Pittsburgh All-American Cole Matthews (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
The Panthers will be a force to be reckoned with this year. They return several key starters, and their lineup is bolstered by solid recruiting and another year of excellent management of the transfer portal by Keith Gavin. They will be led by experienced captains Micky Phillippi and Nino Bonaccorsi. Nino is looking to return to the podium after an NCAA finals appearance in 2021 and Phillippi is looking to break through after 3 heartbreaking losses in the blood round. Coach Gavin has again utilized the transfer portal to add talent and experience to the lineup, this year with three potential starters in Dazjon Casto, Holden Heller and Reece Heller, and a fourth who may see time in the lineup as well in Vinnie Santaniello. Add to that multiple strong recruiting classes and we have another very dangerous team in the ACC. The Panthers have a dual-heavy schedule with several challenging duals in their home gym along with a mid-season trip to Midlands before starting ACC competition. I really like the balance of experience and youth in this lineup and I think it will make for a scrappy and dangerous team.
Cole Matthews is returning after an All-American finish last year and will enter the season as the #1 ranked wrestler at 141. Powered by Primanti Bros, Matthews will enter his fourth year in the starting lineup for the Panthers. Last season he put up a 21-4 record on his way to an ACC Championship and a fifth-place finish in Detroit.
Jake Wentzel was a key cog in the Panther lineup and was one that really embraced the approach Coach Gavin takes to wrestling--right down to his excellent work off an arm drag. Wentzel was an NCAA finalist in 2021 and a three-time ACC Champion who excelled with a punishing top game. While Wentzel will not be in the lineup this year, he hasn't strayed far from the program; he came on staff as the Volunteer Assistant Coach after the departure of Jordan Leen and subsequent positional shifting on staff.
Gage Curry and Elijah Cleary both spent a year in the Panther lineup after transferring for their final year of eligibility. Both had strong seasons and played a big role in the team success for the Panthers. Cleary was an NCAA qualifier while Curry just missed making the trip to Detroit.
Dazjon Casto was one of the stories of the tournament last year as he made a run in Detroit. He transferred to Pitt from The Citadel where he was a SOCON Champion last season. He made a run through three ACC wrestlers; Austin O'Connor, Conor Brady and Jake Keating, before falling in the bloodround. Casto is very talented and I'm excited to see what he can do this year in Pittsburgh.
Gavin and company have utilized the transfer portal as good, or better, than any team in the country. They also added brothers Holden and Reece Heller from Hofstra this season. Holden will go at 165 this year; he had a good run at Hofstra including an EIWA Championship in 2021. Reece will be at 184 after starting his career at 149 at Hofstra; he also wrestled at 165 and was at 174 last year for a redshirt year where he went 12-4.
WRESTLER TO WATCH
Micky Phillippi, Cole Matthews and Nino Bonaccorsi have cemented their spots as must-watch for the Panthers. But there is also a lot of young talent in the room that you should keep your eye on this season.
Brock McMillen and Luca Augustine will both be entering their first year in the starting lineup for the Panthers and the staff has high expectations of what they can accomplish. McMillen came to Pittsburgh as a three-time PA state champ and a four-time finalist. He was 6-1 in his redshirt year including a win over an experienced Kanen Storr. Luca Augustine is also an in-state product who came in with one state title; he had a strong redshirt year and finished with a 12-5 record. The coaching staff speaks very highly of his development on the mat and his focus off the mat and they feel he has a very high ceiling.
Top Out-of-Conference Dual
The Panthers have a few very challenging opponents on the schedule this year, many of them in Fitzgerald Field House. There will be some great matchups with Lehigh and Iowa State at home, but the one I am looking at is the dual with Illinois. It has some great high-level matchups as well as some matches that will serve as a great measure of where some of the younger guys in the lineup fit.
133: #5 Lucas Byrd v #8 Micky Phillippi
149: Brock McMillen v Kevon Davenport (Transfer from Nebraska)
165: #27 Danny Braunagel v #17 Holden Heller
174: #16 Edmond Ruth v Luca Augustine
197: #14 Zach Braunagle v #10 Nino Bonaccorsi
125: Colton Camacho (11-5)
133: #8 Micky Phillippi (18-8) 4x NCAA Qualifier 2x ACC Champ 4x ACC Finalist
141: #1 Cole Matthews (21-4) All-American (5th) ACC Champion
149: #28 Brock McMillen (6-1)
157: #12 Dazjon Casto (23-8 at The Citadel) NCAA Qualifier (R12) SOCON Champion
165: #17 Holden Heller (10-5 at Hofstra) NCAA Qualifier EIWA Champion (2021)
174: Luca Augustine (12-5)
184: #27 Reece Heller (12-4 at Hofstra)
197: #10 Nino Bonaccorsi (18-5) 4x NCAA Qualifier All-American (2nd 2021) 2x ACC Champ
285: Jake Slinger (11-15)
Dayton Pitzer true freshman--may not start full-time but will make the most of his 5 matches