Austin O'Connor faces Dean Heil in the co-main event of the Tar Heel Wrestling Open (Photo/Sam Janicki, SJanickiPhoto.com)
The Tar Heel Wrestling Club becomes the latest Regional Training Center to host its own event. The debut card dubbed the Tar Heel Wrestling Open will be an internet pay-per-view available through FITE TV on Friday at 8 p.m. ET.
In the main event, 2019 junior and U23 world silver medalist Macey Kilty tries to avenge a previous defeat against 2019 Senior Nationals champion Emma Bruntil. In the co-main event, UNC's national title contender Austin O'Connor takes on two-time NCAA champion Dean Heil. The following is a match-by-preview of the card.
Joe Heilmann vs. Nico Aguilar
After starting as a true freshman for North Carolina during the 2019 season, Heilmann redshirted last year. During his redshirt campaign, he went 21-9 in open tournaments with victories of the likes of Cayden Rooks (Indiana), Paul Glynn (Iowa) and Shane Metzler (Rutgers). While a starter in 2019, Heilmann finished fourth at the ACC tournament with tournament wins over Brendon Fenton (Pittsburgh) and Harrison Campbell (Duke).
Aguilar was the 125-pound starter for Rutgers this past season. He went 24-11 and placed ninth at the Big Ten tournament. Over the course of the season, Aguilar scored signature victories over Eric Barnett (Wisconsin), Michael DeAugustino (Northwestern) and Malik Heinselman (Ohio State). Following the season, he was awarded Honorable Mention All-American honors from the NWCA. Prior to coming to Rutgers, Aguilar was a California state champion for Gilroy High School.
Both of these wrestlers have experienced the grind of the Division I season. So far, Aguilar has experienced the higher level of success. This should be an interesting match, but the Rutgers wrestler's ability to finish through scrambles should help him pull out the victory.
Prediction: Aguilar VPO1 over Heilmann
Max Shaw vs. Jordan Pagano
Shaw was a WPIAL champion for Thomas Jefferson before joining the Tar Heels last season. During his redshirt year, he went 11-6 and won the Newberry Open. Shaw recently competed at Junior Nationals in the 86-kilogram division. He won his first two matches over Kenneth Prince and Cole Urbas before dropping his next two and falling out of the tournament.
Last spring Pagano finished his senior year at Rutgers. He went 22-8 and qualified for the NCAA tournament. He finished the year with injuries and did not compete in either of his matches at the Big Ten tournament. However, during the year, he picked up several impressive victories. He defeated Patrick Brucki (Princeton), Ethan Laird (Rider) and Jake Woodley (Oklahoma).
When he was healthy this past season, Pagano looked as if he was a contender to reach the All-American podium. If he has recovered, he should be able to dominate this match. Look for Pagano to have a physical advantage on the feet and do enough to take the bout.
Prediction: Pagano VPO over Shaw
Gabriel Tagg vs. Sammy Alvarez
Before joining the UNC program Tagg spent a year at the Olympic Training Center as part of the Elite Accelerator Program. He finished that year with a bronze medal at the 2019 Junior World Championships. Tagg redshirted during his first year at North Carolina. He went 15-5 with a 3-2 mark at the Midlands where he defeated Pat D'arcy (Princeton), Justin Stickley (Iowa) and Troy Stanich (Stevens Tech).
Alvarez started right away for Rutgers last year as a true freshman. He finished the year with a 26-10 record. Following the season, the NWCA awarded him with second-team All-American honors. During the year, Alvarez picked up wins over Ridge Lovett (Nebraska), Micky Phillippi (Pittsburgh) and Ramazan Attasauov (Iowa State), and he also finished first at the Southern Scuffle. Alvarez recently finished fifth at the recent Junior Nationals.
Tagg took some surprising losses during his redshirt year, but it looks like he will be back down at 133 pounds this upcoming season. This should be a good test since Alvarez was very much in the mix throughout the season last year. Alvarez goes for big moves in freestyle and might build an early lead. However, Tagg has an experience edge in freestyle, and that might pay dividends here.
