With their shoulders slumped and faces angled to the floor, the UNC wrestling team disappointedly walked back to the Carmichael Arena locker room after Sunday's 33-9 loss to No. 4 Ohio State.
Despite high expectations for the preseason top-20 squad, the Tar Heels were outclassed against consecutive top-five opponents in their last two dual matches. They began the season with a 24-10 win against Campbell in Fort Bragg, but could not crawl back against Michigan and were dominated by the Buckeyes.
“We gotta compete a little harder,” head coach Coleman Scott said. “We got beat on just not being ready to compete at that level this early.”
In a win that moved them up to No. 3 in the national rankings, Ohio State totaled three victories by fall against UNC. The onslaught began early with Ethan Smith defeating Clay Lautt, one of UNC’s top-ranked wrestlers, in a hard-fought 2-0 decision. The Buckeyes rode this momentum to a 27-0 lead through the first seven matches.
Lachlan McNeil finally got the Tar Heels on the board in the 141-pound division. He was one of the only Tar Heels that outranked their respective Ohio State opponent.
“We need to be more offensive,” McNeil said. “We are getting pushed around a little bit. We are being reactive rather than pressing forward and being active.”
While the score appeared to be lopsided, the Tar Heels kept many of the matches close. Lautt lost by a third-period escape and Jack Wagner lost his 125-pound dual via a takedown in the waning seconds.
After the loss to Michigan, Lautt said the Tar Heels "want to be in the top five in the country." In order to do that, they will need to come out on top in close bouts.
“A lot of the times, many of these matches will be one or two-point matches, but you lose three or four of them and all of a sudden the score seems like a blowout,” McNeil said. “The key is just finding a way to win those tough matches and improving one percent daily.”
Despite the disappointing start to the season, the team still anticipates a successful campaign. McNeil said the team hopes to compete for an ACC title, a conference that has been dominated by N.C. State over the last four years.
Responding to this early-season setback is crucial to reaching these goals. The Tar Heels will have close to a month’s break before they return to action against Appalachian State. Scott said the team was embarrassed by the loss, and now is the time to correct its mistakes.
“You are going to see us getting better throughout the year,” Scott said. "This sport is tough. We will get better and progress every time out.”
The return of high-profile wrestlers from injury will be a big step in this improvement. Graduate leaders Zach Sherman and Austin O’Connor, who have a combined five first-team All-American nods and an NCAA title, have been unable to compete due to injuries suffered at the end of last season.
Scott said he expects to have a full lineup for the next match. With their re-emergence into the starting lineup, the team hopes it will leave these early defeats in the past.
“I don’t think we’ve seen our full potential by any means,” Scott said. “They’ve just got to keep plugging away and it’ll come.”
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