“There’s still a couple kids we’re looking at to try to fill the rest of the recruiting class, and that’s where it gets hard. Now we’re trying to get kids to commit that we can’t even bring onto campus,” Ramos said. “We’re really having to use our creativity.”
With three individual conference champions — the first time UNC has had that many since 2006 — the Tar Heels had plenty of highly ranked firepower entering NCAA competition. Chief among these title contenders was redshirt sophomore Austin O’Connor, who was slated as the No. 2 seed in the 149-pound division going into Minneapolis.
O’Connor put together a surprise All-American run in last year’s tournament as a redshirt first-year, finishing in third place to give UNC its first podium spot since 1996. The 149-pounder continued his tear in 2019-20, amassing a 25-1 record and an individual ACC title to give North Carolina its first top-three seed in any weight class since 1995.
“Everyone that was there as a team was upset about it, especially the seven of us going to nationals,” O’Connor said. “For a little bit we were still hoping that it could possibly be postponed, and finally realizing that it was going to get canceled was kind of heartbreaking.”
For six of the seven wrestlers that qualified for NCAA competition, their respective careers in North Carolina uniforms are not over: O’Connor, redshirt juniors Kennedy Monday and Andrew Gunning, and redshirt sophomores Clay Lautt, Jaime Hernandez and Zach Sherman all retain eligibility. For three of the Tar Heels slated to make the trip to Minnesota — Hernandez, Lautt and Gunning — it would have had their first experience with an NCAA Championship.
“It just sucks for it to be my first NCAA appearance,” Hernandez said. “Just hearing it was canceled, it was heartbreaking for sure. But you know, I’ve got to move on and get ready for next season.”
Out of the nine wrestlers in North Carolina’s starting lineup, eight are returning next season. The only member not returning will be redshirt senior A.C. Headlee, who will miss his final chance to compete for an NCAA title after qualifying in the 157-pound division.
Even still, the wrestlers that will be back next season remain optimistic about the future.
“Nothing's going to change,” O’Connor said. “This just motivates me even more that we didn’t get a shot at it this year. I’m really looking to still get my first national title.”
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