North Carolina 125 lber Spencer Moore (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
The opening week of ACC duals kicked off last weekend. It was supposed to start with a top-10 battle between #5 NC State and #7 Virginia Tech--the dual that has determined the ACC dual champion for the past 7 years--but we received news Thursday evening that the dual was being canceled.
There was a lot of back and forth between fan bases that included a lot of blame and not a full understanding of the situation. Here is what we know and what impact it has on the ACC. Virginia Tech, like many schools, has been dealing with wrestlers being out due to Covid testing and contact tracing. Going into the dual, they knew they would not have a full lineup; before leaving on Thursday, they had at least four more wrestlers-including starters removed due to Covid protocols. Though they were not at the threshold determined by the ACC for it to be considered a Covid-related cancellation, Virginia Tech requested that the dual be rescheduled for a date later in the season--both teams only have Friday night ACC duals remaining this season. NC State declined to reschedule and was supported by the ACC. They stated that because the number of student-athletes out due to Covid-related protocols did not meet the threshold established by the conference medical board, the match could go as scheduled using non-starters. After this decision, Virginia Tech opted to forfeit the dual. Those are the facts as I understand them after speaking with members of both staffs.
I see this as a no-win situation for both teams and the conference. Going into the season, the decision was made to have this dual start the conference season and the ACC Network broadcast to provide the best product to kick off the coverage. While I understood their reasoning, I wanted this dual to be the final weekend since it has been the deciding dual for the conference champ for the past seven years.
I can understand the position of each team in this situation and I wish there could have been a better resolution. Both teams were anticipating this top-10 clash and there were some major individual matches that were set to take place--both teams have had this date circled since the schedule was released. The Hokies were put in a difficult situation going into Raleigh to face a very dangerous NC State team with a patchwork lineup. They wanted an opportunity for both teams to face off at as close to full strength as possible, so they requested the reschedule. The Wolfpack were prepared to face whatever lineup the Hokies brought. They felt that the dual should go as scheduled and didn't want to disrupt their training schedule to throw in a top-10 dual randomly at the end of the season. From a coaching perspective-I can understand why each coach made the choice they did. From a fan perspective, frankly, it sucked to lose this dual and the matches we were going to see! Full disclosure-I was planning to be at the dual and pouted for a full day that I didn't get to go watch.
As we have learned in the past couple years, the only certainty is uncertainty. Both teams lost a top-10 dual and some huge individual matches that could have been big for postseason seeding. The ACC lost out on showcasing their top two programs in a nationally televised dual. The fans lost out on seeing a fantastic dual and hearing the excitement of Rock Harrison yelling â€œSAM LATONA!â€. Side note: kudos to the ESPN crew for the quick pivot in highlighting the UNC-Duke dual. I'm choosing to look on the positive side that all of this will only make the ACC tournament that much more exciting. Now onto the duals that we did get to see!
Duke at North Carolina
The Blue Devils traveled to Carmichael Arena to take on cross-town rivals North Carolina to open the ACC season. The Tar Heels dominated from the opening whistle and were able to win the majority of the toss-up matches to take the 29-6 win over Duke.
Spencer Moore put together one of his better performances of the year to take a 10-1 major decision over Logan Agin at 125 to start the night. Moore is showing growth and improvement--especially on top, where he controlled Agin most of the match. At 133, the Heels sent out Joe Heilmann, who made quick work of Drake Doolittle with a first-period pin. #7 Kizhan Clarke was able to extend his undefeated start by another match, taking a decision win over Parker Decker. This was one of the more surprising matches of the night. Decker came in with a 2-4 record on the year and was able to push Clarke and threaten him from upper body ties throughout the match. Clarke pulled away late with a decisive takedown and ride, but the ACC viewers, I think, came away with a newfound respect for Decker.
