In 1963, Pittsburgh finished fourth at the NCAA championships. It marked the 12th consecutive season of earning a top-10 finish at collegiate wrestling’s top event.
Incredibly, only once since then – in 1970 – have the Panthers been among the final 10 at an NCAA tournament.
Those powerful 1950s teams, coached by Hall of Famer Rex Peery, had plenty of star power with Hugh and Ed Peery, Ed DeWitt, and Joe Defelice to name a few.
Matching the team success of those Peery-coached squads has been hard to come by, however. Pitt has finished 15th at the past two NCAA championships, the best for the program since 1989 when they were 13th. First-year head coach Jason Peters wants to bring the program back to those glory days of a half century ago.
A possible sign of things to come occurred last Sunday in Fitzgerald Fieldhouse when Pitt knocked off perennial power Oklahoma State 19-18. Peters’ squad moved from 13th to eighth in the USA Today/NWCA/AWN Coaches Poll released on Tuesday.
Oklahoma State head coach John Smith is a believer.
“I don’t think there is any question that [Pittsburgh] is a program you are probably going to see inside the top 10 consistently,” Smith said. “There are so many recruits right now within a short distance of that campus; they’ve put together a couple of good classes with some guys we were trying to sign.”
Not far from the Pittsburgh campus, another Pennsylvania school is in the middle of an incredible run. Penn State, since Cael Sanderson’s arrival, has upped the ante, not just in Pennsylvania, but everywhere.
“Wrestling has always been important in Pennsylvania,” said Peters, a 1992 PIAA Class AA champion for Hershey High School and NCAA qualifier for East Stroudsburg in 1997.
“We talk about it all the time, about raising the expectations and trying to accomplish some things now instead of waiting and talking about what we could be.
“It’s not easy.”
Earlier this season, Peters’ group was part of an NCAA-record 15,996 in a dual against the top-ranked Nittany Lions. Last Sunday, Pitt faced off against the 2013 NCAA runners-up and won a thriller.
Two freshmen sparked the Panthers early.
Edgar Bright, a product of Ohio’s St. Edwards, beat Oklahoma State’s talented rookie Anthony Collica, 10-5, at 141 pounds. Mike Racciato, of Pen Argyl, Pa., then provided the big blow of the dual when he reversed and pinned fellow Pennsylvanian Josh Kindig in the first period.
Fifth-year senior P.J. Tasser provided perhaps the biggest victory of the day. From Belle Vernon, Pa., Tasser has competed everywhere from 165 pounds to heavyweight during his career. Against the Cowboys, the 215-pound “heavyweight” beat Austin Marsden in overtime to tie the dual at 18 – Racciato’s pin provided the tiebreaker with both squads winning five bouts.
“I would say this is one of the best wins we’ve had as a team,” said Tasser after the dual. “Just showing that we’re resilient, and we’re not going to give up.
“We don’t care if you’re fifth in the country. We’re going to come out, and we’re still going to try and win.”
“I think it comes down to good kids, about finding those kids who will buy into your program and put in the work,” Peters said. “It’s about finding guys like P.J. Tasser. He’s wrested five weights for us and to be a fifth-year senior and to get a big win like he did [against Oklahoma State] is big for him and this program.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get guys to buy into the team concept because we are in such an individualized sport. Right now we have some guys who want to win as a team, not just individuals.”
Former members of the Eastern Wrestling League, Pittsburgh is in its first year of competition in the Atlantic Coast Conference. In dual wins against Maryland, North Carolina State and Duke, the Panthers have outscored their opponents 77-26. On Friday, Pitt faces Virginia, who, along with Maryland and Virginia Tech, have been the top dogs in the ACC the last half-dozen years. The Cavaliers are ranked thirteenth and boast a 13-2 dual mark.
“I expect a good dual,” Peters said. “It’s important for us to follow up [the win against Oklahoma State] with another good performance. That is the sign of a good program, consistently performing well against good competition.”
Five Pittsburgh wrestlers are currently ranked by Amateur Wrestling News, including juniors Tyler Wilps and Max Thomusseit, ranked seventh at 174 and 184 pounds, respectively. Senior 133-pounder Shelton Mack, Bright, and sophomore 197-pounder Nick Bonaccorsi are also currently among the nation’s top twenty in their weight classes. Senior 125-pounder Anthony Zanetta, although unranked, is a three-time NCAA qualifier. Racciato showed he is dangerous this year and down the road.
“Beating Oklahoma State … that is a nice win no matter how you look at it,” Peters said. “Building off it, taking the confidence forward is part of building a strong program.”
Success sometimes comes down to location, location, location. Might Pittsburgh be yet another sleeping giant in the state of Pennsylvania?