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Pitt wrestler Wilps confident he can win elusive national title

| Sunday, March 10, 2013, 6:15 p.m.

A team photo from Rande Stottlemyre's first year as Pitt's head coach could double as a mirror for Panthers wrestler Matt Wilps.

That is how closely fifth-year senior resembles his father Jeff, who was a member of Stottlemyre's first team almost 35 years ago.

“It's pretty scary looking at that photo,” the younger Wilps said with a laugh.

He would love nothing more to add a photo of him standing atop an awards podium in Des Moines, Iowa, to Stottlemyre's album. And Wilps is the leading national championship contender among the eight Panthers who qualified for the NCAA Wrestling Championships, which will be held March 21-23.

The Chartiers Valley graduate crafted a pair of one-point victories Saturday to capture the Eastern Wrestling League title at 197 pounds, and Wilps should enter the NCAA tournament as no worse than the No. 3 seed. That puts him on a collision course with former Penn State national champion Quentin Williams — the two pinned each other in two earlier meetings this season — and on a track to win the only thing that has eluded him during his decorated college career.

Stottlemyre said Wilps is ready to build on the fourth-place finish from a year ago at 184 pounds when he earned All-American honors.

“Mostly because he thinks he can,” Stottlemyre said when asked why Wilps can win a national championship. “That's the hardest thing because when you try and put your arms around it sometimes it's kind of tough to figure, but he's pretty focused.”

And confident.

“I've worked hard enough for it. I'm athletic enough,” Wilps said after winning a third consecutive EWL title. “I have the moves, and the whole coaching staff and my family believes in me.”

The line between coaching staff and family sometimes may seem a little blurred to Wilps considering how steeped wrestling is in the latter.

Wilps' younger brother and teammate, Tyler, will join him at NCAAs after finishing second in the EWL tournament at 165 pounds. And the youngest of the three brothers, Noah, placed for Chartiers Valley at 170 pounds in the PIAA tournament over the weekend in Hershey.

Noah Wilps could well follow his father and brothers to Pitt and have something to shoot for literally and figuratively.

Matt Wilps is one victory shy of the 125-win milestone, and his development is a major reason why Pitt dominated the EWL the last three years.

“He started on heart and strength and now he's gained a lot more technique,” Panthers assistant coach Matt Kocher said. “I think his best quality is he's savvy. He never gets rattled. He knows how to win.”

He proved as much in his EWL championship match.

Bloomsburg's Richard Perry took a 4-3 lead late in the third period with a reversal, but Wilps calmly worked himself free for a one-point escape. He added another point due to a rideout and beat Perry, 5-4.

Now it is on to the NCAA tournament where Wilps' ability to win close matches will be vital as he shoots for a national championship.

“I'm always going to try and win in little positions,” Wilps said, “and when it comes to crunch time I'm going to do what it takes to win.”

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