DURHAM — The No. 13 North Carolina wrestling team set the stage for the future of the program Friday night in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The Tar Heels (12-7, 4-1 ACC) defeated Duke, 23-16, to win a share of the ACC regular-season title for the first time since 2002 in their last dual meet of the season. This title comes to a program that has been on the cusp of national prominence for a few years.
“We’re on the up, we’re on the up,” head coach Coleman Scott said. “We have zero seniors next year, that will be starting right now, so you’re going to see the same team for a couple years now which will be great.”
That young core will be led by first-years Joe Heilmann and Brandon Whitman and redshirt first-year Austin O’Connor.
Of the three, Heilmann was the only one to earn a victory against Duke, but the other two showed promise in close losses. Whitman lost in the 197-pound bout by a close decision, yet has earned multiple ranked victories this season.
The 149-pound O’Connor, UNC’s highest ranked wrestler at No. 4, lost to No. 7 Mitch Finesilver in the most anticipated bout of the night. Afterward, O’Connor sat in silence on a set of stairs after the match, waiting for his team to leave.
“He’s a very mature kid in that situation,” Scott said. “He takes it personal, and he's upset with himself. He just got a little overzealous.”
O’Connor will get another shot at Finesilver at the ACC Championships in Blacksburg, Virginia, on March 9.
UNC’s future may be promising, but the team’s seniors led them to victory and the ACC title Friday night. The Tar Heels’ three seniors all earned bonus points.
“It really personifies how we have been putting the most work in, and we have been leading the team to getting this ACC title,” redshirt senior Chip Ness said.
No. 14 Ness earned a major decision in the 184-pound bout, giving the Tar Heels their first lead of the meet.
Redshirt senior Cory Daniel did his part, as well, dominating his opponent in the 285-pound bout and earning a win via tech fall, giving the team five points.
“He was a little smaller heavyweight,” Daniel said. “My goal was to get as many points on the board as I could.”
No. 20 Gary Wayne Harding did Daniel one better. The redshirt senior won after pinning his opponent in the 133-pound bout, bringing the team score to 20-6 in favor of UNC and putting the match out of the Blue Devils’ reach.
“Chip, Gary Wayne and I wrestled well, and we put up extra points for the team,” Daniel said. “I think it’s great.”
The team’s seniors powered the Tar Heels to victory and have now set the stage for the future of the program.
“These are the guys that believed in me when change happened and believed that we were going to do something special this year,” Scott said. “And we did.”
The Tar Heels did do something special, proving many wrong and winning a share of the ACC title for the first time in 17 years.
“It's just a start, you’ve gotta start somewhere,” Scott said. “We talk about being All-Americans, being national champions and ACC champions.”
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