No, it's not another basketball game. This loss was in wrestling.
As Henry II might say, "Will no one rid us of these meddlesome Panthers?"
Until Friday night, the Mountaineers had been on a tear through the Eastern Wrestling League (EWL), going 3-0 in conference contests, with a combined score differential of 86-21. But the 20th-ranked Pittsburghers managed a close victory in a hard-fought contest to break WVU's winning streak and gain some advantages in the crucial seedings for the post-season EWL tournament.
"It's always more fun to win," admitted rueful head coach Craig Turnbull. "I'm disappointed. Any time you lose you're disappointed, but it was a well-fought match and you want to win those."
As usual, Kyle Turnbull kicked off the meet, facing Pitt's Ryan Bosso at 125. The two were almost identical in size and shape and feistiness – it took less than a round for the first stalemate call. Turnbull came out substantially more aggressively than he has the past couple of weeks. His balance was especially good, and he kept on his feet despite numerous attempts by the Panther to pull his legs out from under him. Bosso struck first, with a one point escape to open the second round, then Turnbull returned the favor in the early third period to put the match went into overtime. The West Virginia coaching staff clearly saw something they liked, gesturing firmly and positively as the homeboy got himself ready for OT. A quick takedown secured the victory for Turnbull at 3-1, just 44 seconds into the fourth period.
"It was a good win for Kyle. He needed that one and we needed that one," said his dad and mentor.
"I didn't wrestle exactly the way I wanted to, but a win's a win," the younger Turnbull smiled. He's still feeling some effects of off-season shoulder surgery, though. "My shoulder is sore but it's ok. It's holding up all right. I started putting a heavy load on it only about nine months after the surgery, but it's doing well."
Round two began just as intensely, with Mountaineer Jared Garvin taking on Jimmy Conroy at 133. Down 4-1 late in the second period, Garvin began pushing harder. He gave up three inches in height to the lankier Conroy, but Garvin's unusual flexibility and thigh strength kept him in the match. He cartwheeled out of a dangerous angle, then scored an escape to get to 4-2 with 30 seconds remaining, but Garvin ran out of comeback time, and the team score was tied at 3-3.
Rookie Steve Waite faced Pitt's 17th-ranked Drew Headlee at 141. Waite started well, but by the end of the first period, Headlee's experience was beginning to tell. After one, the Panther already had a 5-0 lead and Waite was looking overmatched. On a particularly dramatic takedown in the mid-2nd round, Waite took a shot to the face, then Headlee pinned him, giving Pitt bonus points and a 9-3 advantage.
At 149, WVU's David Jauregui wrestled Joe Ciampoli in what at times looked like a gymnastics meet with bodies flying everywhere. After one round, the two were knotted up at 3-all, then the fierce Californian dug deep into his bag of tricks but the ref wasn't biting, to the dismay of the crowd. Jauregui finally broke the constant tie with a two-point takedown with 1:14 on the scoreboard, then hung on for a 6-5 win.
Scrappy Zac Fryling followed at 157. The 18th-ranked senior quickly flipped Pitt's #5 Matt Kocher, taking an early 2-1 lead. The Pitt faithful booed roundly when Fryling pulled Kocher out of bounds, to avoid a takedown. Fryling scored another takedown, going up 4-2 with the Coliseum rocking. The first period was so thrilling it seemed to take far longer than the regulation three minutes. As Fryling countered Kocher's every move, the Pitt crowd angered. The home town fans more than met the challenge and the place got pretty rowdy. The final period opened with Kocher ahead 5-4. These two wrestlers are gladiators, men of experience and determination. The WVU bench wanted a one-point escape denied by the ref, then the Panther got a quick takedown to go up 7-5 and get the win.
Mama Jones's baby boy, Donnie, took on Ethan Headlee at 165. For the first time this season, Jones got that certain gleam in his eye. The Mountaineers were down 12-6, needing a win at minimum and bonus points if at all possible. The competitors were wound up like street vendor pretzels for most of the first round, knees and shoulders and even necks twisted into all sorts of untenable shapes. Second after second ticked off until the Mountaineer finally got two points on the board with 1:14 to go in the middle period. The third period opened with a Pitt escape to tie the score at two. With a minute on the clock, Jones pounced, flinging Headlee to the mat, then leaping over the Panther's outstretched paw and staying on his feet. WVU got another narrow escape, with a 4-3 win.
"I'm getting a little confidence. I'm starting to get back in my groove," Jones grinned. "One of the key aspects I work on is strength. It's one of my focal points. I'm working away, trying to get as strong as possible. I'm a little lighter than some in my weight class, so I have to make it up with strength."
Chance Litton at 174 had the evening's most difficult assignment, the nation's top-ranked competitor in Pitt's Keith Gavin. The Parkersburger gave the country's finest all he could handle. This year's Chance Litton is a new model, far more comfortable and confident than in his two previous years at WVU. He pursued and pursued and pursued, never letting his opponent intimidate him. Greg Jones and Craig Turnbull smiled at each other late in the first period, trading a gleam of pride in their protege. Gavin tied the score at two-all with two escapes in the second period, then Turnbull argued a point with the referee to give Litton a moment to catch his breath. Every time Litton got in trouble, he was able to pull Gavin out of bounds, but the senior from the north finally took him down with 12 seconds remaining in the second. The final period opened with some fancy footwork on Litton's part and a return to the neutral position at center. With the seconds ticking, the West Virginia crowd demanded a stall call long before they got it. With 21 seconds on the clock and the crowd at an extended roar, Litton gave it all he got, but #1 kept his ranking with a 4-2 victory.
