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  • Photo: Sam Janicki

    Photo: Sam Janicki

    An Ode to First-Time Senior NCAA Champions

    National champions Nino Bonaccorsi (left), Patrick Glory (center), and Mason Parris (photos courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)

    The 2023 NCAA Championships are officially in the rearview mirror. As we get further and further away from the Covid year in 2021 that gave student-athletes an additional year of eligibility, a sense of normalcy approaches. One of the typical happenings at the end of a collegiate season is to bid the seniors a fond farewell as they've concluded their respective careers.

    Drilling down further into the seniors, personally, one of my favorite sites to see at an NCAA tournament is a senior that finishes their career on top for the first time. This scenario isn't exactly a given, especially in the current era of DI wrestling. Wrestlers are coming into college more prepared than ever and are winning younger than in previous generations. As a result, there are fewer and fewer seniors winning their first national titles.

    In 2022, only Ryan Deakin fit this mold of first-time champion as a senior. The previous year, there were none. 2019 had Anthony Ashnault and Drew Foster. 2018 Michael Macchiavello. Just typing their names brings me a sense of positivity.

    Why, you ask? I like watching wrestlers accomplish their dreams. Freshman, senior, whatever. But for me, there's an added sense of significance when it's a student-athlete with their back against the wall in their final opportunity to win. Someone who's battle-tested, has been through the rigors of four (or five, or six) years in a collegiate wrestling room. An athlete that has come close to tasting victory yet, for whatever reason, has come up just short of that ultimate goal. They shake off years of frustration, self-doubt, and injuries to give it one last try.

    Seeing one of those wrestlers get over the hump and get sent off in style, during the final collegiate bout is poetic. This time they cry tears of joy instead of tears of despair.

    In 2023, we had the pleasure of watching three of these seniors go out in style with their first national title. 125 lber Patrick Glory, 197 lber Nino Bonaccorsi, and 285 lber Mason Parris. The three have this in common; however, they have very different paths to the top of the podium.

    One similarity between the trio is that each had their respective careers interrupted by the Covid year of 2019-20. Both Glory and Parris were seeded second that season and had the eventual Hodge Trophy winner's in their respective weight classes. While each would have been an underdog, you never know what actually would have happened. We remember Gable Steveson as an Olympic gold medalist, but his margin of victory over Parris at the 2020 Big Ten Championships was 8-6. Could Parris have reversed that decision in two weeks? Maybe. Glory never wrestled Spencer Lee that season, but he did post the best bonus point percentage of his career. He was close to the top of his game in 2020.

    Looking at the career of each, we'll start the way that most wrestling events do, with the smallest weight class first.

    2023 125 lb national champion Patrick Glory

    Glory was a blue-chip recruit that came into an emerging Princeton program that was starting to make its mark on the college wrestling scene. He wasn't the first no-brainer, future superstar to ink with the Tigers, that was teammate Matt Kolodzik, the program's first-ever freshman All-American. Kolodzik showed you can win right away with the school. After Zain Retherford finished up, in 2018, Kolodzik was one of the favorites at 149 for his final two seasons. From an outside perspective, Kolodzik appeared to be the strong, silent type. The teammate that led by his actions.

    Conversely, you have Glory who was a homegrown kid from New Jersey that seemed to carry that Jersey chip on his shoulder. He was the one that liked to rile up the crowd after a big win. Whether it's his home fans or in a rival gym. He was Jersey and he was the face of Princeton wrestling.

    Like Kolodzik, Glory found success right away and made the podium as a freshman. For the bulk of Glory's career, he was chasing Spencer Lee. The two met during Glory's freshman year and though he lost both times, I always thought his skill set presented the best opportunity to knock off Lee.

    With the Hawkeye great out of the picture in 2022, Glory made the national finals, but lost to Nick Suriano of Michigan. It was no secret that Glory had a difficult time making 125 last season, so most, myself included, assumed he'd move up to 133 for his final hurrah.

    That proved to be wrong as Glory made the tough pull down to 125 lbs for the 2022-23 campaign. The grind of a DI season can be long as it is, but when you've got a difficult cut and may be dealing with other injuries, it has to feel like a marathon. Glory spent some time competing at 133 for the good of his team, while keeping his weight within striking distance for 125. The regular season probably didn't go as smoothly as Glory would've pictured (though he was undefeated), but the saying goes, "All that matters is March."

    All year, smart fans and media members liked to point out that Glory's NCAA quarterfinal match could be his toughest. That would present him with a high-quality opponent, right off the scale after a presumably difficult second-day weigh-in. Once the brackets were released and #7 Brandon Kaylor/#10 Brandon Courtney were the probable matchups, those talks intensified.

