After taking down ACC rivals and now #8 NC State 16-14 in their ACC opener last week, the ACC Dual Meet title favorite #7 Virginia Tech Hokies face their highest-ranked remaining opponent in #24 Pittsburgh. While there may be a big ranking gap between the two teams, the Panthers have some big time talents that match up with some of the weaker spots for the Hokies, making this a closer matchup than what the rankings would suggest.
So with that said, here are my key matchups for the Hokies vs the Panthers.
133: #5 Sam Latona vs #7 Micky Phillippi
The showdown of the night comes at 133 between Sam Latona and Micky Phillippi as the two face off for the first time in their careers. This looks like a clear preview of the ACC Championships final at 133 in early March as the only two 133 ACC wrestlers in the top 20 at this weight class.
The Hokies have the higher-ranked wrestlers in 6 of the 10 matchups but given some of the recent struggles at 125, this feels like an important one for Latona even with Pitt being the underdog at 125 regardless if Eddie Ventresca or Cooper Flynn starts there.
Latona has adjusted well this year at 133 after having to wait a year longer than he likely would have originally planned to make the jump up with Korbin Myers having one more year last season. After a solid NCAAs, Latona has built on that this season in his move up to 133 and has wrestled better as the season has progressed going 4-0 in 2023 so far highlighted by a win over #3 Vito Aruaju just a few weeks ago after he lost to him at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational in December.
Meanwhile, Phillippi has had a steady season to date highlighted by a win over #10 Lucas Byrd of Illinois, but he's also only 8-1 to date and hasn't faced a lot of high-level competition. Per WrestleStat, only 3 of the wrestlers that Phillippi has faced this season are guys ranked in the top 100 of their 133 rankings.
However, Phillippi is a steady veteran so the fewer matches shouldn't be as big of a concern especially since he's 3-0 in 2023 even if it hasn't been against tough competition.
Regardless of the team battle, this is the match within this dual meet that will rightly garner the most attention and likely will be a preview of the 133 final at the 2023 ACC Championships.
165: #25 Connor Brady vs #23 Holden Heller
165 is one of those toss-up matchups given the tight rankings with this being the one where Tech has the lower-ranked wrestler in Connor Brady taking on Holden Heller.
These two enter this match coming off varying performances last week as Brady lost a heartbreaker in sudden victory to Matthew Singleton while Heller upset UVA's Justin McCoy who remains the highest-ranked ACC wrestler at 165.
While last week's loss was disappointing for Brady, the sophomore has actually been pretty good recently even though he's only 2-4 in his last 6 matches with the 2 wins being dominant while 3 of his four losses came against top 8 guys at 165 including an overtime loss to #4 Shane Griffith of Stanford.
For Brady, this is a big bounce back opportunity after a tough loss in a match that may prove pivotal in how this all goes down. Meanwhile, Heller likely enters this believing he has a chance to establish himself as the frontrunner at 165 especially given his win over Justin McCoy last week.
This is a toss-up that could be the swing match in the worst case scenario for the Hokies, or help Tech launch a rout in the best case scenario. It may not be the main event match of the evening but there is a great chance for it to be one of the closest matches of the evening.
Bonus Point Opportunities for Bryce Andonian, Mekhi Lewis
This is a weird matchup where there are some large ranking gaps and with the way things split, there is a chance that the Hokies and Panthers could split the matches evenly 5 to 5. In that scenario, bonus points will absolutely be key similar to how Bryce Andonian's major decision bonus point plus NC State's unsportsmanlike conduct made the 2-point difference last week.
Once again, Andonian feels like a spot where the Hokies can get bonus points as the #5 157 wrestler in the country takes on #33 Dazjon Casto of Pittsburgh who is coming off a 14-8 victory over UVA's Justin Keating last week.
While Casto is a veteran senior who will likely know that part of his job is to avoid an upset, he's also 5-5 on the season and Andonian knows how to produce high-volume point matches that can lead to major decisions and technical falls with some pins worked in there.
Meanwhile, #3 Mekhi Lewis draws an unraked Luca Augustine who is 10-6 on the season but is a redshirt freshman who hasn't faced anyone the like of Lewis in his young career to date.
With three technical falls and two pins among his 12 wins this season, there's no doubt that Lewis knows what it takes to get bonus points and will sense an opportunity to put on a show in front of what should be a loud Cassell crowd. He also likely knows that him and Andonian could produce the type of bonus points that could even give Tech an expanded margin for error elsewhere.