At 149, we were treated to one of the two ranked matchups of the dual--both featuring a Finesilver. #13 Josh Finesilver and #20 Zach Sherman looked evenly matched throughout the bout; they traded escapes in the second and third and took a 1-1 match to sudden victory. They put on a scramble show in SV and both looked like they could come away with the win--if you haven't seen it or heard Rock Harrison's call, I highly recommend watching the replay! Ultimately Finesilver was able to pick up the winning takedown and walk away with the 3-1 decision to put Duke on the board.
National Champ #6 Austin O'Connor won by decision over Wade Unger 6-2 at 157 to close the first half of the dual. At 165, Sonny Santiago took on Gabe Dinette and won a controlling 7-3 decision; this was one of the better matches I have seen from Santiago on the year. The second marquee match of the dual was at 174 with #13 Matt Finesilver facing #16 Clay Lautt and this one delivered. Lautt got an early takedown in the first and the second period with Finesilver earning quick escapes each time. Finesilver added a takedown and short ride to end the second with a 5-4 lead. Finesilver put on a strong ride to start the third but was called for an illegal hold--he reinforced the figure four on a leg ride, putting pressure on Lautt's knee, which drew a strong reaction from Coach Coleman Scott. Lautt was given a point for the illegal hold to even the match 5-5 with just over 30 seconds remaining. On the restart, Lautt got the escape and hit a beautiful double leg on the edge and held Finesilver in danger to finish the 8-5 decision win.
Vincent Baker challenged #24 Gavin Kane at 184, but Kane prevailed with a 5-4 decision. At 197, #27 Max Shaw put on a dominating offensive display to earn a 16-1 tech fall over Kaden Russell in the first period. The final match of the night went to Duke in hard-fought fashion. Jonah Niesenbaum earned the 3-1 decision in sudden victory over Brandon Whitman to make the final team score 29-6 Tar Heels.
Virginia at Pittsburgh
The Hoos traveled to Pittsburgh with a patchwork lineup as they were still getting wrestlers back out of Covid protocols, but they put up a fight against the Panthers. Pitt entered the evening coming off of a huge win last week over then #6 Arizona State and was looking to continue that momentum into ACC competition.
The dual opened at 149 with #30 Jarod Verkleeren controlling the match en route to a 7-2 decision over Luke Kemerer. The two were former teammates at Hempfield Area, but this was their first match competing against each other. At 157, #27 Elijah Cleary took a 4-2 decision over Jon Errico. Errico had been the starter at 157 in the first half of the season as #28 Jake Keating came back from an injury. Keating bumped to 165 for this dual to fill in for the absence of Justin McCoy. #13 Jake Wentzel was able to control Keating throughout the match to win a 10-0 major decision. In one of the toss-up matches in the dual, Justin Phillips earned a 14-5 major decision for UVA over James Lledo at 174. Rounding out the first half of the dual, #23 Michael Battista continued his strong start to the season with a 9-5 decision over #31 Gregg Harvey.
The marquee match of the dual was at 197, where UVA sent #11 Jay Aiello out against his U23 World Team teammate #9 Nino Bonaccorsi for the Panthers. Nino has held the upper hand in this series and he continued this match. He was able to strike quickly from space and pick up multiple takedowns in the first and early in the second. Aiello was able to slow the pace and close distance in the final period, but it wasn't enough as Bonaccorsi earned his fourth straight win over Aiello with a 9-4 decision. #26 Quinn Miller made his return to the UVA lineup against Jake Slinger for the Panthers. Slinger was in control throughout and took the 4-1 decision to upset Miller. We got a tight battle at 125 between #31 Gage Curry and Patrick McCormick, with Curry coming out on top with a 3-2 decision.
I was hoping to see a battle between #7 Micky Phillippi and #24 Brian Courtney at 133, but unfortunately, Courtney was also out of the lineup. UVA sent out Trey Lane--who had battled with McCormick for the starting spot at 125 in the beginning of the season. Phillippi put on a takedown display on his way to a 22-7 tech fall. Wrapping up the dual was #20 Cole Matthews continuing his hot streak picking up a 10-1 major decision over Evan Buchanan to give the Panthers the 25-10 win over the Cavaliers.