Prediction: Tagg VPO1 over Alvarez
Jaime Hernandez vs. Kemol Bagakov
Hernandez qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time last year as a sophomore after finishing second at the ACC tournament for UNC. He finished the year 16-10 at 133 pounds. During the year, he scored key wins over Josh Kramer (Arizona State), Louie Hayes (Virginia) and Gavin Teasdale (Northern Iowa).
Bagakov is a recent addition to the New Jersey Regional Training Center. Per the website, he previously placed fifth at the Cadet World Championships.
There does not seem to be a lot of information available on Bagakov, which makes a prediction pretty difficult. Hernandez will look to get it done at his home event.
Prediction: Hernandez VPO1 over Bagakov
A.C. Headlee vs. Nestor Taffur
Headlee finished his North Carolina career this past year with a third straight NCAA qualifying season. Unfortunately, he never got the opportunity to try to break through and become an All-American. For the year, he moved up to 157 pounds and finished third at the ACC tournament. Headlee defeated multiple ranked wrestlers during the season including Taleb Tahmani (Pittsburgh) Brian LaPrade (Virginia Tech) and Will Lewan (Michigan). Headlee recently competed at the 2020 Senior Nationals where he went 2-2 with wins over Brenton Dotter and Cory Graham.
Taffur wrestled collegiately for Boston University, and he now competes internationally for Colombia. In his last tournament action, he attempted to qualify the 74-kilogram weight for the upcoming Games via the Pan American Olympic Qualification Tournament, but he finished fifth. Since then, Taffur has wrestled at both the Rumble on the Rooftop and NLWC second event. He dropped matches to Dylan Ness and Bekzod Abdurakhmonov respectively.
Taffur certainly has had the more extensive career, and he has been more active recently. With that being said, the wrestlers coming off their collegiate career often seem to have an advantage in matches like this. Look for Headlee to kick off his freestyle circuit career with a big win here.
Prediction: Headlee VPO1 over Taffur
Kennedy Monday vs. Mitch Finesilver
Monday and Finesilver wrestled twice during the 2018 college season. Their first meeting came during the North Carolina vs. Duke dual. In the bout, Finesilver took a 4-0 decision. The rematch came the following month at the ACC tournament. Monday closed the gap to a single point, Finesilver still took the 4-3 victory.
Following that match, Monday went on to qualify for the NCAA tournament and finish in the round of 12. This past season, he qualified once again after going 20-8 for the Tar Heels. During the year, he scored victories over the likes of Peyton Mocco (Missouri), Jake Wentzel (Pittsburgh) and David McFadden (Virginia Tech).
For the 2019 season, Finesilver finally broke through and became an All-American. After three previous trips to the NCAA tournament that ended short of the podium, he finished fourth as a senior with victories over Parker Kropman (Drexel), Cole Martin (Wisconsin), Pat Lugo (Iowa), Jared Prince (Navy) and Matt Kolodzik (Princeton). Finesilver represents Israel on the international stage and finished 13th at the 2020 European Championships.
This should be an interesting rematch under freestyle rules. In their last meeting, Finesilver spent a lot of time working from his knees in the neutral position. That option will not really be available in this match. If he can't get his hands on Monday, the North Carolina wrestler should be able to score from the outside with his leg attacks.
Prediction: Monday VPO1 over Finesilver
Clay Lautt vs. Joe Grello
Lautt started this past season for UNC at 174 pounds. He qualified for the NCAA tournament after winning the ACC tournament. The NWCA rewarded his efforts with an Honorable Mention All-American award after he went 21-7 on the year. Lautt's run through the ACC tournament was particularly impressive since he had to knock off both Daniel Bullard (NC State) and Gregg Harvey (Pittsburgh).
Grello is expected to return to Rutgers for his senior year. This past season, he suffered an injury in a match against Mark Hall (Penn State) back in January, and this match will be his first return to action. The previous season, as a sophomore, Grello qualified for the NCAA tournament at 174 pounds. That year, he went 18-11 and defeated the likes of Kimball Bastian (Utah Valley), Mitch Bowman (Iowa) and Travis Stefanik (Princeton).
