Close matches determined everything for the No. 8 Michigan wrestling team Sunday afternoon, when they lost 24-11 to No. 5 Virginia Tech in the National Duals Championship Series.
The two teams wasted no time pumping the meet with excitement, with their first match of the day going into three rounds of overtime play. Redshirt junior Conor Youtsey fought hard for the Wolverines (8-1 Big Ten, 13-3 overall) and stayed even with the Hokies’ No. 3 wrestler Joey Dance in the 125-pound weight class. After regulation, the wrestlers were tied at six and continued to wrestle hard in overtime, trading off takedowns. However, Dance outlasted Youtsey to take the first victory of the day for Virginia Tech (5-0 ACC, 16-2 overall).
Michigan senior Rossi Bruno’s 5-1 victory tied the meet at three. Bruno stayed determined throughout the entire match and picked up points wherever, and however, he could.
With the match tied at three, Michigan had the opportunity to maintain its momentum in the 141-pound weight. But Virginia Tech scored a last-minute victory, earning an escape with just 30 seconds left in the dual, to regain the lead.
“Match awareness (was the problem),” said Michigan coach Joe McFarland. “In some cases, there was no urgency. (Virginia Tech) was willing to take the risk and keep fighting when they needed to, and that ended up being the difference.”
But, the Wolverines refused to go down easy and fought back hard, avoiding back-to-back losses. Sophomore Alec Pantaleo, a stronghold in the middle of the lineup all season for Michigan, dominated his dual and earned a technical fall for the Wolverines, giving them a 8-6 lead.
“I felt really quick, I had some quick takedowns,” said Pantaleo. “It was a good match to get in before Big Tens and nationals. Definitely being quicker than him, that was working. I wrestled smart.”
Though Pantaleo looked strong, and Michigan built up a two-point lead, the formidable effort did not last long, as the Hokies won the next three matches and mounted a 10-point lead over the Wolverines with only three duals left.
One costly match came immediately after Pantaleo’s big win, when junior Brian Murphy took to the mat. Murphy battled his opponent tough, but a late escape in the final frame, along with Murphy losing his riding-time advantage, proved to be the determining factor. Eventually, Virginia Tech’s Nick Brascetta stole the victory away from the struggling Michigan team.
“At 157, we had momentum, and then we stopped wrestling, and we started defending a little bit,” McFarland said. “He allowed that momentum to get away from him, and that was the difference in that match.”
The Wolverines attempted to stage a comeback when junior Domenic Abounader wrestled a hard-fought battle against his opponent. Abounader, similar to Youtsey in the first match, forced the dual into a second overtime and played impressive defense, not allowing his opponent to sneak an escape. Abounader’s victory cut the lead to seven, and a win was still in reach for Michigan.
With only two duals to go and a seven-point deficit, Michigan turned to its big guns in sixth-year senior Max Huntley and junior Adam Coon. But the Hokies, unlike most teams, had an answer for the Wolverines’ top wrestlers and closed out the match winning both fights, giving Virginia Tech a 24-11 victory and momentum going into further postseason play.
“If you want to fight for a national championship, you got to know how to fight those tough, close matches,” McFarland said. “(We need better) match awareness — where you’re at in the match and what you need to do to win. We got to do a better job of that as a team down the stretch.”