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Analysis: Despite high expectations, UNC wrestling off to slow start in new season

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UNC graduate Clay Lautt pins his opponent during UNC wrestling's competition against Michigan at Boshamer Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022 at Boshamer Stadium. UNC lost 12-23.

Entering this season, the North Carolina wrestling team arguably had some of the highest preseason expectations in head coach Coleman Scott’s tenure.

The Tar Heels returned a quartet of talented graduate seniors, and the preseason No. 16-ranked team looked to make a push to earn UNC’s first conference title in over a decade. But the returns of Austin O’Connor, an NCAA individual national champion, and Clay Lautt haven’t translated to immediate success for North Carolina on the mat, as the Tar Heels have dropped six of their first eight dual meets.

Understanding his squad's talent and goals, Scott aligned UNC’s schedule accordingly. After an opening-season bout against Campbell, the Tar Heels matched up against a pair of perennial Big Ten powers: Michigan and Ohio State.

North Carolina started off its season strong, defeating the Fighting Camels comfortably at Fort Bragg, 24-10. But UNC’s early-season success would soon come to an end.

Doubles on the Diamond featured a unique environment for North Carolina and Michigan, as Boshamer Stadium hosted its first-ever wrestling match in front of more than 1,000 fans. However, the Wolverines secured the afternoon’s first three bouts en route to cruising past UNC. 

Following the match, Lautt expressed that North Carolina’s first loss of the season was eye-opening for the Tar Heels and helped them understand the level at which UNC needed to compete in order to earn quality wins. Despite the altering recognition from the Tar Heel veteran, North Carolina dropped its second straight home bout just one week later at Carmichael Arena, this time at the hands of Ohio State in the form of a 33-9 defeat. 

Overshadowed by North Carolina’s rough first month was the absence of two of its critical pieces. O’Connor and redshirt senior Zach Sherman both entered the year fresh off qualifying for last season’s national tournament, but lingering injuries suffered toward the end of last season sidelined the graduate seniors for UNC’s beginning duals. 

In their place slotted in a shuffle of young wrestlers at the 149- and 157-pound divisions. Redshirt first-years Sincere Bailey and Wil Guida and first-years Danny Nini and Jayden Scott produced valiant efforts, but the four budding competitors combined to win just two bouts in the first month of dual meets.

UNC received nearly a month off following its blowout defeat to the Buckeyes, and returned to Chapel Hill in mid-December to take on Appalachian State. The bout featured the return of O’Connor, who handily won the 157-pound contest by decision. But surprising results — namely graduate Jack Wagner falling by pin and Lautt dropping the 174-pound class — helped the Mountaineers stun the Tar Heels, 19-16. 

North Carolina would momentarily right the ship, as the Tar Heels won their next bout against Central Michigan to kick off the Collegiate Duals events in the win column. But another losing streak, this time a three-game skid capped off by an upset loss to Penn, left a sour taste in the mouths of the Tar Heels at the end of the calendar year. 

UNC rounds out the non-conference portion of its schedule against Harvard and Brown on Saturday. From there, UNC will have to ramp up its performance as it begins ACC play against Duke on Jan. 20. 

Though the Tar Heels have not gotten off to the start many have expected, with a conference that boasts four top-25 teams, headlined by No. 6 N.C. State, North Carolina will have plenty of opportunities to turn its season around.  

@evanr0gers

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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