Despite the loss, Litton was all smiles afterwards. "I'm finally starting to realize my potential. I've only lost three times this year and one of them was to [Gavin], so I went out there and wrestled all I could. Hopefully, I'll get to see him again at EWLs, give him a hard match, and pull out a win next time."
His head coach was extremely pleased. "Chance wrestled a great match. He wrestled with so much more confidence. He was very relaxed, very poised. It was very encouraging," Turnbull said.
With West Virginia trailing 15-9, Kurt Brenner got busy. The good guys needed wins in the final three weight categories to knock off the 20th-ranked Panthers. Brenner quickly went up 2-1, knocking off Dave Sullivan's headgear, then two more quick scores put him ahead 6-2 after the first two minutes of competition. The WVU bench wanted another two points, but the zebra ruled that the takedown had been too far off the center mat to count. After two rounds, Sullivan settled down and the match got close, too close for comfort. Brenner held on for a 6-4 victory, bringing the team score to 15-12 with Jared Villers coming to center mat.
Villers, ranked 12th at 197, got the first two points on Pitt's Dave Crowell half way through the first period, then added more than half a minute of riding time before a second takedown built a five-point lead. The strong, silent, slope-shouldered Mountaineer was a paragon of focus and determination. He knew how badly his team needed bonus points, so declined even the usual gift release to keep running his total up. After one, he led 8-0. He is the master of what Johannes Herber used to call "the flop" – the fake out – and Crowell bought it every time. Next thing you know, it's 10-0, and Villers is playing cat and mouse with the curly-haired Panther. Crowell did finally get two points, midway through the third round, but it was still 11-2, and Villers was carrying more than two minutes of riding time. Another minute, another two-pointer for the Mountaineer – and then another. Villers ended the match 13 seconds early with a 17-2 technical fall and those desperately desired bonus points. WVU 17, Pitt 15
As the heavyweights entered the ring, the team victory was on the line. With Pitt's bench on their feet and screaming, their 13th-ranked Zach Schaeffer took a quick five-point lead, but 17th-ranked Dustin Rogers was not giving up that easily. An escape on either side, and the score went to 6-1. Donnie Jones started whipping up the crowd and the West Virginia bench shouted exhortations to their big man. With half of the second round to go, Rogers had an injury timeout for a bloody nose. Rogers managed a takedown, but the ref ruled it out of bounds, bringing the ire of all who were wearing WVU gold and blue. At the end of two, it was still 6-1. Rogers scored a quick escape, then went on offense. To the strains of "Let's go, Pitt," Schaeffer got tw0 more, and the final score was 9-3, giving Pitt the match win.
125: Kyle Turnbull, WVU 3-1 dec. v. Ryan Bosso, Pitt
133: Jimmy Conroy, Pitt, 4-2 dec. Jared Garvin, WVU
141: #17 Drew Headlee, Pitt pin Stephen Waite, WVU
149: David Jauregui, WVU, 6-5 dec. v. Joe Ciampoli, Pitt
157: #5 Matt Kocher, Pitt 7-5 dec. v. #18 Zac Fryling, WVU
165: Donnie Jones, WVU v. Ethan Headlee, Pitt
174: #1 Keith Gavin, Pitt, 4-2 dec. v. Chance Litton, WVU
184: Kurt Brenner, WVU 6-4 dec v. Dave Sullivan, Pitt
197: #12 Jared Villers, WVU, 17-2 tech fall v. Dave Crowell, Pitt
HWT: #13 Zach Schaeffer, Pitt, 9-3 dec. v. #17 Dustin Rogers, WVU
Referee: Angel Rivera
It was Senior Night at The Coliseum. Zac Fryling, Jared Villers, and Dustin Rogers, accompanied by their parents, received a special introduction and ovation before the evening's festivities began. The Pitt team did not take the field until after the senior introductions, leaving the Mountaineers standing around for several minutes, wondering when their opponents would show up.
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A change of date for this year's EWL tournament will lead to reduced press coverage of WVU's participation in that crucial post-season contest. Pitt is hosting EWLs this year and has moved the championship rounds to a week earlier than usual, which puts it on the same date as the West Virginia high school girls' basketball state finals.
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The Backyard Brawl always draws a crowd, no matter the sport. Tonight was one of the biggest crowds for wrestling in recent memory, although far too high a percentage were Pitt fans. There were also more middle and high school groups in attendance than usual, including some from Canonsburg, Pa. and Keyser, W. Va.
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The difference between WVU's warmups and Pitt's warmups was substantial. The Mountaineers did a lot of stretching, a little tussling around and practiced various moves, but two of the Pitt wrestlers really got into it. An assistant coach hovered, obviously concerned to avoid injury before they'd even stepped into the ring.
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The night's giveaway poster featured Jared Villers and Dustin Rogers.
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The Mountaineers have three more in-conference dual meets to conclude the regular season. They will travel to Ohio on February 15, then to Edinboro at February 22, and Cleveland State on February 24. The EWL tournament is March 8, and the NCAA championships will be March 20-22 in St. Louis.