Head coach Coleman Scott walked into a room full of members of the North Carolina wrestling team, all anxiously awaiting the news. It was a few days before the 2020 NCAA Championships, but the outbreak of COVID-19 had put the Tar Heels’ season in jeopardy.
He told the Tar Heels the championships had been canceled. It was one of the hardest talks Scott has ever had to give — one he will never forget.
“I remember getting teary-eyed and seeing a couple guys crying,” Scott said. “Every bit of it is out of your control. You gotta find the muster to keep your head held high and figure out how to get through it.”
In March 2020, the ACC canceled its winter sports championships, the NCAA soon followed, and one of the best years in UNC wrestling history was suddenly over. Seven NCAA Championship qualifiers never got their chance to shine.
But that disappointment soon shifted to motivation, as the Tar Heels were set to return most of their key pieces in 2021. It was time to put last year behind them and run it back.
And that's exactly what they did. Despite a few obstacles, the team was able to qualify eight competitors for this year’s NCAA Championships.
Austin O’Connor is one of the Tar Heels who missed out on an NCAA Championship appearance due to the cancellation. Entering 2021, the redshirt junior was coming off a dominant 25-1 sophomore season and came into the new campaign carrying heavy expectations.
He was able to fight off the early setback and put together another terrific season, winning the ACC title at 149 pounds.
“I focused on the things I could control and kept up on my training," O’Connor said. “I think I’m just as prepared this year as I was last year to win a national title.”
In 2019, O'Connor came in third in the NCAA Championships. He's had the two years to mull over coming up just short and will enter this year as one of the favorites in his weight class.
“I don't bet against him,” Scott said. “No matter what happens, he doesn’t look at the past. He looks at the future.”
Redshirt junior Clay Lautt had his first opportunity to compete at NCAAs right in front of him last year before the cancellation.
He used his emotions as fuel to follow up his previous 21-7 season with another successful campaign – finishing as the runner-up at the ACC Championships at 174 pounds and qualifying for NCAAs yet again.
“I’ve been waiting for this tournament for years,” Lautt said. “So I’m excited to compete, even if it’s without the normal sold-out arena.”
With the NCAA Championships set to begin on March 18, O’Connor, Lautt and the rest of the qualifiers will have the chance to put all their hard work into fruition after a year of anticipation.
It’s been a long wait. But the Tar Heels are primed to make the opportunity worthwhile.
“I think you’re gonna see emotions higher than ever,” Scott said. “I think you’re gonna see guys competing harder than ever. Because they feel it. They felt what it’s like to have something that they loved taken away.”
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