2022 NCAA All-American and U23 national champion Cole Matthews (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
Pitt's Cole Matthews could have been in a worse spot than having to rely on a Yianni Diakomihalis win at Final X in New York and hope it sways him away from claiming the 65-kilogram spot on the U23 World Team. Diakomihalis has the first right of refusal for that spot, in addition to the Senior World Team spot he claimed by sweeping Evan Henderson in their best-of-3 Final X matchup.
The day after that win, Diakomihalis hasn't yet reached a decision on whether he will compete on both world teams or focus on the Senior level, Cornell coach Mike Grey said. Diakomihalis has until June 27 to make that decision, which will have an impact on Matthews' summer and fall plans. The Senior World Championships are in Serbia in September, and U23 Worlds are in Spain in October, which makes competing in both a legitimate scenario.
The spot being in flux didn't stop Matthews from being hopeful in the aftermath of Yianni's win.
"I think we all knew that two out of three, Yianni was probably going to win, but then after that first one where he was scoring double digits on him, you're like, 'Ooh, this could be pretty interesting,'" Matthews said. "At the Final X stage, everything gets a little closer, so it kind of made sense. But after the second one, I was pretty damn happy."
Matthews is also pretty damn deserving after a calendar year that started with rehab from a torn ACL, featured the biggest breakthrough of his career, along with his first trip to the NCAA podium, and now a U23 victory that included revenge wins over Nebraska's Ridge Lovett, who beat him in the U20 finals, and Ohio State's Dylan D'Emilio, who beat him in a dual last season.
Matthews rolled into the U23 quarterfinals with three straight tech falls, then took a 13-2 tech over Rutgers' Sammy Alvarez and scored a late crotch lift to turn a 5-4 deficit to Lovett into a 6-5 win in the final 10 seconds of the semifinals.
Matthews built an early 6-0 lead in Round 1 of the finals against D'Emilio, then withstood a comeback to tie it at 6 and scored the winning points on a go-behind and a turn in the final 20 seconds. D'Emilio flipped the script in Round 2 by jumping out to a 4-1 lead, but Matthews charged back to sweep the series with an 8-4 win.
All of Matthews' best qualities were on full display throughout the run at U23s, but most of all his ability to remain calm in the midst of chaos and to never flinch in his positioning. It's the same formula that had him in the NCAA semifinals and eventually placing fifth at 141 pounds.
"His composure within the match is a nice improvement," Pitt coach Keith Gavin said. "He's always been pretty composed, but he's getting better at being more efficient with his energy. There are certain positions where he knows he has to explode and go get it because these are positions that favor him. Again, that comes with maturity and experience."
Matthews at U23's with Luke Pletcher (left) and Drew Headlee (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
Part of that learning experience has been daily battles with Pitt volunteer assistant Luke Pletcher, who Matthews says is a virtual clone of his body type and wrestling style. Matthews gives plenty of credit to Pletcher for helping to unlock the best version of himself through the work they do together, while imparting some of his strengths into him.
Pletcher was a two-time NCAA All-American and four-time NCAA qualifier during his time at Ohio State behind a style built on a high wrestling IQ and compact power. His influence in those departments has only helped Matthews reinforce existing strengths in his game, allowing him to stay in remarkably good position through even the wildest scrambles.
Through that process and an early-season hot streak that Matthews kicked off with a big win over Michigan's Stevan Micic, he started to look like a brand new wrestler.
"That's about as big as anything else," Pletcher said of Matthews' poise and confidence. "Everything has its part, but if the moment is too big for you, it doesn't matter how well you do in practice. It doesn't mean that much if you can't control your actions when all the stress is there and everything is on the line. He's able to keep his calm, see everything for what it is, and not let the highs get him too high."
After beating Lovett in the U23 semifinals, Matthews looked like he had just rolled off the couch from a Sunday afternoon nap.
But apparently, he was feeling more alive on the inside, because he said he feeds off emotion and energy in matches. Matthews has learned to harness that unique combination of energy and calm to make his style work for him. He's never had a better feel than he does right now for when to be patient in matches and when to press.
"I'm a pretty emotional guy, even if I don't look like it," Matthews said. "I kind of form my wrestling around what's around me. You've got low-energy Keith Gavin telling me everything's going to be fine. You've got Drew Headlee looking like his head's about to pop off sometimes, and Pletcher just straight-faced staring at me.
"I try to dumb things down a little bit because that's what works for me."
The self-deprecation doesn't do Matthews' technique justice, just as the improvements in his game don't do justice to the story of his wrestling career.
The kid wrestled through a torn ACL with understandable limitations to his game as a redshirt sophomore in 2020-'21, but he gutted out a third-place finish at the ACC Championships and qualified for NCAAs for a second straight season.
Given the condensed COVID season and the urgency Matthews felt to make the most of his window to compete on the collegiate stage, he said he only had one choice: Battle.
"It was like, 'It's your choice. You do whatever you can do with what's going on,' and it really wasn't an option because it was already a shortened season anyway," he said. "It's like, I've only got such a small window in college to compete, so if I'm not screaming out there in pain, you've got to go out there and at least try to compete with it."
Matthews underwent surgery after that season and was still in recovery mode through the early part of the 2021-'22 season. He returned to the mat looking to get back to 100 percent physically, but to also find himself mentally.
Cole Matthews in his breakout win over Stevan Micic (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
The win over Micic was part of a 16-match winning streak that earned Matthews ACC Wrestler of the Month honors in January and unlocked a whole new level of confidence. After limping through a challenging season and offseason, he officially arrived and went on a tear through the remainder of his schedule, through NCAAs and U23 Nationals.
At his lowest moment against Micic, a nudge from his corner helped to propel him down that path.
"You try to give yourself every reason to, maybe take yourself out of a match sometimes," Matthews said. "It's like, 'I'm still coming back from ACL surgery. Maybe I'll just not push through it in the third period or something.' I think I found that stride when the coaches were yelling at me in my match against Micic. They were screaming, 'Finish this match right now!' And I was like, 'Oh god, yeah, I should go finish this.'"
Matthews hasn't looked back since, though he had a couple outcomes he wanted back at NCAAs with an ultimate tiebreaker loss to North Carolina's Kizhan Clarke in the semifinals and then another tight loss to Oregon State's Grant Willits in the consolation semifinals. Matthews bounced back with a 7-3 win over Stanford's Real Woods in the fifth-place match.
That performance, followed by his U23 title, was a very real demonstration of how far Matthews has come since he got healthy. At the same time, he was left with examples of matches he could still open up and win, so he'll remain hopeful about a spot on the World Team and train with those objectives in the back of his mind. The goal is to unlock an even better version of Cole Matthews this fall and into his redshirt senior season.
"He definitely could still improve," Gavin said. "He was in some tight matches, and you want to widen the gap. He was fifth place last year, and fifth place isn't what he wanted to be, so there's certainly lots to improve on. It's the same as everybody, but he's at that level now. He found his lane, and now you keep building on it until no one can beat you."