Micky Phillippi watched his dream dashed one second at a time, a dozen agonizing ticks he couldn’t control. Twelve seconds separated the Pitt wrestler from becoming an All-American.
Wrestlers will tell you that theirs is a sport you can’t quite understand unless you have worn the singlet and possess the single-minded, do-or-die mentality it demands. The NCAA championships this weekend at PPG Paints Arena are proof of the thin line they walk.
“The emotions you get — winning, losing — it’s a feeling that no one can ever understand,” Phillippi, a redshirt freshman from Derry, said after his 4-3 loss to Penn State’s Roman Bravo-Young in the 133-pound wrestlebacks. “Honestly, I don’t even know what to say because my heart is broken. I wanted that so bad. I wanted to win this tournament.
“I wanted to be a four-time national champ. I wanted to win the (outstanding wrestler) for this tournament. That’s what I wanted to do. I came in here with high hopes. You have to be that way. You set it any lower, and how are you going to win?”
That’s the only way to explain how 330 wrestlers came here with national title aspirations, despite knowing only 10 would leave as NCAA champions. The consolation prize for those who lose is All-American status, awarded to the top eight finishers in each weight class.
It made for an electric atmosphere at Friday night’s semifinals and wrestlebacks. The mats were reconfigured, creating a dramatic setting with two semifinal matches in the middle and those holding out hope for a shot at standing on the podium on the four mats outside.
“You know if you win, you’re an All-American,” Ohio State 141-pounder Joey McKenna said, “and if you lose, you’ve got to wrestle in that blood round. Obviously, the win is what you’re going for and putting yourself in contention to be a national champ.”
Yes, they call this the blood round.
And that’s being kind, because it’s absolutely brutal to watch the disparity between the thrill of victory and agony of defeat. The winner is immediately announced with a new title: All-American. The loser is left to deal with the agonizing aftermath, processing the devastation of defeat. With their dreams destroyed, some stare off in shock, while others can’t control their emotions, whether it’s sobbing in silence or throwing their headgear.
“We’re warriors, you know? When you look at the faces of half the guys in here, they’re getting beat up and bloodied and bruised,” said Iowa’s Spencer Lee, a Franklin Regional graduate and defending NCAA champion who reached the 125-pound finals for the second consecutive season. “I think that round really exemplifies this tournament. You either leave an All-American or you leave wishing you’d done more, and that’s a feeling no one wants to have. That’s why they’re going to fight for their lives.”
Phillippi had fought for his life at his first NCAA championships, which he entered as the No. 4 seed. He won both matches Thursday to advance to the quarterfinals against Luke Pletcher of Ohio State, a long-time practice partner and rival from Latrobe. When Pletcher scored a 3-1 decision to advance to the semifinals, Phillippi set his sights on finishing third. That would require a run, first by beating Penn State’s Bravo-Young. But Bravo-Young, the 10th seed, got two takedowns and survived a Phillippi escape with 12 seconds left to ride out the victory.
The outcome required a wait, as Pitt coaches threw a red foam brick to challenge for stalling. It was wrestling’s version of a Hail Mary, a desperation move, and Phillippi didn’t want to win that way anyway. He wanted to win the hard way, to earn his standing as an All-American fair and square inside the circle.
That’s a status that escaped him, at least for this year.
“I have to get past this,” Phillippi said. “I’m not OK. I’m not going to be OK, probably not tomorrow or for awhile, but I’m going to learn from it. I’ll be back, and I’m going to find my way to the top.”
If he has any control over the next 12 months that he didn’t have for those last 12 seconds, Phillippi will become an All-American. And avoid the blood round at all costs.