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Pitt on EWL prowl for final time

| Saturday, March 9, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The Pitt wrestling program continues to elevate itself among the nation's elite. While the Panthers are a long shot to win the NCAA Division I national championship in two weeks, the program is positioned to consistently compete with perennial powers.

Already, the Panthers' 2013-14 recruiting class is ranked second in the country. That puts them behind only Michigan and ahead of two-time defending national champion Penn State.

Pitt coach Rande Stottlemyer has built a wrestling program that has resided atop the Eastern Wrestling League the past several years. The Panthers, who finished second behind Bloomsburg in dual competition this season, are favored to win their third consecutive EWL tournament title Saturday at Edinboro.

The Panthers will pin their hopes on a senior class that has led them to three league dual titles. Together, they are a 63-17 this season as the Panthers climbed to 16th in the USA Today poll.

Zac Thomusseit, a two-time NCAA qualifier, leads the senior class with a 22-2 record. Thomusseit, who was granted a medical redshirt last season, is one of four Panthers with a No. 1 seed.

“It's important for us to make a statement going into nationals,” said Thomusseit, who ranks 10th in the country in pins. “We (seniors) want to leave with another championship, but it's important to show everyone that we can consistently be a top-10 team.

“It kept me hungry watching the guys wrestle in nationals last year. Right now we have a chance to make something happen.”

The Panthers are likely to lean on the top four weight classes. In addition to Thomusseit, Nick Bonaccorsi (174), Max Thomusseit (184) and Matt Wilps (197) are top seeds.

“It's exciting to have our two big guys so dominant this year,” said assistant coach Matt Kocher. “A couple of times it's come down to Zac winning a match for us. It shows the rest of guys what this program is capable of producing.”

Tyler Wilps is a second seed at 165, while Ronnie Garbinsky (149), Shelton Mack (133) and senior Donnie Tasser (157) are No. 3 seeds. Travis Shaffer is the fourth seed at 141 pounds.

Tasser, a 2011 NCAA qualifier, is seeking redemption after the NCAA selection committee denied him an at-large bid last season.

“Last year was a disappointment because I was expecting a lot from myself,” Tasser said. “I lost some matches I wasn't supposed to. I expected to get an at-large bid for nationals. When it didn't happen, I was broken up about it.

“I feel like I've got to prove something. I'm flying under the radar, so I feel I can come through this year.”

While the Panthers are vying for automatic individual bids to the NCAA Tournament, they also are hoping to close out their final season in the EWL with another championship. Pitt joins the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.

“It's a motivating factor,” Kocher said. “We want to go out on top in our last EWL tournament. Our ultimate goal is to win nationals, but we have to set the tempo by winning the EWL.

“It's been a good progression over the past 10 years. We want to finish strong because it'll say something about the university's commitment to the program.”

The Panthers are likely to have higher expectations in the ACC, where basketball rules.

“We are doing a lot of things right. When we go to the ACC, it's going to be a little more high profile than the EWL,” Zac Thomusseit said. “We're right on the verge of being a truly great program.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk@Trib.

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