The North Carolina wrestling team opened up its season with a daunting task: two dual matches within hours of each other against Life University and Queens University.
Even more daunting, the Tar Heels' first match would be against the defending NAIA champions, the Life University Running Eagles. Along with being the title holders, Life rosters the top-ranked NAIA wrestlers in the 125- and 174-pound divisions.
Though the challenges were apparent, the Tar Heels remained unfazed, winning their matches 29-6 and 48-0 to ignite a dominant start this year.
The Tar Heels came into the season ranked No. 12 in the Coaches Poll, with an experienced roster in redshirt seniors Austin O’Connor and Zach Sherman.
But it was first-year Spencer Moore who took the mat first against Life. In his first collegiate matchup, Moore faced the NAIA’s top 125-pound wrestler, Brandon Orum.
“It was cool to go out and start with a match that I felt like meant something,” Moore said.
The stage was never too bright for the first-year. His escape in the final period of his match secured the Tar Heels their first points of the day and the first of his young career.
“I’ll try to pick some positives in each of my matches and the few details I gotta fix,” Moore said. “I feel like I can compete with anybody in the country.”
During the team’s match against Life, it appeared momentum could have been shifting in favor of the Running Eagles. Life displayed an active and feisty presence throughout the match, but the Tar Heels were able to fend it off.
“They wrestle tough,” UNC head coach Coleman Scott said. “That’s why we wanted to wrestle them. They’re no slouches and they won a national title last year.”
The determination and grit engineered by UNC’s leadership helped lead the Tar Heels to a wire-to-wire 29-6 victory.
In the second match of the day, UNC squared off against Queens University, where the veterans took charge.
O’Connor recorded a pin against the Royals, and Sherman won by technical fall in his match. The two came into the season ranked second and fifth, respectively, in their weight classes, a ranking Sherman isn’t satisfied with.
“I love (the noise),” Sherman said. “I love the doubters.”
For O’Connor, he underwent a move up in weight classes over the offseason, now wrestling at 157 pounds. Before moving up, O’Connor posted an impressive career at 149 pounds, which resulted in winning an NCAA individual title last season.
Despite the weight class jump, Scott credited O’Connor’s preparation.
“He was ready, and he’s the leader of our team,” Scott said.
If the early afternoon’s victory wasn't dominant enough, the Tar Heels upped their own performance in the night session. In a match that consisted of four pins, the Tar Heels blanked Queens, 48-0, wrapping up a strong start to the season.
This start should give the Tar Heels much-needed confidence heading into their next match of the season on Sunday at Ohio State, a team Scott knows will be a tough out.
“We got a team ranked above us, a Big Ten team,” Scott said. “We got to be ready to go.”
Such a call seems to be fostering well within his team, namely Sherman. Sherman will face off against No. 1 Sammy Sasso at 149 pounds.
“I love these opportunities,” Sherman said. “I don’t want to say there’s nothing for me to lose, because I think that’s my number one spot. I’m going to take what’s mine.”
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