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Pitt wrestling welcomes heavyweight foe to Fitzgerald Field House

| Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, 10:12 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Pitt wrestling warms up before practice Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, at Fitzgerald Field House.

P.J. Tasser has been to the NCAA Division I wrestling championships.

He helped set the dual-meet attendance record earlier this season at Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center and even took part in the Southern Scuffle, one of the nation's premier midseason tournaments.

Yet one thing Tasser, a Belle Vernon graduate, has never seen is a big-time wrestling event in Oakland.

That will change when No. 13 Pitt welcomes fifth-ranked Oklahoma State for a 2 p.m. match Sunday at Fitzgerald Field House.

“We've wrestled in some pretty big environments as an away team,” Tasser said. “It will be fun to wrestle as the home team and see our fans and our crowd get into the match.”

The Panthers will face a stiff test, as Oklahoma State has nine wrestlers ranked in the latest InterMat poll. By comparison, Pitt has five nationally ranked wrestlers.

Such a difficult non-conference dual meet was scheduled as a way to prepare for not only the ACC championships on March 8 but as a precursor to the national tournament March 20-22.

“Any time you wrestle on the big stage and you wrestle some of the top guys in the country, it helps prepare you for the goals that you set,” first-year Pitt coach Jason Peters said. “We have guys who want to be All-Americans and national champs. Putting them in an environment where they have the opportunity to compete against that caliber of guy is important.”

Pitt (8-1, 3-0 ACC) is coming off a 4-0 weekend in which the Panthers outscored their opponents, 136-32.

The team's lone loss was at No. 1 Penn State in front of a record 15,996 fans, and it's something that could prepare Pitt for this, the first time a traditional wrestling power has traveled to Pittsburgh for a match.

“I think Penn State was really good for us because we wrestled in such a (high-energy) environment,” said 125-pounder Anthony Zanetta, a Keystone Oaks graduate. “Just the experience of wrestling in that environment is good for our guys to relax our nerves before the match, before a big crowd in a pretty hostile environment.”

The most intriguing bout most likely will be at 174 pounds between Pitt's Tyler Wilps, a Chartiers Valley graduate ranked No. 8 in the country, and Oklahoma State's Chris Perry, ranked No. 2.

Perry is the defending NCAA champion and defeated Wilps, 2-1, in the semifinals of the Southern Scuffle en route to winning the title. Wilps (20-4, team-high 37 dual points) wound up finishing fourth.

“I think maybe I need to push the pace a little more and try to score points early,” Wilps said. “I kind of let him dictate the match (last time). He rode me for a little bit, so I have to get off bottom, try to get to my attacks and score. Basic stuff.”

Wilps' match will be followed by No. 6 Max Thomusseit's bout against either Nolan Boyd or Jordan Rodgers at 184 pounds. Thomusseit, who's a two-time NCAA qualifier, is the Panthers' highest-ranked wrestler.

“I hope it's a big atmosphere. It will be good for Pitt wrestling,” Thomusseit said. “It will be good for the younger guys on the team to experience that.

“We wrestle big teams like this because that's who you're going to see at nationals.”

Oklahoma State wrestling has won 34 national championships, the most of any school in any sport. Coach John Smith has more than 350 career wins and is a two-time Olympic gold medalist.

Facing the Cowboys — and Smith — is something Zanetta has been looking forward to for a while.

“I think it's great for the program,” Zanetta said. “Personally, I'm excited. I think the team is excited.

“Whenever we saw Oklahoma State coming to the Field House on the schedule, that's something you circle, something you keep in the back of your mind. It's really exciting.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey @tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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