Welcome to Raleigh, home of the 2019 World Team Trials and now home to what will be the first top-ten matchup between North Carolina and North Carolina State in history. Two scrappy schools combined with an in-state rivalry and a long history of ACC competition makes this a can't miss match. And excitement is high.
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"The environment at Reynolds [Coliseum] during the UNC match is crazy, you've got UNC right down the road, and you have NC State fans, and you have most of the state there just from North Carolina," AJ Leitten, a North Carolina State redshirt sophomore starter said in the Wolfpack hype video. "The atmosphere is just crazy. You see all the best wrestling fans and some of the best wrestlers in the country going at it."
North Carolina State has won 12 of the 22 duals against the Tar Heels, but the Pack have never wrestled a North Carolina team ranked this high. The last time these two teams wrestled, NC State came out on top 20-14. But this year's dual has the potential to be even closer. Here are the three questions we have heading into the dual between No. 3 Wolfpack take on the No. 8 Tar Heels in Reynolds Coliseum. The answers to these queries will offer us more insight on what these two teams are capable over heading into March, and all three will be answered Friday night.
1. Will North Carolina's momentum be enough to help them pull off the upset?
The North Carolina Tar Heels are ranked higher in college wrestling than college basketball, and Friday's dual will be a chance for them to compete against their toughest opponent of the season. Led by head coach Coleman Scott, the Tar Heels have an 11-1 record with their only loss coming against Stanford in early November.
Since then, the Heels have returned their top wrestler in 149-pound All-American and No. 3-ranked Austin O'Connor. They've won ten straight duals, including wins over ranked foes such as Army, Princeton and Virginia Tech. The Virginia Tech win helped Carolina skyrocket into the top ten for the first time since 1995, and the Heels followed that promotion with a dominating win over Duke and a solid 25-9 victory against Bucknell.
On paper, the Heels are favored at 141, 149, 165 with 125, 133, 285 representing unranked matches that could go either way. There is a path to victory for the Tar Heels, but they are going to need to avoid giving up too many bonus points against North Carolina State's dynamic duo of No. 2-ranked wrestlers in Hayden and Trent Hilday.
2. What will we see from Tariq Wilson and Nick Reenan?
Two of North Carolina State's five ranked starters, Tariq Wilson and Nick Reenan, have experience on the national stage, with Reenan qualifying twice and Wilson finishing third in 2018 as a breakout freshman. Both have had solid seasons but could use the North Carolina dual as a springboard into bigger success as the season fades into the postseason.
The 197-pound Reenan has wrestled a limited schedule this year, winning five matches and dropping four, and he's listed as a probable on the lineup along with teammate Tyrie Houghton. Reenan has been hurt throughout the year and does not have a ranked win, but he's shown signs of greatness throughout his career, beating All-American Chip Ness of UNC in last year's ACC tournament and in the in-state dual and also stopping Nebraska's All-American Taylor Venz in a dual last year.
Reenan has the potential to make a run at the podium, but he hasn't shown himself to be at All-American level yet in the 2019-2020 season. The junior Pack wrestler, if he takes the mat, will face off against North Carolina State sophomore Brandon Whitman who is 10-11 on the year and should be a beatable opponent for Reenan, perhaps with bonus points. If the dual starts at 125 pounds, Reenan's performance at 197 pounds could be critical to the team score, and while he's expected to win, the level of his performance will be a key question in this dual.
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At 141 pounds, teammate Tariq Wilson also has four losses on the year, but his 21 wins have helped him rise to No. 11 in the national rankings, a reasonable spot for a man that bumped up a weight class after last season and has wrestled a competitive schedule. Wilson finished third as a freshman at 133 pounds, but finished in the Round of 12 last year and will need to show an improvement in pace and power if he wants to fight for the podium and perhaps a semifinal or final spot this year.
His most recent loss came against Oklahoma State's unranked Dusty Hone, and he also has losses against Angelo Martinoni of CSU Bakersfield, Michael Blockhus of Northern Iowa and Chad Red of Nebraska. Wilson's match against No. 10 Zach Sherman will be the match of the dual, as Sherman comes to Reynolds with a 22-3 record and a twelve-match win streak.
