Pittsburgh head coach Keith Gavin (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
It was another phenomenal regular season in the ACC and we turn our attention now toward the postseason with the ACC tournament and the NCAA Championships fast approaching. We will have multiple parts to our ACC preview this year; Earl has the weight-by-weight preview and breakdown here. We also have a series of interviews with wrestlers from each team--we want the fans to get to know more about some of these athletes before the first whistle on Sunday. I sat down with Austin O’Connor, Cole Matthews, Jonah Niesenbaum, Justin McCoy, Andy Smith and Trent Hidlay to learn more about how they got into wrestling, why they chose their school and how they feel about their season going into the ACC tournament. Before the action kicks off in Raleigh on Sunday, all matches covered on ACC Network, let’s take a look back at the regular season and hand out our 2nd Annual InterMat ACC Awards.
Redshirt of the Year: Garrett Grice, UVA
This was actually a really tough one to figure out because there are so many solid redshirts this year--which speaks to the depth of recruiting for the ACC schools. Dayton Pitzer made a lot of noise with his performance at the Midlands, knocking off NCAA finalist Cohlton Schultz before falling in the finals. Pitzer ended the season at 7-3 overall and 2-1 in the ACC before the coaching staff decided to keep him in redshirt. The award this year, however, goes to Garrett Grice. He started the year on a tear, winning the Southeast Open on the strength of five bonus-point victories. He continued his strong season with a 3rd place finish at the Appalachian Invite and was 5-1 in dual appearances for the Hoos. He finished with a season record of 13-2, with both losses being decision losses to ranked wrestlers. UVA will have a very strong class entering the starting lineup next year, and they will be led by Grice.
Coach of the Year: Keith Gavin, Pittsburgh
It has been widely known that Pitt has the potential to be a power program both in the ACC and nationally. Since Coach Gavin returned to lead his alma mater, he has made a strong move in that direction and this year they started making that breakthrough with a share of the ACC dual title. Gavin put together a solid lineup with a mix of experienced vets, highly-touted recruits and valuable starters from the transfer portal. They went 10-4 on the season, picking up a huge win over Virginia Tech on the road and losing on criteria at home to #3 Iowa State. Pitt is in a great position to make a run in the postseason as well, and they will be a real threat for the ACC tournament title.
BONUS Machine: Austin O’Connor, North Carolina
The BONUS Champ from last year, Trent Hidlay was in the running at 58%, followed closely by Lachlan McNeil at 60%. However, the two top bonus scorers--based on percentage of bonus point wins were both at 157 pounds. Bryce Andonian is 7-1 with 6 wins by bonus to come in at a 75% bonus rate--he has 3 falls, two majors and one tech fall. However, the title this year goes to Austin O’Connor with an impressive 81.25% bonus rate. O’Connor is 16-0 and only has two wins by decision; oddly enough, his first and last match of the regular season; in between, he rolled off 14 straight bonus wins with 3 pins, 4 tech falls, 6 major decisions and one injury default. 157 is one of the toughest brackets at the ACC tournament, so we’ll see if O’Connor can add to his bonus total.
Freshman of the Year: Caleb Henson, Virginia Tech
There was never a doubt that Caleb Henson would be in the starting lineup for the Hokies as a true freshman. He entered the season with big goals for himself and high expectations from the staff in Blacksburg. Henson opened the season with a dominating run to win his second straight Southeast Open; he also won as a high school senior. He then put the country on notice with an upset win over two-time All-American and NCAA finalist Sammy Sasso in his first dual for the Hokies. He has been a key cog in the Hokies lineup this year and has more than lived up to the expectations on him so far this year. He enters the postseason with a 16-3 record overall and was undefeated in the ACC; he holds wins over All-Americans Sammy Sasso, Jon Millner and Jaden Abas.
Best Mustache: Isaac Trumble, North Carolina State
We’ve seen it on occasion for Trumble, but it came out in full force in Charlottesville against UVA. The most impressive thing about it is that it falls within reqs for Trumble’s Army service. Well played sir.
Newcomer of the Year: Holden and Reece Heller, Pittsburgh
The winner of this award has a lot to live up to after the NCAA performance of last year’s winner, Kizhan Clarke. The transfer portal was again good to ACC teams, with four of the six teams having regular starters from the portal. Jack Wagner played a big role for the Tar Heels and Jared Papscy added some veteran leadership to a young Duke lineup. Neil Antrassian made a huge impact in his one year in Charlottesville, going 21-7 overall and picking up the 4 seed in the deepest weight in the ACC. Dazjon Casto started slow but has rounded into form for the Panthers going into the postseason.