Lautt really seemed to figure things out towards the end of last season. He would have been an interesting story at the NCAA tournament, since he was reversing results from earlier in the season. If he can keep that momentum going, he should be able to take the win over a wrestler coming off an injury.
Prediction: Lautt VPO1 over Grello
Matt Finesilver vs. C.J. Brucki
Finesilver redshirted this past season at Duke, and he is expected to return to the lineup with two years of eligibility remaining. For the 2019 season, he qualified for the NCAA tournament after finishing second at the ACC tournament. During the year, Finesilver defeated Grello, Bullard, Harvey and Marcus Coleman (Iowa State).
Brucki was a two-time NCAA qualifier for Central Michigan. During the 2017 season, he handed NCAA champion Mark Hall his first collegiate defeat. During his senior season, Brucki finished second in the MAC and defeated the likes of Sheldon Wright (Old Dominion), Devin Skatzka (Indiana), Hunter Bolen (Virginia Tech) and Johnny Sebastian (Northwestern). He recently entered the 2020 edition of Senior Nationals and finished eighth. Last Month, Brucki faced off against Max Dean on the third NLWC show and dropped a 13-4 decision.
Brucki showed a lot of offense early in his match against Dean. However, after some early success, he faded pretty hard. If Finesilver comes into this match prepared, he should be able to withstand the early offense from Brucki and take the decision.
Prediction: Finesilver VPO1 over Brucki
Austin O'Connor vs. Dean Heil
O'Connor was a clear contender for an NCAA title last season. As a sophomore at UNC, he went 25-1 and won the ACC title at 149 pounds. O'Connor's only defeat came against Pat Lugo (Iowa), who was expected to be the No. 1 seed that national tournament. During the year, the North Carolina representative knocked off the likes of Kizhan Clarke (American), Mike D'Angelo (Princeton) and Bryce Andorian (Virginia Tech).
Heil was a two-time NCAA champion and a three-time All-American for Oklahoma State. He finished his collegiate career in 2018 and has been competing on the freestyle circuit ever since. In 2019, Heil finished third at the Cerro Pelado International and won the Last Chance Senior World Team Trials Qualifier. So far this year, he brought home a silver medal from the Henri Deglane tournament in France. At the most recent Senior Nationals, Heil went 1-2 with a victory over Cody Trybus.
O'Connor has shown himself to be a contender on the collegiate level, and with a victory here, he could announce himself on the senior level as well. Per USA Wrestling, he has not competed in a major freestyle tournament since making the finals of the 2018 Junior World Team Trials. Considering the training environment at UNC, look for him to show the strides he has made since then.
Prediction: O'Connor VPO1 over Heil
Macey Kilty vs. Emma Bruntil
Kilty already has five world medals on the age group level. Last year, she took silver at both the Junior and U23 World Championships. This year she has expanded to a third age group. She competed at Senior, U23 and Junior Nationals. Kilty won the Junior and U23 tournaments by a combined 78-2 score. On the senior level, she finished second after dropping a one-point match against Jennifer Page in the finals.
As a freshman at McKendree this past season, Bruntil won a national title at the Cliff Keen WCWC Women's National Championships. A few months previous, she won the 2019 Senior Nationals at 62 kilograms.
On the way to her 2019 Senior Nationals title, Bruntil scored a 6-4 semifinal victory over Kilty. In the bout, Kilty got out to a two-point lead after working through a single leg. She expanded that lead in the second period after limping out of a whizzer to finish. Bruntil then got back in the match after surprising her opponent with a double leg for four. Kilty went for broke, knowing that Bruntil had the criteria, and gave up another two points on the failed attempt.
While Bruntil was able to score the upset, it really came down to one exchange. The four-point takedown really changed the complexion of the bout. If Kilty is able to stay alert and continue to attack with her single, she should be able to reverse the result from 2019.
Prediction: Kilty VPO over Bruntil