Pitt wrestling has found much success on the mat this year, as five Panthers had a chance to wrestle at the NCAA Championships this year. Among those five wrestlers, two of them — redshirt senior Jake Wentzel and redshirt junior Nino Bonaccorsi — not only won ACC titles in their respective weight classes, but worked their way up through the NCAA Championship bracket and had a shot at an NCAA title.
Redshirt junior Micky Phillippi also put up a strong performance in the ACC championships, placing second in his weight class. The other two Pitt wrestlers to qualify were redshirt sophomore Cole Matthews and redshirt senior Gregg Harvey.
The five Panthers who competed in the NCAA Championships have one thing in common — they’re all from Pennsylvania. In fact, 27 of the 31 wrestlers on Pitt’s roster hail from Pennsylvania. Pitt’s head coach, Keith Gavin, is also from Pennsylvania and had a successful career as a Panther wrestler.
Gavin said recruiting locally is vital to Pitt because of how good the talent is in the area.
“We certainly recognize that we are in a very good area for recruiting, and western PA in particular is always strong so no doubt, we recruit all over, but our team will always be heavily Pennsylvania kids,” Gavin said.
According to Gavin, Pennsylvania has the most national qualifiers every year and the most All-Americans. He added that this is not a new trend, as it’s been happening for years.
The localized roster and recruiting isn’t solely based on how much wrestling talent comes out of Pennsylvania — there are certain advantages for athletes to go to a college close to home. Gavin said his local wrestlers have some advantages compared to guys from further away.
“Our home matches are true home matches for them,” Gavin said. “Their family and friends are all there, so that’s pretty cool and makes for a good atmosphere for them.”
Bonaccorsi and Wentzel are two local recruits. Both come from the South Hills of Pittsburgh. Bonaccorsi grew up in Bethel Park, just about a 20-minute drive from Pitt’s campus, making the comforts of home easily accessible.
“My family is really close and they can come to the matches, and what’s nice also is I can go home whenever I want, and I’m not really stuck down at school,” Bonaccorsi said.
Easy access to home has its benefits, according to Wentzel, who grew up about 15 minutes away from Oakland in South Park. He highlighted the benefits he’s experienced going to a school that’s close to home.
“I like being able to go home and see my parents, play with my dogs, then come back to school,” Wentzel said. “I’ve done laundry like two times at college, so that’s another big plus. But being able to go home, have a meal and hang out with my parents is pretty nice.”
Since many Pitt wrestlers grew up wrestling in western Pennsylvania, they have formed an uncommon bond by arriving at Pitt out of high school.
Many of them have wrestled against each other in years prior, and others have trained together growing up while attending the same camps and competing for the same teams. They lived very close to one another before coming to Pitt, and as Wentzel describes it, they are all familiar with one another.
“We all practiced with each other, so from the time we were 8 years old we would go to the same tournaments, wrestle with each other, practice with each other and wrestle at the same clubs,” Wentzel said.
Bonaccorsi said this creates an atmosphere that’s familiar and comfortable, which makes the transition from high school to college much easier and benefits the team’s overall performance.
“The team has a camaraderie just because we’re all local boys, so that’s a huge benefit I think,” Bonaccorsi said. “Especially in close matches, you’re rooting for guys you grew up wrestling with.”
Pennsylvania has a reputation for producing one talented wrestler after another, according to Gavin, so it makes sense that Pennsylvania has the most NCAA Division I wrestling programs with 11. In an effort to stand out among those schools to local athletes, Gavin said he tries to make sure he sells Pitt as different from the other programs they have to choose from.
“We just kind of stick to ‘what’s our niche?’ as a program and as a coaching staff and we don’t try and think about what those other programs are doing,” Gavin said. “We just have to be ourselves and that’s how we try and separate ourselves from them.”
Wentzel said the education and atmosphere separates Pitt. He said very few schools can be as close as to the city and offer an education as highly regarded as Pitt’s.
“The state schools like Lock Haven and Clarion can’t really compete with education, and also being in the city is really a rare atmosphere,” Wentzel said. “You don’t really have that many opportunities to go to a school like Pitt.”
Pitt stands out in a talented high school wrestling area, and its geographic proximity to such wrestlers pays dividends in recruiting and competition. Pitt finished its season ranked 16th in the country, placing fifth at the ACC Championships and 11th at the NCAA Championships.
For some, like Bonaccorsi, Pitt was a no-brainer. Bonaccorsi’s father wrestled at Pitt, and his brother also went to Pitt. He used to head down to Panther wrestling practices and get familiar with the team and the staff. When it came to making a decision on a college, the process was seamless.
“I committed pretty early,” Bonaccorsi said. “Obviously it’s nice being this close to home, but the school in general was just a really good fit for me. I didn’t really look anywhere else, and when it was signing day, shortly after I signed with Pitt.”
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