup.
Coach Gavin has used the transfer portal very well to add experience to the lineup. Last season, he added starters Gage Curry and Elijah Cleary, who provided stability and a veteran presence. This season he has gone back to the well to add four transfers to an already strong recruiting class. Dazjon Castro and Holden Heller are both previous NCAA qualifiers, with Casto making the bloodround last season; the Panthers also add a second Heller brother in Reece, who was previously a starter at Hofstra. The final â€œtransferâ€ is coming in with his full slate of eligibility. Vincent Santaniello is joining the Panthers from Naval Academy Prep School, where he spent a year after a stellar high school career in New Jersey. He was a New Jersey state champion and a four-time placewinner, ending his career with a 133-10 record. Santaniello signed to Navy as a highly ranked recruit, but after a year at Navy Prep, he didn't feel it was the appropriate fit for him. He stated that Coach Kolat highly recommended Pitt and Coach Gavin, and Santaniello felt the school was a great fit after his visit. He competed at 133 last season, but he could potentially see time at either 125 or 133.
Pitt brings in a solid class that is anchored by talent from Western PA. Gavin has done a phenomenal job keeping talent home and building the future of the program around local recruits. Their class comes in at #15-Intermat and #14-MatScouts and is comprised of six top-250 recruits, with three in the top 100.
#34 Mac Stout (197) Mt. Lebanon, PA
#41 Dayton Pitzer (285) Mt. Pleasant, PA
#94 Jared Keslar (157) Connellsville, PA
#137 Codie Cuerbo (125) Aurora, OH
#150 Briar Priest (141/149) Hempfield, PA
#231 Kelin Laffey (149/157) Pine Richland, PA
NR Jack Pletcher (157) Greater Latrobe, PA
NR Carson Miller (141/149) Palmetto Ridge, FL
Transfers: Dazjon Casto (157) The Citadel; Holden Heller (165) Hofstra; Reece Heller (184) Hofstra; Vincent Santaniello (125/133) Navy Prep
Here is what I see the Panthers rolling out for their lineup next year:
125: Colton Camacho
Camacho was the starter in 2021 and was in competition for the starting spot last year with transfer Gage Curry. Camacho was 11-5 last season; he got the starting nod in a couple duals and performed very well in open competition. Camacho showed a lot of growth last season and is poised to have a solid year.
133: Micky Phillippi
Yes, Micky is back. Phillippi has been one of the most consistent wrestlers in the country for the past five years and has come up just short of All-American status, falling in the bloodround in all three of the NCAA Championships in which he has wrestled. Phillippi has had quite the journey in his college experience; he started at UVA and transferred to Pitt when Coach Gavin was hired. He received a medical redshirt in his first season at Pitt, in addition to his redshirt year at UVA; add in the COVID eligibility year and you have Phillippi manning the 133 spot in his seventh season. I firmly believe that Phillippi gets over the hump this season and ends his career on the podium. Phillippi is also playing a huge role as a leader and a mentor for the incredible recruiting classes that have come to Pitt in the past few years.
141: Cole Matthews
Matthews enters this season with a lot of hype after a breakout season last year that saw him placing fifth at the NCAA Championships. So long as Matthews doesn't overdo it on his partnership with Primanti Bros, he'll enter the season as the top-ranked wrestler at 141. Matthews gritted through a torn ACL in the 2021 season and qualified (and won a match) at the NCAA tournament. After surgery and rehab, he came out with a vengeance last season and put the country on notice. He is one of my favorite ACC wrestlers to watch--he is tenacious and looks to score in all situations. Matthews was 21-4 last season with three of those losses coming to other All-Americans; he lost to Kizhan Clarke in SV3 in the NCAA semifinals after giving Clarke his first loss of the season in their dual match.
149: Brock McMillen
We will get the first glimpse of McMillen in the Panther lineup after posting a 6-1 record in his redshirt year. McMillen was a big recruit for the Panthers and was a three-time state champ and a four-time finalist. McMillen is fun to watch, he has great mat awareness and a lot of maturity for a young wrestler. Along with Luca Augustine, they will play a key role in the future of the Pitt program.
157: Dazjon Casto
Casto joins the Panthers as a grad transfer from The Citadel after serving as an ACC slayer at the NCAA tournament last year with wins over Austin O'Connor, Connor Brady and Jake Keating before falling in the bloodround. Casto comes to Pitt with a career record of 82-44; he had a solid year last year, finishing at 23-8, winning the SOCON Championship and putting on an impressive performance in Detroit. The Panthers had success with a transfer at 157 last season in Elijah Cleary, and I think they will have another successful run with Casto.
165: Holden Heller
Another transfer for the Panthers that can make an immediate impact--Heller comes to Pitt from Hofstra with his brother Reece, who will be in contention for the starting spot at 184. Holden was a three-year starter for Hofstra; he took a redshirt year last season and had a solid year, with some close matches against Peyton Hall and Izzak Olejnik. Holden was the EIWA Champion in 2021 and was a national qualifier.
174: Luca Augustine
I'm very much looking forward to the debut of Augustine in the Pitt lineup. He had a strong redshirt year, finishing at 12-5 on the season. Augustine has received high praise from the coaching staff and they have high expectations for the freshman. Luca has a very high ceiling and will be a fun prospect to keep an eye on for the Panthers.
184: Reece Heller
Heller joins from Hofstra where he went 12-5 as a redshirt last season. He has moved up weight classes every season and looks to do it again this season to fill the 184 spot after the graduation of Gregg Harvey. Heller was the starter for Hofstra his freshman season at 149.
197: Nino Bonaccorsi
Nino has been a leader for the Panthers for the past four years and enters his final year as an NCAA finalist and two-time ACC Champion. Bonaccorsi fell in the bloodround last year in a wild 197 bracket. He enters this season as a persistent All-American threat that has shown he can beat anyone; I feel like often Nino doesn't get as much respect as he should for the impressive career that he has had. He may not be the flashiest wrestler, but he is incredibly dangerous and has an incredible ability to win close matches.
285: Jake Slinger
Slinger had an up-and-down season last year and is looking to provide more consistency for the Panthers at the top of the lineup. He has shown the ability to win some clutch matches and can end matches quickly on top, picking up four pins last year, two that played a big role in team dual wins. I expect Slinger to finish much stronger in the ACC than he did last year.