The North Carolina wrestling team is preparing to begin its season on Jan. 1, 2021, after coming off a season last year that was shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 took away the team's chance to compete in the NCAA Championships and made the offseason longer than team members would’ve liked, but the Tar Heels are happy to finally be back on the mats.
Last year’s success has led to high expectations for the team as a whole this season.
“I’m expecting us to go in there and win an ACC Championship. I’m expecting individuals to win and compete for ACC Championships," associate head coach Tony Ramos said. "Going into the national tournament, we’re expecting to have multiple All-Americans and guys wrestling Saturday night for the national title.”
The NCAA’s rule that gave wrestlers and extra year eligibility opens the door for a plethora of lineups to be used throughout the season.
“We can have a lot of different lineups and a lot of different guys competing," Ramos said. "It’s basically a redshirt year for everyone.”
Ramos said redshirt junior Austin O’Connor is a “staple of the program” who is looking to build on what has already been an impressive career in Chapel Hill. The junior is coming off a 25-1 record last season, which was the fifth-highest win percentage in North Carolina history. He won the ACC Championship at 149 pounds and was named an NWCA First-Team All-American.
Still, O’Connor wants nothing more than improvement from last season.
“After having a 25-1 record, I think my next goal is to go undefeated, also to win the NCAAs," he said.
Redshirt junior Gino Esposito is another wrestler Ramos considers important to the fabric of the team, citing him as someone who represents the program well on and off the mat.
“He is 100 percent supportive in his role, in the position he’s in to help guys get to the next level," Ramos said. "Even more so in the classroom, he’s a Kenan Scholar in the business school, he helps with community service outreach and does a lot of volunteering. He’s really set the standard of how you’re supposed to live your life outside of the sports world”
In addition to returners like Esposito or O'Connor, redshirt senior Sawyer Davidson is optimistic about the team’s prospects for the upcoming season.
“We’re happy to be back and work towards our goals," Davidson said. "Our goal is to be a top-five team this year, win an ACC Championship and have a few national champs and All-Americans.”
Wrestlers to keep an eye out for
- First-year Sonny Santiago: Ranked No. 1 in his class at 152 pounds, the 2019 California state champion has impressed teammates and coaches with his performance in training since getting to campus.
- Redshirt senior Devin Kane: He is looking to bounce back from an injury that kept him out all of last season.
- Redshirt junior Clay Lautt: After becoming an ACC Champion last season at 174 pounds, Ramos expects Lautt to make a big jump this year.
- First-year Gavin Kane: Ranked No. 38 in his class for all weights, the four-time Georgia state champion and younger brother of Devin Kane has shown a lot of effort and promise in training so far.
- First-year Julian Tagg: Ranked No. 48 in his class, the two-time Ohio state champion is expected to enter the lineup at some point during the season.
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