Austin O'Connor at the 2022 NCAA Championships (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
In 2022, the Tar Heels capped off a fourth straight top-20 finish at NCAA's and brought home three All-American finishes--their most since 1995. Kizhan Clarke highlighted the tournament with an incredible run to the NCAA finals. Clarke entered the tournament with an at-large berth after an 0-2 day at the ACC tournament. He avenged a loss to NC State's Ryan Jack to start the tournament, then upset second-seeded Jaydin Eierman in sudden victory. He continued his impressive performance with a decision over Jake Bergeland and a win by riding time in SV3 against ACC foe Cole Matthews; avenging his only regular-season loss. Clarke came out shooting in the finals, but ultimately fell to Nick Lee who picked up his second NCAA title.
Austin O'Connor also put on an impressive performance to end his weekend on the podium. He came into the tournament with an evident knee injury; after being upset in the opening round by Dazjon Casto of The Citadel (now at Pittsburgh). He won four straight matches to earn All-American honors, before medically defaulting out of the tournament. Clay Lautt was the final All-American for the Tar Heels, bringing home an eighth-place finish in a tough174 pound weight class.
Coming into the new season, the Tar Heels will return the bulk of their lineup. They are only losing one full-time starter in NCAA finalist Kizhan Clarke. Joe Heilmann, who split time at 133 with Jaime Hernandez, transferred in the offseason. Coleman Scott and company are also bringing in a solid recruiting class--ranked #11 by Matscouts and #16 by Intermat--that contains four top-100 recruits and another at #110. With the announcement that the nucleus of the lineup will return, this class will have a year to adjust to the college grind before entering the lineup.
#42 Danny Nini: Lake Highland, FL 141/149
#50 Jayden Scott: Henrietta, NY 157
#53 Cole Hunt: Dalton, GA 125/133
#66 Noah Pettigrew: Valdosta (GA) 197/285
#110 Nick Fea: Bergen Catholic (NY) 165
NR Max Martin: Great Bridge, VA 125
NR Cade Tenold: Don Bosco, IA 184
NR Carson Tenold: Don Bosco, IA 197
The Tar Heels challenged themselves with a tough dual slate last season, and I expect the schedule to be as challenging, if not more so this year. There will be a couple non-typical dual setups this year that will be announced soon and they will be awesome. With the experience in this lineup, they will be poised to make a run at the ACC title and make a splash on the national scene.
125: Jack Wagner-Transfer from Northern Iowa
Wagner will fill the 125 spot for his grad year while last year's starter Spencer Moore takes a redshirt year. Moore was one win away (one takedown call, really) from qualifying for NCAAs last year. He was the youngest wrestler in the country, but still put up a fight in every match, and improved throughout the year. I think he will leave a mark on the ACC before his time in Chapel Hill is up. Wagner is an experienced starter from UNI that has seen time at 125, 133 and 141. He is above .500 for his career and the staff seems to be very excited about him joining the lineup for a season.
133: Jaime Hernandez
Hernandez was sidelined with a pretty serious injury that occurred during the duals against Rutgers and Wisconsin. Hernandez attempted to come back against UVA, but was clearly still struggling due to the injury. He was undefeated at 5-0 before then and lost three matches after trying to return to the lineup. Hernandez has a lot of upside and has a potent offensive arsenal, I'm looking forward to seeing him make another run and hopefully staying healthy.
141: Lachlan McNeil
McNeil is the wrestler I am most excited to see next year. He has a very high ceiling and will immediately make an impact for the Tar Heels. McNeil was a major recruit for the Tar Heels--he was ranked #9 PFP, and earned titles at National Preps, Ironman, and Super 32. He is a native of Canada and competed in high school at Wyoming Seminary; he is on the Canadian National Team and will compete at 65kg for Team Canada at the World Championships. McNeil was 6-1 in his redshirt year, including a win over NCAA qualifier Ryan Jack of NC State. The UNC coaches were happy to get McNeil a redshirt year behind Kizhan Clarke and have high praise for the growth he made in his first year in Chapel Hill. Keep him on your radar, he has the potential to make a lot of noise nationally.
