Sandwiched between North Carolina’s wrestling duals with N.C. State and Duke was a less-hyped match-up with the Virginia Military Institute on Friday at Carmichael Arena.
The match would have been easy to overlook, and it would have been simple to lose focus. But the Tar Heels (6-6, 1-3 ACC) did neither, and they were rewarded with a 28-9 win against VMI on Military Appreciation Night at the arena.
“In team sports that’s a bigger deal,” coach C.D. Mock said of the ability to eliminate complacency and not look past an opponent. “In wrestling you’re one-on-one: you’re getting beat up, you’re getting beat up. The motivation to do well is (that) the spotlight’s on you.”
North Carolina was boosted by a strong start from sophomore 184-pounder Alex Utley, who won by a 17-2 technical fall against VMI’s Hardy Hendren. The win lasted just one period, or three minutes, and gave UNC a quick 5-0 lead that set the tone for the rest of the meet.
“I got my offense going right away with a quick takedown,” Utley said. “I was excited to go first — you don’t have to sit around, you don’t get cold. You come right in after your first drill so you’re already warm, you’re already sweating.”
After Utley’s win, though, UNC lost two straight, and VMI took a brief one-point lead.
Sophomore Frank Abbondanza, wrestling in the 197-pound class, fell 9-3 to VMI’s Urayoan Garcia, and freshman Cody Klempay followed that with a 3-1 defeat to Michael LaPrade in the heavyweight division.
Utley said UNC’s looming showdown with Duke on Tuesday, coupled with the previous week’s dominant win against the Wolfpack, made it more difficult to remain focused Friday.
“That could’ve happened tonight,” he said. “We lost a couple matches that we probably shouldn’t have.”
Missing from the Tar Heels’ lineup were two of their top wrestlers: 125-pounder Nathan Kraisser, No. 7 in the nation, and 141-pounder Evan Henderson, No. 6.
“We let (Kraisser and Henderson) take the night off,” Mock said. “Give them a break from cutting weight, (and) let their bodies heal up a little bit. We got Duke on Tuesday night, and that’s a big one so we wanted them rested up for that.”
Redshirt sophomore Pat Owens lost in Henderson’s stead, but Brian Bokoski won the 125-pound match.
Mock said he’s confident about the Tar Heels’ rivalry match Tuesday.
“We should beat Duke. We will beat Duke,” Mock said, adding that depth and lineup issues could make the outcome closer than he’d like.
By the end of Friday’s dual, the outcome was clear, and redshirt sophomore Tanner Eitel closed the night as powerfully as Utley started it. Eitel dominated VMI’s John Dommert and came away with a 10-3 decision.
“That first shot … it’s called a super duck,” Eitel said of his strategy to open the match. “I kind of got dead-legged so after that things didn’t really go as planned … (but) from then on out it was just little battles, using his own momentum coming into me against him.”
It worked, and after the match UNC walked back into the locker room with all of its attention on Duke.
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