The Blue Devils set their sights on the postseason hoping to avenge their close conference losses and earn berths to the NCAA championships in the process.
Duke will head to Blacksburg, Va., to compete in the ACC Championships Saturday. All six ACC wrestling programs will compete in the daylong tournament, and while the individuals will be vying for one of 34 ACC slots allocated for the NCAA Championships, they can also score points for their team in search of the conference title.
“The matchups are pretty decent for us,” head coach Glen Lanham said. “We see some guys in there that we’ve wrestled before, we’ve had some close matches with them. Now we’ve just got to put it together, and what a great time to do it—ACCs.”
Two Blue Devils have already claimed a spot for the NCAA Championships, which will be held March 20-22 in Oklahoma City. This weekend will serve as an opportunity for redshirt sophomore Conner Hartmann, ranked No. 22 in the NCAA's most recent RPI, and redshirt junior Immanuel Kerr-Brown, ranked 33rd, to improve their seeding for the national tournament. For the rest of the squad, key wins at the conference championships could open the door to a spot at nationals.
“[Kerr-Brown and Hartmann] have done enough throughout the season to make sure that they can get to nationals,” Lanham said. “I kind of expected that those guys would be ranked where they are… [and] I think we’ve got some other guys that we can sneak in there as well.”
Wrestlers qualify for the national tournament based on their weight class, and each class has a different number of spots allotted per conference based on the strength of the class. Although Hartmann has already claimed one of five spots in the 197-pound class, Kerr-Brown has a delicate hold on one of just two ACC spots for 157-pound wrestlers.
Kerr-Brown will be destined for Oklahoma City regardless, but a poor showing Saturday could result in his relegation to one of the NCAA Championships' wild card positions, which would make for a much tougher road in his weight class.
The ACC Championships will feature matchups between several wrestlers ranked in the third and final NCAA coaches panel, including Maryland’s No. 1 Jimmy Sheptock, who remained undefeated in the regular season and looks to be a finalist in the 184-pound weight class. Sheptock is one of 24 ACC wrestlers ranked 20th or better in their respective weight class.
In preparation for such formidable opponents, the Duke squad has had a two-week break from competition to correct any mistakes and finalize its strategy.
“You’re not going to learn a lot in two weeks, but you can kind of correct what they’ve been doing that they needed to work on,” Lanham said. “We’ve had some guys that have had some injuries, so they’re coming back into their form. I feel like we’re coming in at the right time.”
The Blue Devils will be up against wrestlers from No. 10 Pittsburgh—which went undefeated in conference duals en route to the regular-season title—as well as No. 14 Virginia and No. 16 Virginia Tech. Looking to previous years, Duke has finished last in the ACC in eight of the past nine seasons and notched just one conference win during dual competition in the past three years.
Although success against the conference's best is not something Duke has grown accustomed to, Lanham said this year's squad may have the talent to surprise the ACC's traditional powers.
“It’s going to be a good tournament,” he said. “I feel like we’re peaking at the right time, so we’ll see what happens.”
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