2021 NCAA All-American Zach Sherman (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
The Tar Heels capped off their season by bringing home a top-20 team finish for the fourth straight season, and three All-Americans for the first time since 1995; highlighted by Kizhan Clarke's run to the NCAA finals. We continue to see year-to-year improvement under Head Coach Coleman Scott and company. Coach Scott's first full recruiting class will be in their final year of eligibility this season and have formed the core of the team. They also continue to add depth with another solid recruiting class, ranked #11 by Matscouts and #16 by Intermat, which contains four top-100 recruits and another at #110. The team will have a great mix of experienced leadership and young talent in the room and will be challenging for an ACC title this year.
The Tar Heels ended the year with a lot of uncertainty about who would be utilizing their extra year of eligibility and returning to Chapel Hill. In a group announcement this summer, four starters from Coach Coleman Scott's first full recruiting class announced that they would all be returning for one final run for the Tar Heels. Jaime Hernandez, Zach Sherman, Austin O'Connor and Clay Lautt are core leaders on the team and their decision to return will play a huge role in the success of the program this season.
Jaime Hernandez started the year undefeated at 5-0 before suffering a serious injury in the dual against Rutgers. Hernandez attempted to return for ACC competition against UVA, but the injury continued to linger and he sat out the remainder of the season. He enters this season ranked #11 and has high expectations.
Zach Sherman had a difficult season at 149 coming off of an All-American performance at 141 in 2021. He faced one of the most difficult schedules in the country both in and out of conference and fought through a hip injury for the back half of the season. Sherman finished the year at 10-11 and went 2-2 at the NCAA tournament. I think Sherman will be better adapted to 149 this year and is in position to end his career on the podium.
Austin O'Connor showed his grit at both the ACC and NCAA tournaments, fighting through a very obviously painful knee injury. He has earned All-American honors at every NCAA tournament he has attended--3rd/COVID/1st/8th--and the fight he showed to earn it last year was nothing short of impressive. I love the idea of O'Connor having another shot at the top of the podium this season. The ACC will be a battle at this weight as they have the pre-season #5, #6, #7, #12 and #13 which will certainly prepare him for another run.
Clay Lautt had been on the cusp of All-American honors and finally made his breakthrough last year, placing 8th in a loaded weight class both in the ACC and nationally. Lautt was 18-8 on the season and made a splash nationally by pinning Hayden Hidlay in their dual. Lautt was 4-1 in conference with his lone loss to Mekhi Lewis. Lautt would wrestle Lewis three times on the year; in the dual, ACC finals and at the NCAA tournament; he closed the gap through the matches, but was 0-3 against the NCAA champ/two-time finalist from Blacksburg. Lautt had a strong NCAA tournament, beating Peyton Mocco to secure his first All-American honors. He has been a consistent force since moving up to 174 after his freshman year, and I expect to see him back on the podium this year.
The Tar Heels only lost one starter to graduation but it is a big one; Kizhan Clarke transferred to Chapel Hill for one year and made the most of his time in the lineup. Clarke had an incredible regular season (17-1) before having a nightmare of an ACC tournament, going 0-2 and qualifying via wildcard to the NCAA tournament. Once in Detroit, Clarke went on a run, avenging losses to two ACC foes-Ryan Jack in the opening round and Cole Matthews in SV3 in the semifinals; he also beat multiple-time All-American Jaydin Eireman en route to the finals. Clarke came out attacking in the finals, but fell to two-time NCAA Champion Nick Lee.
Joe Heilmann, who was the starter at 133 for the second half of the season after Jaime Hernandez was injured, transferred to Rutgers.
The transfer of Clarke for a year enabled Lachlan McNeil to redshirt and gain a valuable year of experience in the college room. Lachlan is one of the most intriguing prospects to watch this year and has incredible potential. He was a top-10 PFP recruit with Ironman, Super32, and National Prep titles during his time at Wyoming Seminary. He has had success on the freestyle circuit for Team Canada and competed in the Senior World Championships this fall. McNeil was 6-1 during his redshirt year, including a win over conference foe Ryan Jack. McNeil has the potential to make a big impact at this weight nationally and will be one to watch closely throughout the season.