    But, as one of the members of the Princeton staff told our EIWA correspondent, Austin Sommer, "NCAA Glory is different." That proved to be the case as he dominated Brett Ungar, his EIWA Finals opponent he had beaten by the score of 2-0 a few weeks earlier. In the NCAA second round, Glory pitched a 10-0 shutout. For that possibly problematic quarterfinal, Glory jumped out to an early lead and coasted to an 8-4 decision over Courtney.

    The semifinals also provided little drama as Glory clinched a berth in his second consecutive national title match.

    After Glory's win, the wrestling world was turned upside down as Purdue's Matt Ramos pinned three-time national champion Spencer Lee in the other semifinal bout.

    Once I tried to digest the results of the Lee loss, I wondered, "How does Glory feel?" I imagined he wanted to be "the guy" that spoiled Lee's coronation. He's had Lee in his crosshairs for years and won't get to face him.

    Our Mailbag Specialist, Jagger, was able to talk some sense into me. Jagger convinced me that "Glory likes playing the villain. The entire arena will be pulling for Ramos after the upset. He'd love being the guy to beat Ramos."

    As often happens, except with his baseball takes, Jagger was right. And true to his style, Glory did so with flare. In my recollection, he's likely the only wrestler to walk out to the NCAA finals carrying an American flag. Glory was able to hold off a pesky Ramos and secured his elusive NCAA title with a 4-1 victory.

    That win brought Chris Ayres' Princeton program their first NCAA championship since 1951! Who better to win that title than the guy that's been a star from day one, a wrestler that encapsulates his home state and has been the face of Princeton wrestling.

    2023 285 lb national champion Mason Parris

    Let's skip ahead to the heavyweight champion Mason Parris. Like Glory, Parris was a blue-chip recruit that got thrust into the Michigan starting lineup in year one. As a true freshman, Parris was a bit undersized. He competed at 220 lbs as a high school senior and was a multi-sport athlete, famously qualifying for the Indiana state tournament in the shot put and high hurdles. That's right, a heavyweight that has that sort of athleticism.

    From the outset, it was clear that Parris wasn't your average wrestler. Literally, the first weekend. In his collegiate debut, Parris pinned the returning MAC champion, Matt Stencel, in 14 seconds. An excellent college heavyweight in :14 seconds!

    That match took place competing unattached and it wasn't until early January that the Wolverine staff officially unleashed Parris. In his first career dual, Parris had his way with returning All-American Amar Dhesi to the tune of an 11-4 win.

    A promising first year ended on a down note as Parris lost at NCAA's in a weird, 8-5 decision to Iowa's Sam Stoll, when Stoll repeatedly pushed him out of bounds for multiple stalling calls, then he was pinned by old rival Stencel in the bloodround.

    In the summer following his freshman year, Parris rolled through the Junior World bracket and pinned future Senior world champion Amir Zare to win a gold medal.

    Extra size, experience and a year in the Wolverine wrestling room made for a breakout season, one that saw him go undefeated until the 2020 Big Ten finals. It's hard to place ourselves in 2020 knowing what we know now, but there was a contingent of fans that felt Parris was the man to beat at 285 lbs, not Gable Steveson. Steveson prevailed 8-6 and there would be no rematch due to the Covid cancellation.

    A year later, Steveson accounted for Parris' only two losses of the year, in the Big Ten and NCAA finals. The shortened 2021 campaign marked the first NCAA All-American honor for Parris, as he was second in the nation.

    Last season, Parris battled through an injury-plagued year to take fifth in the nation and went 20-6. If you're around wrestling enough, you hear plenty of stories about injuries and sicknesses being responsible for losses. Some are legit, some are questionable.

    After Parris' blazing start to the 2022-23 season, I was at the Bout at the Ballpark where the Wolverines faced Oklahoma State and spoke to Michigan SID Leah Howard. I told her, "Mason must've really been hurt last year, just comparing results from year-to-year." She assured me that he was and agreed at how great he appeared this season.

    Parris continued his run with his first Big Ten title and a top seed in Tulsa. The semifinals looked like they may present a bit of a challenge since Iowa's Tony Cassioppi was waiting for the Michigan big man. Cassioppi nearly knocked off Parris in dual competition and was hungry for a rematch. Apparently, Parris was too as he teched Cassioppi and stormed into his second NCAA final.

    A rematch of the Big Ten finals against Kerkvliet looked like it may head in a different direction as Kerkvliet got to a leg early in the bout. That proved to be just a fleeting moment, as Parris shrugged off the attempt for a takedown of his own. The initial attack from Kerkvliet represented the most danger Parris was in for the remainder of the bout. He'd cruise to a 5-1 victory and finished his collegiate career with a win and a national title.

    As Parris was making his way back to the media room for his post-match interview, our Rachel Gallardo caught Parris saying "We did it…finally."