The winner(s) this year also come from Pittsburgh. I couldn’t choose one of the Heller brothers, so they are both getting the award. Holden went 12-5 on the year and is undefeated in the ACC at 165; four of his five losses were to top-15 ranked wrestlers. He is a definite threat for an ACC title. Bigger brother Reece has held down the spot at 184, picking up a Midlands title and going 16-6 on the year. He went 2-3 in the ACC but is an incredibly dangerous wrestler who is always a pin threat.
Singlet of the Year: UNC Baseball Singlet
The Tar Heels had a weekend in November that saw them wrestle in an airplane hangar at Ft. Bragg and on the baseball field in Chapel Hill. They had special singlets for each of these events that were both very well done. I was most impressed by the design for the Doubles on the Diamond. The pinstriped design with the script logo and weight class on the back was well executed. The coaching staff completed the look by coaching in baseball jerseys as well.
ACC Dual of the Year: NC State at Virginia Tech
We knew going into the opening dual of the ACC slate that we would have fireworks and that this dual would likely decide the ACC dual title. This dual delivered, and then some. You can see the full recap here. It was back and forth, featuring three sudden victory wins from the Wolfpack, including a come-from-behind win from Trent Hidlay over Hunter Bolen. When it looked like NC State could pull away, Andy Smith came through with a huge upset of Isaac Trumble to lock up the 16-14 win for the Hokies. It was a great crowd in Cassell and a phenomenal dual from start to finish. Both teams would go on to lock up a share of the ACC Dual Championship.
Most Improved: Jack Wagner, North Carolina
In full transparency, when they announced the transfer of Wagner from UNI I didn’t think it would be an impactful move. Wagner came in to man the spot at 125 with a career record of just over .500 at 133 and 141. But Coach Ramos and Coach Scott both spoke very highly of Wagner and were excited about his potential; it turns out they were correct. From his first match in North Carolina, Wagner has seemed to be competing at a different level than in years past. He enters the postseason at 20-6 overall and 4-1 in ACC competition. I’ve been very impressed with how Wagner has handled the transition to a new school and a new weight while improving on the mat.
The Nathan Traxler ACC Best Hair Award: Patrick McCormick, Virginia
We had an unfortunate trend of wrestlers with phenomenal hair returning from winter break with a run-of-the-mill Hair Cuttery special, and frankly, it saddened me. Going into the year, I assumed that Owen Trephan was a lock for this title and he would extend the reign of the heavyweight with luxurious locks, as Nathan Traxler established with our annual award. But alas, he went from a glorious flow at Collegiate Duals to business casual for the ACC season, not to take anything away, it’s still a solid look for Trephan.
So we are looking elsewhere for the award this year, and I’m giving it to someone who has a haircut that just fits them as a person. Patrick McCormick has proudly rocked his mullet for a better part of his career in Charlottesville, and if you know Patch, you know that is a perfect fit for the 125 from Poquoson, Virginia. Just as adjustments are critical on the mat, we need to be able to make adjustments for our awards as well--and with this slight change in our approach, McCormick is a natural fit for the award.
I would also like to give special recognition to Jarod Verkleeren and bestow our 1st Annual #BaldHero Award. Sometimes it’s best to just embrace the absence of hair and fully roll with it.
Wrestlers of the Year: Austin O’Connor, North Carolina and Nino Bonaccorsi, Pittsburgh
We covered the impressive season by O’Connor earlier in the article, but we also need to highlight the phenomenal season that Nino had in his final season in Pittsburgh. Nino has shown over the years that he is a top-tier 197 and he can compete with, and beat, anyone in the country. He was an NCAA finalist in 2021 but fell in the bloodround last year in Detroit. He has seemed reinvigorated this season and has looked to be back in his NCAA finalist form. Bonaccorsi is undefeated on the year, coming in at 14-0 and 5-0 in the ACC. He is ranked #1 in the country and has wins over #2 Michael Beard, #7 Yonger Bastida, #8 Isaac Trumble, #14 Jaxon Smith, #15 Zac Braunagle, #22 Andy Smith and #25 Michael Battista. Nino has incredible--and shockingly fast--attacks from neutral and is a monster on top. He will have to get through the field in Raleigh, but is in great position to bring home another ACC title and contend for an NCAA championship.