Jack Wagner transferred from Northern Iowa and will fill the 125 spot for his grad year while last year's starter Spencer Moore takes a redshirt year. 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.
WRESTLER TO WATCH
With the core that is returning for the Tar Heels, it's hard to choose one wrestler to focus on here. I think McNeil is going to make an immediate impact as a freshman, and the senior core of Hernandez, Sherman, O'Connor and Lautt all have the tools to be on the podium in March.
Gavin Kane had a phenomenal regular season last year after settling in at 184. He began the season at 174 after beating Lautt in the wrestle-off; both wrestlers did better at their final weights. Kane started 11-0 at 184 and was 4-0 to kick off his ACC season, including a 3-1 sudden victory win over 2021 All-American Hunter Bolen, before losing his final match to two-time All-American Trent Hidlay. He knocked off Bolen again 4-3 in TB1 to face Hidlay in the ACC Finals, but dropped by major decision. He qualified for the NCAA tournament where he had a disappointing 0-2 finish. That final run for the season is motivating Kane for a podium finish this year. He was great to watch last year as a freshman and you could see him maturing with every match. Kane is going to do big things for the Tar Heels and I think we see him on the podium in March.
The weight to watch for the Tar Heels will be at 165 where we will see experienced starters like Sonny Santiago, Geno Esposito and Joey Mazzara fighting for the spot with scrappy true freshmen Nick Fea and Marcus Murabito. This weight will be a battle throughout the year and may not have a full-time starter until ACC duals. UNC held their prelim matches for wrestle-offs with Nick Fea and Geno Esposito coming out of the mini-tournament to face each other on Friday night. Don't be surprised to see different starters at this weight to see how they perform under the lights.
Top Out-of-Conference Dual
Coach Scott continues to schedule top out-of-conference duals to prepare the Tar Heels for the ACC season and postseason. The first two weeks of the season will see them face #4 Ohio State, #8 Michigan and #29 Campbell; they are also slated to attend the Collegiate Duals and will be in a pool with #1 Penn State and Central Michigan, they will face either #6 Cornell, #13 Iowa State or Oregon State on the second day of duals.
The Tar Heels have a big weekend to open dual season. They will face Campbell in a dual on 11/11-Veteran's Day-that will be in a special setting that will be announced soon by Campbell. They will then host the Wolverines on 11/13 for Doubles on the Diamond on the UNC baseball field. It will be a great dual based on matchups and with the presentation.
#29 Campbell vs #18 UNC
141: #19 Shannon Hanna vs Lachlan McNeil
174: #19 Austin Murphy vs #5 Clay Lautt
184: #21 Caleb Hopkins vs #10 Gavin Kane
#8 Michigan vs #18 UNC
133: #6 Dylan Ragusin vs #11 Jaime Hernandez
149: #23 Chance Lamer vs #15 Zach Sherman
157: #2 Will Lewan vs #7 Austin O'Connor
184: #10 Gavin Kane vs #15 Matt Finesilver
2021-2022 record in parentheses
125: Jack Wagner (11-10 at UNI)
133: #11 Jaime Hernandez (6-2) 1x NCAA Qualifier
141: Lachlan McNeil (6-1) 1st Wolfpack Open
149: #15 Zach Sherman (10-11) All-American (7th in 2021) ACC Champion 4x NCAA Qualifier
157: #7 Austin O'Connor (21-3) National Champion (2021) 3x All-American (3/COVID/1/8)
165: Sonny Santiago (9-12)
Isaias Estrada (12-7)
Joey Mazzarra (10-2)
Geno Esposito--Out last season with injury. Moving up from 149.
Nick Fea--True Freshman
Marcus Murabito--True Freshman
174: #5 Clay Lautt (18-8) All-American (8th in 2022) 3x NCAA Qualifier
184: #10 Gavin Kane (16-6 overall 12-4 at 184) ACC Runner-Up NCAA Qualifier
197: #29 Max Shaw (11-10) 1x NCAA Qualifier
285: Brandon Whitman (13-14) 1x NCAA Qualifier