About two years ago, when Pitt announced that it would soon be moving its athletic teams to the ACC, the conversation centered on football and basketball, but the Pitt wrestling team was also preparing to make a step up.
The Panthers had been a member of the Eastern Wrestling League until the 2013-2014 season, when they transitioned to the ACC.
Both conferences typically sent about the same number of wrestlers to the national tournament — the best way to compare conferences — so when Pitt left the EWL, the league took a hit while the ACC received a boost.
Although the qualifier allocations — the number of wrestlers at each weight class who automatically qualify for NCAAs from each conference — have yet to be announced, it’s safe to say that the ACC will earn more automatic bids than the EWL this year.
“The EWL was tough,” senior heavyweight P.J. Tasser said. “But competing in the ACC was great. It’s leading our program in the right direction.”
Friday, Pitt completed its perfect ACC season, going 6-0 in the conference after a 22-12 victory at North Carolina.
Coming into the season, the Panthers weren’t going to be happy with anything but an outright championship. They claimed three of the last four regular-season titles in the EWL.
“After the success the team has had in past years, conference titles are what we all work for,” senior 133-pounder Shelton Mack said. “The coaches have done a great job making that a priority and a mindset.”
For the upperclassmen who had grown used to seeing the same EWL schools, this season has exposed them to new opponents, new arenas and new styles.
“It’s good to wrestle these different schools and see different opponents,” senior 125-pounder Anthony Zanetta said. “You see a lot of different styles with each team, and that prepares us more and more.”
It prepares them for the tournaments that are coming up on the schedule, as well. The Panthers head to Blacksburg, Va., for the ACC tournament on March 8. At that tournament, several Panthers will look to clinch their trips to the NCAA Championships in Oklahoma City, Okla.
For now, the wrestlers’ goals have shifted to winning an individual ACC title and what that individual title would represent — a trip to the national tournament.
“Personally, not winning an ACC title would be a failure in my eyes,” Zanetta said. “I have the potential to not only win the ACC, but to dominate. That’s what my goal is.”
Pitt will be chasing its fourth-straight conference tournament championship. The Panthers won the EWL Tournament title in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
As the No. 10 dual-ranked team, Pitt was the highest-ranked ACC squad in the rankings, which order schools based on their performances in dual meets. The Panthers are ranked No. 18 by Intermat in tournament rankings, which projects how teams will fare at tournaments.
Both No. 14 Maryland and No. 16 Virginia rank higher than Pitt in these rankings, because they both have a top-two wrestler in a weight class.
With the regular season in the rearview mirror, Pitt shifts its focus onto a tournament championship, which won’t be as easy as the regular-season title.
“This season was unforgettable, and I’m proud to have been a part of it,” Tasser said. “There are definitely big things to come in the future for Pitt wrestling.”