Pitt tandem choose wrestling over basketball, become champions
When he was 14 at McCluer High School in Florissant, Mo., Pitt wrestler Demetrius Thomas thought he wanted to play basketball. Lucky for him, two McCluer coaches conspired to make sure that didn’t happen.
Years earlier, Micky Phillippi — just like any 6-year-old would do — dutifully followed his father to the Derry basketball courts, even though the future Pitt wrestling champion had other ideas.
“I saw (wrestling), and I said I want to do that,” Phillippi said. “My dad said, ‘I don’t know. You should play basketball.’
“We’d go to the park and play basketball, and I said, ‘I don’t want to do this. I want to wrestle.’ ”
And so he did.
“I went and tried it, and I loved it,” Phillippi said. “The whole family fell in love with it.”
Today, Thomas and Phillippi are ACC champions and will carry Pitt’s best hopes for more gold when the NCAA championships open Thursday at PPG Paints Arena.
Thomas, who wrestles at 285 pounds even though he’s often as many as 50 pounds lighter than his opponents, holds no ill will toward the coaches whose secret pact kept him off the basketball court. The wrestling coach said Thomas’ talents would be better served on his team.
“I’m thankful,” Thomas said. “I’m here where I am now because of wrestling.”
Given how he put himself on his current path as a child, when Phillippi says, “This is what I worked my whole life for,” he really means it.
Both wrestlers are off to good starts in the postseason. Phillippi was named the most valuable wrestler at the ACC championships last weekend and is seeded No. 4 at nationals at 133 pounds with a record of 19-2. Thomas is 26-4 and the No. 8 seed.
Pitt also will be represented by No. 12 seed Taleb Rahmani (16-6) at 157; No. 13 Nino Bonaccorsi of Bethel Park (19-6) at 184; and No. 23 Kellan Stout of Mt. Lebanon (12-8) at 197. Rahmani and Bonaccorsi were ACC runners-up, and Stout earned a wild-card berth.
For Thomas, wrestling satisfied his urge to do things on his own.
“You get to perform for yourself. You get to see the work you put in, get to see if it pays off or not. You get immediate results. I’m not against team sports. There are a lot of great individuals in team sports.
“The example I like to use is (Carolina Panthers linebacker) Luke Kuechly. He’s a great linebacker. He was Rookie of the Year when he came out (in 2012), but the Panthers as a team didn’t do well. (In wrestling), your work is what you get. If you want to win, you better put in the work.”
Thomas grew up a football player — he played center, defensive line and linebacker — but when he was 14, his cousin recommended wrestling as a way to stay in shape in the offseason.
Although he wasn’t recruited in either sport, Thomas leaned toward wrestling and became a 40-match winner and an NAIA heavyweight champion as a freshman at Williams Baptist (Ark.).
Thomas said Williams Baptist fit his personality.
“The school is very isolated,” he said. “If you drive 15 minutes one way and 15 minutes the other way, there is nothing but rice fields and corn fields. I loved it there. I’m a very isolated person myself.”
Eventually, his talent on the mat demanded greater exposure, and he ended up at Pitt this season.
His goal this week is nothing short of a national championship.
“If you go into the tournament expecting less, you shouldn’t go,” he said. “I’ll give nothing less than my best. If my best at that moment isn’t good enough, then I go back to the drawing board and just keep working until it’s good enough to be on top. I have a lot of grit.”
Thomas said his weight fluctuates between 232 and 240, which doesn’t necessarily put him at a disadvantage in the 285-pound weight class.
“My first loss was to guy who was around 270-280,” he said. “Actually, it was my fault that I lost. I was trying to throw him. It’s hard to throw a guy that big. I’ll just stick to my game plan.”
Because of the weight limits, wrestlers must watch what they eat. Thomas loads up on carbs in the morning, has a fruit cup before practice “to spark metabolism and get my body going” and allows himself a little ice cream “here and there.”
Phillippi, who does his own cooking every night, said he weighs 142 pounds “on a good day.” That sounds problematic for a wrestler in the 133 weight class, but it’s actually about right.
“You lose four or five pounds (of water weight) in a practice,” he said.
He said he has oatmeal and eggs for breakfast, chicken, rice and veggies for dinner (except for an occasional pizza).
There’s also a Chinese restaurant in Derry where he finds “cheat food.”
Phillippi, a three-time PIAA champion, was recruited by Pitt but initially committed to Virginia.
“It was hard saying no to (Pitt assistant Drew Headlee),” he said.
After one season at Virginia, Phillippi transferred to Pitt, correctly believing he’d be more comfortable closer to home.
He never has competed at nationals, but when he went as a spectator and watched Penn State’s Vincenzo Joseph (Central Catholic) win one of his two NCAA championships, “I got chills.”
Phillippi told himself, “I can do that.”
But he said he must approach the mat with the right mindset.
“If you put a lot of pressure on yourself, it’s really hard to compete at the highest level that you can,” he said. “Don’t make it a big deal. It’s wrestling. It’s what I’ve done my whole life. It’s what we train every day to do.
“If I don’t make it bigger than it is, that’s how I’ll do the best.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .