Virginia Tech assistant coach Jared Frayer and Bryce Andonian (photos courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
The ACC has been improving as a conference year after year and there were high expectations coming into this season. The teams challenged themselves with tough out-of-conference schedules to prepare for the conference battles at the end of the year. We end the year with four of six teams in the top-25 and two teams in the top-10. There are several wrestlers that are in the thick of the national champion discussion and the conference is in a position to have the most All-Americans in ACC history this year. We are seeing a conference on the rise and it is only up from here. The tournament in Charlottesville this weekend will be top-notch from the first whistle and the team battle may come down to the end of the finals. We are in for a treat on Sunday. With that in mind, I wanted to give a little regular season wrap-up and some awards for what we've seen before the ACC Tournament.
Duke entered the season with a young lineup anchored by the experience of the Finesilver brothers. The Blue Devils had not won a dual since beating Penn on January 6, 2019, but this year they showed an incredible turnaround ending the season 7-10 after a 6-4 start to the year. They had a dual-heavy schedule, designed to get experience for their young lineup. The team was led by the success of the Finesilver brothers; Josh finished the regular season at 24-5 and ranked 14th at 149, while Matt finished at 25-5 and ranked 16th at 174. Another highlight for this season was the breakthrough of Jonah Neisenbaum. After his first two years as a starter at 285, he had a combined record of 4-26; this season he quadrupled his win total to end the regular season at 16-9 with several big wins for the Blue Devils. There was a lot of growth on the team this year and they are positioned to continue their improvement in the years to come.
North Carolina had one of the toughest schedules in the nation to open the season. Even though their record wasn't as stellar as the past few years, the experience gained through those duals has put them in a great position going into the postseason. The Tar Heel lineup is a solid mix of veteran experience and young starters with great potential. They end the regular season with four wrestlers in the top-10. Kizhan Clarke is ranked 6th at 141 and is 17-1 with his lone loss a 3-2 decision to #5 Cole Matthews of Pittsburgh; Clarke has had a phenomenal season and is one of the best transfer signings in the country. Austin O'Connor continues to impress up a weight class from his NCAA title last season; he ended the regular season ranked 4th at 157 with a 16-1 record-his lone loss was an early-season decision to #11 Peyton Robb of Nebraska. The two biggest "surprises" for the Tar Heels this year were Clay Lautt and Gavin Kane; both came into the year with high expectations and have surpassed many of them. Lautt is ranked 8th at 174 with a 14-4 record; he had a slower start to the season, but ended the year on a wild run that included a pin of #5 Hayden Hidlay. Gavin Kane holds the 11th spot with a 15-3 record; he started the year at 174 and since moving up, he is 11-1 at 184 with his only loss to #3 Trent Hidlay. The Tar Heels will be a very dangerous team in the postseason and have a lot of momentum coming into Charlottesville.
North Carolina State wrapped up the ACC dual championship last week with a decisive win over Virginia Tech to finish undefeated in conference. The team finished the regular season ranked 4th nationally and nearly knocked off then #1 Iowa at the Collegiate Duals. The lineup is a great mashup of experienced starters and young talent that is already making noise. #3 Tariq Wilson and #3 Trent Hidlay both finished the season with unblemished records, while #5 Hayden Hidlay lost his undefeated streak in the final weekend of the season, getting pinned by #8 Clay Lautt. He capped off his weekend with a sudden victory win over #6 Mekhi Lewis. Second-year starter #7 Ed Scott blasted into 157 this year after a .500 season last year at 149. He comes into the tournament at 19-1 with his only loss an 11-10 decision to #24 Jake Keating, who got the winning takedown with about 10 seconds left in the match. #21 Kai Orine, #21 Ryan Jack and #15 Isaac Trumble have all had great seasons in their first full years in the starting lineup and have had key wins for the Wolfpack in duals throughout the year. This is an excellent lineup from top to bottom and they have the potential to be high on the team podium in Detroit.
Pittsburgh entered the season with high hopes returning two NCAA finalists in Jake Wentzel and Nino Bonaccorsi. They finished the season above .500, including a big dual win over top-10 Arizona State. The Panthers continued to get consistent wins from #10 Micky Phillippi (13-5), #14 Jake Wentzel (14-5) and #9 Nino Bonaccorsi (13-3) to pace the team. They also got big wins from transfers #30 Gage Curry (14-8) and #18 Elijah Cleary (12-6). The biggest jump in production for the Panthers was from #5 Cole Matthews at 141. Matthews was 27-16 in his previous two seasons and is a two-time NCAA qualifier, but this year he broke through big time. He finished the season at 15-2; he had two close early-season losses and then went on an 11 match winning streak to end the season. He had two top-10 wins handing #15 Stevan Micic and #6 Kizhan Clarke, both their first loss of the year. They have a well-balanced and sneaky good team that can make a big postseason run.
Virginia came into the year with a very experienced lineup and were ready to make the jump up the ACC ladder. Unfortunately, they dealt with a spate of injuries throughout the year and were hit hard by COVID restrictions that impacted the consistency of their lineup. Thankfully, they seem to have settled in with the majority of their starters back for the ACC season and postseason run and could still make a lot of noise at the ACC and NCAA tournaments. They were led by sixth-year #16 Jay Aiello, who won a Bronze medal at the U23 World Championships, before returning to NCAA action; he is 10-2 on the year. #22 Justin McCoy comes into the tournament at 15-1 with his lone loss a decision to #20 Thomas Bullard. #24 Jake Keating (13-4), #19 Brian Courtney (12-4) and #31 Quinn Miller (16-6) also had strong seasons for the Hoos and are positioned to make a deep run in the postseason.
Virginia Tech had another stellar season with a tough schedule and ended in the top-10 again this year. The Hokies have a relatively young lineup eligibility-wise, with only two wrestlers in their final year of eligibility in Korbin Myers and Nathan Traxler. #3 Myers had another strong season finishing with undefeated in the ACC and a 16-1 record on the year-his only loss was to #4 Michael McGee. #14 Traxler was a huge transfer pickup for the Hokies and was an anchor at the top of the lineup. He finished with a 16-2 overall record and was 3-1 in conference with a loss to #31 Quinn Miller. #6 Mekhi Lewis moved up a weight to 174 and looked incredible all season; his lone loss was in sudden victory to #5 Hayden Hidlay. #18 Sam Latona and #14 Hunter Bolen also ended with strong seasons and in position for big postseason runs again this year. The Hokies and Wolfpack will likely be battling for the top spot on the podium on Sunday and it will be a great show for everyone watching.
Now to some awards:
Best Hair: The answer here is Nathan Traxler and I will not accept any discussion. Others considered: Micky Phillippi, Denton Spencer, Bryce Andonian, Clayton Ulrey, Clay Lautt.
Best Singlet This is an area that the ACC has excelled with nationally. We have some of the best-outfitted teams and sharpest looking singlets in the country. I had a really hard time nailing this one down, so I left it with my top 3--I'll run a Twitter poll to get the final answer. First option: Virginia Tech Black singlet with Hokie stone VT and accents. I'm a sucker for the Hokie stone look, and if you've ever been on campus in Blacksburg, you know how prominent it is. Second option: Pittsburgh gray singlet with Panther logo. The Panthers do a great job incorporating Pittsburgh-centric elements into the gear. They have several options that incorporate the steel city theme and this one is my favorite. Third option: North Carolina singlet with white bottom and Carolina Blue upper body. UNC has a wide range of singlets as well and this one really pops to me. They used it in a lot of their promotional materials this year and it looks great in pictures and on the mat.
UNC 141 lber Kizhan Clarke (photo courtesy of Blake Clifton)
Newcomer of the Year: Kizhan Clarke is 17-1 on the year and his only loss is a 3-2 decision to Cole Matthews. We knew that Clarke was going to be a great addition to the UNC lineup, but expected him at 149 going into the season. He settled in at 141 early and was dominant all season. Important to note that he did all this while being a second-year law school student.
Best MustacheThe mustache battle was settled in the Virginia-North Carolina dual at heavyweight. Quinn Miller beat Brandon Whitman in the dual by decision and in the mustache battle by major decision.
Jared Frayer (photos courtesy of Ethan Aguigui)
Best Dressed Coach: The coaches in the ACC are a well-dressed bunch. Glen Lanham is always rolling with a nice button-down for the business casual look. Steve Garland has a large sweater collection to choose from. Keith Gavin always looks sharp in Pitt gear. Pat Pop and crew have the suit tailors in Raleigh working overtime--especially with Adam Hall splitting seams in his tight pantsâ€¦ Coleman Scott and Tony Ramos make the most of the Jordan branding and always have fresh shoes. But the award this year is going to the Associate Head Coach for Virginia Tech. Anyone who saw the dapper look of Jared Frayer rocking the VT sweater and impressive mustache knows this award was well deserved.
Most Improved: Ed Scott 21-1 this season. Scott was 6-6 as a true freshman starting at 149. He made a phenomenal run this year and had some highlight pins with his "Ed-lock." His lone loss was to Jake Keating in a very close match.
photo courtesy of Blake Clifton
Best Headgear: Most programs had team-specific headgear and utilized school logos and mascots. There were a few that stood out individually--Mekhi Lewis with the War Gobbler and Hunter Bolen with a personal tribute on his headgear. But as a team, North Carolina had a fleet of slick-looking headgear options. They utilized the argyle, team name and alternate logos incredibly well.
Outstanding Wrestler: Trent Hidlay. Hoagie Boy is 15-0 on the year and has notable wins over Hunter Bolen, Gavin Kane, Abe Assad, Caleb Hopkins, Travis Stefanik and Michael Battista. He is clearly one of the emotional leaders of the Wolfpack and is a huge presence both on the mat and on the bench.
Best Warmup: Pitt White Pullover. This is just a great clean look for the warmups and really pops with the Pitt blue. NC State also has some great options for warmups with the script Wolfpack.
Best Pin: Bryce Andonian over Josh Finesilver in 21 seconds. Andonian is "can't miss" wrestling every time he is on the mat. In the dual against Duke, he turned a Finesilver shot into a bonkers ankle trap roll-through to a pin. It was so fast that ESPN didn't even show it!
Bonus Machine:Trent Hidlay 87%--another crazy stat for Hidlay. He has four pins, three tech falls and six major decisions on the year. He is always a bonus point threat.
Best Celebration:Dakota Howard celebrating with the crowd in Cassell. Howard has an undeniable energy about him that is infectious. After a big win against Duke, he celebrated with the Cassell crowd with a lot of screaming and flexing--it was excellent. The other option here is Tariq Wilson hitting the Griddy and dancing off the mat after his controlling win over Bryce Andonian. I liked it because it was simple, the crowd enjoyed it, and to me, it signaled the return of "Postseason Tariq."
Super Senior: I wanted to highlight one of the sixth-year wrestlers that returned to leave their mark on their program this season. Jay Aiello was an in-state recruit for Coach Garland that has made the most of his time in Charlottesville. He is a five-year starter that went from 13-15 in his first year as a starter to being 47-10 in the past three seasons. Aiello is a four-time NCAA qualifier and an ACC Champion and a three-time ACC finalist. On top of his NCAA achievements, Aiello won a bronze medal at the U23 World Championships last fall before the start of the season. More importantly than his on the mat achievements, Jay is a phenomenal person and a great leader in the UVA program; he will leave big shoes to fill.
I appreciate the opportunity to cover the ACC for Intermat; it has been a fun year. A special thanks to all of the teams and coaches for letting me in and allowing me to be part of your matches and practices this year. We are lucky to have the coaches that we do in the ACC; not only are they creating a great product with their programs on the mat, they are preparing these young men to be successful after graduation. Looking forward to a great day in Charlottesville on Sunday.