PITTSBURGH — Pennsylvania is a wrestling state.
It’s been this way for decades, and to bring the NCAA wrestling tournament back to this state, well, it just feels right. Pittsburgh head coach Keith Gavin said as much in his press conference on Wednesday, and his connection to the state is personal, as he has three wrestlers completing at this tournament from the state of Pennsylvania with one from the city of Pittsburgh specifically.
"When it was announced (that the tournament would be in Pittsburgh), I didn't really think too much about it," Gavin said. "There was a lot going on at the time. I kind of played it off like I did this and got it here, but that wasn't the case. But for our guys, like I said, a lot of them — we have five qualifiers, three of them are from right here. It's special for them and it will never happen again for them. For them it's being grateful for this opportunity and making the most out of it."
Gavin knows what it's like to wrestle on the big stage in a Pittsburgh singlet, as the Factoryville, Pennsylvania native wrestled for head coach Rande Stottlemyer, another former Pitt wrestler, during his collegiate career with the Panthers. He won the national title in 2008 at 174 pounds and stayed in Pittsburgh until 2012 before moving to Ohio to train with Ohio State head coach Tom Ryan at the Ohio Regional Training Center. Since 2017, Gavin's been back in his home state leading his alma mater to great success at the conference and national level, and this is his moment to shine. Pittsburgh has not won a national title since Gavin had his hand raised on the mat 11 years ago. He's hoping that streak will end this weekend, in his home state, at the national championships hosted by his team.
Pitt's highest-seeded wrestler at this tournament, redshirt freshman Micky Phillippi, hails from Derry, Pennsylvania and will chase a title at 125 pounds. Phillippi, is joined at this tournament by teammates Nino Bonaccorsi and Kellan Stout, both from Pennsylvania, and Taleb Rahmani and Demetrius Thomas who hail from Ohio and Missouri, respectively. Will one of these Pitt wrestlers win a title? That remains to be seen, but what is for certain is that these wrestlers will join a long line of successful grapplers who either hail from or have competed in the Keystone State and had the privilege of battling at the highest level of college wrestling
Bonaccorsi, Stout and Phillippi are three of the 54 wrestlers from this state, a total that is more than double any other. New Jersey comes in at No. 2 with 24 wrestlers. Of these 54 wrestlers from the Keystone State, five, including Stout, call Pittsburgh their home town.
Welcome back to Steel City, men.
TRACK LIVE RESULTS: Live results and team scores for the 2019 championships
Every wrestler in this tournament has a story, but these five Pittsburgh natives each have their own journey that took them from this town to college and now back here for the championship. Let's meet the five Pittsburgh natives:
Stout, Pitt's only wrestler from the city of Pittsburgh, has a history with the city that dates back to his father, who served as a volunteer assistant coach for the Panthers from 2002-2011 after earning four All-American honors as a wrestler for Clarion. Stout dropped to No. 10 Tom Sleigh in his first bout of nationals but will return for another challenge tonight.
Ohio State's Te'Shan Campbell also has a strong relationship to his hometown, having won the 2015 PIAA state championship at 170 pounds and finishing that year undefeated. He then attended Pitt from 2015-2017 before transferring to wrestle for Tom Ryan and the Buckeyes. The senior is making his fourth appearance at this tournament but chasing his first All-American honor. Campbell picked up an upset win in his first round bout against Ebed Jarrell of Drexel, and he'll carry this momentum into his next battle in the championship bracket. The scene is set well from Campbell, and if goes out a champion, he'll do so with his friends and family from home in the stands.
The highest-ranked Pittsburgh native stayed local for his college experience, and already he's won two national titles. Yep, he's Vincenzo Joseph, the junior Nittany Lion seeded second in this tournament and looking to defend his title again. Joseph holds the unique honor of being the first Penn State wrestler to win national titles his freshman and sophomore seasons for the Blue and White. He picked up a fall in his 2019 national championship debut this morning, following the lead set by his 157-pound teammate Jason Nolf. This is Penn State's style, and Joseph will aim to keep the bonus points rolling as he strives to advance to the finals once again.
WRESTLERS TO WATCH: 5 wrestlers we underestimated this season
Working our way down the East Coast is Gage Curry of American, wrestling for Pennsylvania native and head coach Teague Moore, who won this tournament in 1998. Curry is making his second showing at nationals, and though he suffered a fall in his first bout of the tournament, the American sophomore has a chance to stay alive in the consolation bracket. If he fights his way back to the podium, he'll be the first Eagle All-American since David Terao accomplished the feat in 2016 at the same weight. Curry does have an advantage as he heads into his second match: Terao will be in his corner coaching the young grappler.
The final Pittsburgh native making himself known at this tournament is Oklahoma's Jake Woodley, a redshirt freshman Sooner who won the Pennsylvania state tournament twice. Woodley redshirted his first season with the Sooners but still racked up some accolades during the year. He finished third in Junior Freestyle at the 2018 Marine Cup US Open Wrestling Championships in the 92 kg weight class.
This weekend is a homecoming for these five guys, and they'll look to make some noise in a hometown arena. It's going to take more than some local support to elevate them though, and all five guys know that.