After a last-minute cancellation of its would-be opening dual meet against Campbell, the No. 14 North Carolina wrestling team put together an impressive display against Gardner-Webb on Sunday in Chapel Hill.
The Tar Heels won 45-0 in their season-opening match, showcasing a combination of talent and energy from new and experienced wrestlers alike. After last season was cut short when the NCAA Championships were canceled due to COVID-19, this year's UNC group is primed to continue rising to the level of a national competitor.
“I thought our guys had a lot of energy and great effort today,” head coach Coleman Scott said. “I told the guys earlier, ‘Let’s kick the season off the way we want to start it.’”
First-year Julian Tagg opened the meet in North Carolina’s first match of the afternoon with a decision win. Redshirt sophomore Joe Heilmann and redshirt junior Zach Sherman then extended the Tar Heels' lead to 13-0. After Tagg's win, the Tar Heels won their next six matches by either technical fall or pin.
“It felt good finally being in a Tar Heel singlet and being able to wrestle with my teammates,” Tagg said.
Scott said the way his younger wrestlers, like Tagg, stepped up to compete on Sunday provided a glimpse at the young talent UNC has to work with this season.
As the rounds continued through the afternoon, it became clear North Carolina was holding nothing back against the Runnin' Bulldogs. Despite the lead, the Tar Heels remained sharp and dominant throughout every bout.
“First match of the year we just kind of wanted to kick the dust off because it’s been a while since we competed last,” redshirt junior Austin O’Connor said.
While all of North Carolina’s wrestlers performed well in the season opener, the veterans demonstrated their exceptional talent on the mat and set the tone throughout the meet.
O’Connor, who held a 25-1 record last season and entered the season at No. 1 in the 149-pound weight class, met the high expectations surrounding him in the opener. The junior pinned his opponent down in 47 seconds, earning the Tar Heels six points and extending their lead to 19-0.
“It was nice to be back out on the mat,” O’Connor said. “I’m always trying to go after pins. Last year, I held the record for pins on our team, so I’m trying to get that again.”
His win was followed by another pin from redshirt senior Kennedy Monday, who won the bout in just 15 seconds. Monday is another experienced wrestler essential to the fabric of the team this season.
And as the afternoon went on, the points on the scoreboard just kept going up for the Tar Heels. Redshirt senior Andrew Gunning’s decision win in the 285-pound bout capped off North Carolina's 45-0 victory.
Scott said leadership, as demonstrated by the team's dominance against Gardner-Webb, is another factor that will propel North Carolina's success this season.
“Those guys have been here four-to-five years and have taken us this far,” Scott said. “They’ve done an unbelievable job on the mat and off the mat in becoming leaders.”
With six of their seven NCAA Championship qualifiers from last year returning for this season, North Carolina should be primed to compete for a similar level of success in 2021. And with ACC competition starting on Friday against Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels will quickly enter the heart of their schedule.
“Today goes to show that the work that we have been doing shows,” Tagg said. “The next match is the same as this match in that we’ll try to score points, try to dominate and try to win.”
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