    The "we" portion of Parris' comment is important because, while he was on the mat competing, there are so many people that went into a national title. Family, coaches, teammates, friends, and high school/club coaches. And, of course, the "finally" part. That's certainly a feeling from one of these seniors that felt they were good enough to win two or three titles, but eventually did it in that last opportunity.

    2023 197 lb national champion Nino Bonaccorsi

    Glory and Parris were both blue-chippers expected to contribute immediately in year one. Nino Bonaccorsi had the opportunity to redshirt in his first year with Pittsburgh. While Bonaccorsi was an excellent signing for the Panthers, he didn't have the fanfare that the other two carried. As a senior, Bonaccorsi fell in the state finals to Glory's eventual teammate Travis Stefanik of Nazareth High School.

    Bonaccorsi grew up just outside of Pittsburgh in Bethel Park and was the second member of his family to wrestle for the Panthers. His brother, Nick, was a three-time NCAA qualifier from 2013-16.

    After a redshirt year, Bonaccorsi put together a solid freshman season making the ACC finals and coming up a match shy of All-American status, losing to fellow Pennsylvania native Dakota Geer (Oklahoma State) in the bloodround at Pittsburgh's PPG Paints Arena.

    Bonaccorsi turned in a solid sophomore campaign, but ended up third in a deep ACC bracket that included NC State's Trent Hidlay and Virginia Tech's Hunter Bolen. Even with that finish he was seeded tenth in the ill-fated 2020 tournament.

    Once wrestling got back underway after the Covid cancellations, Bonaccorsi reemerged as a 197 lber. The move proved to be a good one as he captured the first of his three ACC titles and grabbed the sixth seed at the 2021 NCAA Championships. That tournament was Bonaccorsi's big breakout as he knocked off the third seed and made the NCAA finals, clinching All-American honors for the first time.

    Bonaccorsi, one of the preeminent offensive wrestlers at 197 lbs, would be stymied in the 2021 NCAA finals by AJ Ferrari, then of Oklahoma State.

    The 2022-23 season was another solid one for Bonaccorsi, yet he missed out on All-American honors after a second-round upset and a loss to Rocky Elam in the bloodround.

    In his final go 'round, Bonaccorsi picked up three key wins in his first four appearances (Michael Beard, Jaxon Smith, Zac Braunagel). Once both returning finalists stumbled, Bonaccorsi rose to #1 in the national rankings. He went through the regular season and ACC tournament unscathed and was the only constant in a 197 lb weight class filled with chaos.

    Most fans expected the 197 bracket in Tulsa to be the most unpredictable. That was partly because the returning champion was seeded ninth and his runner-up was seeded 14th. It's also a result of the Big Ten sucking up so much attention in the wrestling world. A wrestler like Bonaccorsi was largely an unknown commodity for a portion of the fanbase. This was despite an NCAA runner-up finish in 2021 and three ACC titles.

    Nino's final tournament mirrored his career at Pitt. He kind of just quietly chugs along and amassed win after win, rarely wowing the crowd, but getting the job done. In the quarterfinals, he downed the Big Ten champion Silas Allred in a bout that featured two of the best offensive wrestlers at the weight. That offense was on display in the semis as Bonaccorsi took it to Rider's Ethan Laird, 10-4.

    Bonaccorsi continued his workman-like approach in the finals by defeating the seventh-seed, South Dakota State's Tanner Sloan, 5-3.

    That championship gave Pittsburgh their first national championship since 2008 when Bonaccorsi's head coach Keith Gavin won at 174 lbs.

    Credit goes to whoever handles Twitter for the Pitt wrestling team as they made a post that outlined the similarities between Bonaccorsi and Gavin's careers. Neither was a Pennsylvania state champion, yet both were undefeated seniors who closed their careers out with a national title.

    Earlier I said that Glory is a great representation of Jersey. Well, Bonaccorsi embodies Pittsburgh pretty well himself. Not flashy and not attention-grabbing, but he just gets the job done. The Pittsburgh business community has taken notice of the local boy done good as there have been a handful of restaurants that have had Nino-inspired offerings within the last week.

    If you've been around wrestling, particularly at the collegiate level, for any length of time, you know that the sport isn't fair. Storybook endings are usually reserved for movies. What's more realistic is a star wrestler who is limited because of an ill-timed injury or loses in an upset after a momentary lapse. Or perhaps falling victim to the mental weight of past struggles. There are dozens of examples each year of wrestlers that had national title hopes dashed due to one of the previous statements (or some other factor).

    All three of these national champions have different stories, but they now can proudly wear the title "national champion." Each shrugged off years of heartbreak and failures to shine brightest when the stage was the biggest and in their final attempt.

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