149: Zach Sherman
After earning All-American status at 141 in 2021, Sherman moved up to 149 where he faced one of the most difficult schedules in the nation. Sherman faced seven of the eight All-Americans this season; he was 0-8 in these matches, though, 7 of the 8 were decision losses, several by 2 or fewer points. After a difficult start in the first half of the season, Sherman adjusted well and had a much stronger second half, culminating in his 4th trip to the NCAA tournament. Sherman will be returning for his final season and I expect him to be much more comfortable at the weight--I think it was a difficult transition to a new weight, especially with his schedule and a loaded ACC field at 149. He will provide a consistent presence and leadership in the middle of the lineup, along with AOC.
157: Austin O'Connor
In the past two seasons, we have seen O'Connor battle his way to an NCAA championship and fight through the pain of a serious knee injury to stand on the All-American podium again this season in Detroit. He is a leader that speaks through his actions, and will be in the thick of the national champion talks again this season. With the way his season ended, I wasn't sure that we would see O'Connor back on the mat for the Tar Heels, but we will get to enjoy the show for another season after all. O'Connor is a three-time All-American (3,1,8) and was an NWCA All-American during the COVID season. I have no doubt that he will add another trophy to his collection this season.
165: Sonny Santiago/Isaias Estrada
This is the weight that has the least consistency and experience for UNC. Both Santiago and Estrada saw starting time last season, with Santiago getting the nod for the ACC tournament. Santiago finished 9-12. Estrada had his redshirt pulled late in the season and was the starter for the duals against Virginia Tech and NC State. This will be a competitive battle for the starting spot, and should see improved results over last season with another year of experience for both wrestlers.
174: Clay Lautt
Lautt had quite the run last season. He was the ACC champ at 174 in 2021 and made the bloodround at the NCAA tournament; he was then upset by Gavin Kane in the wrestle-off and started the season at 184. As the weights stabilized Lautt solidified his spot at 174, and Kane made his mark at 184, and both went on to have great seasons. Lautt had big wins over ACC foes Matt Finesilver and got national attention with his pin over Hayden Hidlay. He made the ACC finals where he fell to Mekhi Lewis 4-2. Lautt placed eighth and made his first podium at the NCAA tournament with a bloodround win over Peyton Mocco (Missouri). Lautt has improved his NCAA performance every year as a starter, with the leaps he has made, I expect that streak to continue in his final season.
184: Gavin Kane
Kane had an outstanding season, especially after solidifying his spot at 184. He was undefeated at 184, until dropping his final regular-season ACC match against Trent Hidlay. Kane was 11-1 going into the ACC tournament, where he lost in the finals to Hidlay. Kane had a poor showing at the NCAA tournament, unexpectedly going 0-2, but I believe this will drive him to a better finish next year. Kane showed tremendous growth last season, and a lot of maturity on the mat for a younger wrestler. With three more years ahead of him, Kane has a lot of time to make his mark on UNC wrestling--and I think he will. He has a lot of potential and showed this in two wins over All-American Hunter Bolen--these matches also showcased his ability to be creative in scoring against a stingy defensive wrestler.
197: Max Shaw
Max has been a quietly consistent wrestler since arriving in Chapel Hill. He was an NCAA qualifier in 2021, and narrowly missed out on qualifying again this season. He showed improvement and closed the scoring gap in his second match against conference opponents at the ACC tournament. Shaw has shown the ability to put up points in bunches, but has struggled to get his offense going against higher-level wrestlers; he will need to improve in this area to help the Tar Heels to be in contention for a team title.
285: Brandon Whitman
Whitman enters the season as the prohibitive favorite for Mustache of the Year for the ACC; he was runner-up to Quinn Miller last season. I expect him to step up his game on the mat and with his mustache. Whitman had an up and down season last year; he was in a lot of close matches that didn't fall his way. The first half of the season was a struggle against some top-tier B1G heavyweights, but it helped prepare him for a strong second-half run. He went 2-2 at the ACC tournament and was one win away from qualifying for his second NCAA tournament. With the graduation of Nathan Traxler and Quinn Miller, Whitman is now the senior of the ACC heavyweight class and has wins over three likely starters. The Tar Heels need a solid anchor at the top of the lineup and will be looking to Whitman to fill this role.