Every time a team steps onto the mat, they want to win. But on Senior Night, when the UNC wrestling team's elder vanguard got their flowers, the team wanted to win for them.
North Carolina did just that, in thrilling fashion, knocking off their first ranked opponent of the season with a 19-12 victory over the No. 19 Pittsburgh Panthers.
Before the match began, the Tar Heels honored their seniors, a class that served as a turning point for the program. Featuring multiple academic and athletic All-Americans — as well as the program's first NCAA champion in over two decades in redshirt senior Austin O’Connor — the paths paved by this year's graduates may last for years to come.
“It was a special night for all of us,” redshirt senior Zach Sherman said.
Sherman’s jubilee on this special night could be seen from the get-go. As his fellow seniors ran back to the Tar Heels’ pregame huddle, Sherman lagged behind as he backflipped and high-fived every fan on the path back to his team.
“I get to wrestle and have this amazing opportunity,” he said. “Now that I'm coming to the end of my senior year, it’s taken me four or five years to realize that you’ve got to appreciate life.”
However, all smiles were whipped away quickly when the Panthers asserted their gritty play style to begin the dual and placed the Tar Heels into an early deficit.
“It was a little ugly,” head coach Coleman Scott said. “We got pushed around too much.”
But the tide turned for North Carolina, and it came by way of wrestlers you’d likely least expect on a night like this — the underclassman.
No. 23 redshirt junior Joe Heilmann was probably given little to no chance of winning his match against the No. 7 wrestler in his weight class, Micky Phillippi. On top of the Panthers being favored on paper, Heilmann had spent the past two years fighting for a spot in the starting line up.
And yet, the superior ranking meant nothing to Heilmann, as the New Jersey native stunned Phillippi and flexed his way off the mat in celebration.
Fellow underclassman Gavin Kane possessed immense potential that Scott and his staff were trying to release all season long.
“We’re really pushing him,” Scott said. “We’re really into him about scoring more.”
The redshirt first-year didn’t fold to his coaches' pressure. Instead, he attacked it, displaying his talent by way of numerous, highlight reel takedowns in his match that brought the Carmichael Arena crowd to a roar. When it was all said and done, Kane’s takedowns awarded UNC its lone major decision of the evening.
As the young Tar Heels earned every point possible to help secure the senior night victory, O’Connor earned the Tar Heels their first lead of the night — a victory that etched one final line in O’Connor’s historic run inside Carmichael Arena.
“Every time I step into this gym, I feel home and ready to compete," he said.
Whether the win rests upon the surprising play of UNC’s underclassmen, the consistent fight and determination displayed by the graduating class or both, one thing can be certain:
Tonight, the Tar Heels wanted it more.
And, with O’Connor’s win being the one that gave the Tar Heels the lead for the first time, only he could perfectly describe what he wanted this night and his career as a whole.
“Legendary,” he said. “I want to be up there with Michael Jordan. I want to be the next big guy to come out of UNC. Whatever I do, I want to be great at it.”
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