When Coleman Scott took over the head coaching job for the North Carolina wrestling team in 2015, he inherited a program that had seen little success on the mat.
In his first full recruiting cycle, Coleman hauled in four top-100 wrestlers according to InterMat — Austin O’Connor, Jaime Hernandez, Zach Sherman and Clay Lautt. With a combined eight All-American honors, four ACC individual titles and one NCAA championship, this group served as the keystone in North Carolina’s ascent to one of the top programs in the ACC.
However, after several injuries produced dissatisfying ends to last season, each of these four wrestlers decided to return for a sixth and final season at UNC.
On June 13, the quartet of UNC wrestling royalty released a video on Twitter with a simple message — “we’re back.”
“It was almost like a group decision,” Sherman said. “We all knew that we weren’t satisfied.”
At the Garden State Grapple in November, Hernandez suffered a serious injury that sidelined him for over two months. After attempting to return against Virginia, the 133-pound wrestler’s lingering pains loomed too large, and Hernandez was forced to sit out the remainder of the year.
“(This class) has seen the ups and downs,” Scott said.
Around the same time, Sherman injured his hip but kept the news private from opponents so they couldn't use it to their advantage. The Islamorada, Fla. native limped to a 9-11 season record, a disappointing year for the 2020 141-pound ACC individual champion.
Likewise, O’Connor suffered a knee injury in the postseason. The former 149-pound NCAA champion had to settle for an eighth-place finish in last year’s NCAA Championships after medically forfeiting.
For O’Connor, his frustrating finish made the decision to return even easier.
“After my injury — when I realized it was going to be hard to compete and I couldn't do everything that I wanted to this year— I kind of started thinking that I want to come back and finish what I started and win another NCAA title," he said.
When the four wrestlers first arrived on campus in 2017, they wanted to redefine North Carolina wrestling following a slump in the decade prior. From 2000 through 2012, only three All-Americans had trekked through Chapel Hill.
“We all came here with the mindset to change the culture of the team and really step up and take over the program,” O’Connor said. “I feel like we've kind of accomplished that, in changing the culture and the toughness of our team and everything. I think next year we're really going to be able to show it.”
Defeating wrestling powerhouse N.C. State is at the forefront of the team's goals next season. With Lautt, Hernandez and O’Connor ranked in the preseason top 10 of their respective weight classes, the Tar Heels could be well on their way to defeating the Wolfpack for the first time since 2012.
Though O’Connor is the second-highest ranked Tar Heel on the team entering this upcoming season — coming in at No. 7 nationally — the four-time All-American said he still thinks he is being underrated. On the wall next to his practice mat is a list with the names of the six wrestlers ranked ahead of him.
“It's kind of a joke that all these kids got ranked ahead of me when I’ve beaten half of those guys multiple times,” he said. “Everybody knows where I should be, especially healthy.”
With its newfound determination, this year’s veteran squad has the groundwork to claim an ACC team title and compete on the national stage.
But for Lautt, Hernandez, Sherman and O’Connor, their final year is more about what can be built for years to come, not what will be won in a single season.
“I truly believe that once we leave the team will be even better," Sherman said. "But we’ve got to set the bar a little bit higher for them.”