Interestingly, Sherman and Wilson have wrestled three times in their collegiate careers at 133 pounds, with Wilson coming out on top in all three cases. They've both bumped up to 141 pounds this year, and now that Sherman has the rankings advantage and a marginally-higher win percentage than his Wolfpack counterpart, the Tar Heel sophomore will be looking for key team points in this ranked battle.
The biggest question is: which Wilson will he see? Sherman can beat the guy that lost to Martinoni, but if we see the speedy, technical Wilson who beat Luke Pletcher at NCAAs in 2018, the Carolina wrestler could find himself in a bind. It's hard to predict how this team dual will go as a whole, but if Carolina picks up the wins it needs to fight for the win in the unranked duals, then the team score could be riding on 141 pounds.
3. Can Kennedy Monday pull off another upset and hold off No. 10 Thomas Bullard?
If Kennedy Monday was set to face North Carolina State's Thomas Bullard last weekend, after his win over Virginia Tech's All-American David McFadden, he may have been considered the favorite and a guy expected to put up big points against Bullard. Kennedy did, after all, tech fall a man who has been on the NCAA podium three times in his career.
Now, however, Kennedy has found himself a few spots down in the individual rankings after being pinned by Bucknell's Zach Hartman in a dual and suffering his fifth loss of the season. He's facing a higher ranked opponent in Bullard tomorrow, and while he's certainly in the fight, the matchup is a lot more interesting.
Bullard is 20-5 on the year with three of those losses coming in the last four weeks. However, the Wolfpack junior did pin Ohio State's Ethan Smith earlier this year, avenging a previous loss, and he'll no doubt aim to hold his own and pick up a win on home turf.
Monday comes into the dual ranked No. 16, six spots below his NC State counterpart, but you can expect this to be a wild matchup. Both athletes will look to this dual as a test for what's to come at ACCs and NCAAs and both will aspire to use the match as a springboard to the All-American podium in March.
Sawyer Davidson is also listed as a probable starter for the Tar Heels, and if he starts in place of Monday, Bullard will take on an opponent who pinned him earlier this year at the Wolfpack Open. Carolina could send out its backup given his impressive track record over Bullard, but the Monday match would have more intrigue for the ACC rankings and the individual standings at the weight. Regardless of which wrestler takes the mat, Bullard will have the edge on paper but North Carolina will be expecting a win.
Leading up the showdown at 165 pounds will be another ranked dual at 157 pounds where North Carolina's A.C. Headlee will take on No. 2 Hayden Hidlay in a match where North Carolina State will be looking for not only the win, but for bonus points. Headlee is 14-5 on the year with a recent big win over Virginia Tech's B.C. LaParade and an earlier win over Army's Markus Hartman, but Hidlay will be a tough test.
The two-time NCAA All-American Hidlay has scored bonus points in over 75 percent of his duals and has lost just one of his 24 matches, with the loss coming to the No. 1 wrester in the country at that weight. This is a ranked matchup, but it certainly leans Hidlay's way, unless Headlee finds some magic or pulls off one of the biggest upsets of the year. North Carolina's Josh McClure is also listed as a probable and comes into the dual with a similar 18-5 record to the his Tar Heel teammate, but Hidlay should be in a comfortable position against either of these two wrestlers, but the matchup is certainly still worth mentioning given it's status as a top-15 battle.
Hidlay's brother Trent, who is also ranked No. 2 in the country, will take on unranked Joey Mazzara of North Carolina at 184 pounds, so if Hayden doesn't add bonus, Trent will certainly take the mat with a plan to do so. The Wolfpack also have another set of ranked brothers in Thomas and Daniel Bullard, and Daniel will look to wrestle North Carolina's Clay Lautt where he took will look for bonus. Lautt has had a nice season so far and is 15-5 on the year to Bullard's 21-5, and the tone of the team dual could determine the aggressiveness of this match.
The Wolfpack are undefeated on the year at 12-0 and expected to win the meet as a whole with the firepower of the Hidlays and the ranked status of Reenan, Wilson and the Bullards. But rivalry duals bring out all kinds of unexpected performances, and with the ACC standings on the line, North Carolina State and North Carolina will look for points in every matchup, regardless of which ranked opponent each guy might face.