For the first time in program history, the Blue Devils will be sending more than two grapplers to the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons.
After a hard-fought day of wrestling Sunday at the ACC championships at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Va., No. 21 Duke will send four grapplers to Madison Square Garden in New York March 17-19 for a chance at an NCAA title. The Blue Devils scored 33 team points en route to a fifth-place finish, headlined by a second straight ACC title at 197 pounds for No. 5 Conner Hartmann and a second consecutive runner-up finish for No. 9 Mitch Finesilver—this year at 149 pounds after placing second last season at 133 pounds.
“We’re taking steps. It’s hard for me tonight because it’s still the competitor in me—and maybe it’s a curse—to always see what is ahead of me,” Duke head coach Glen Lanham told GoDuke.com. "When you sit back and look at it, what we’re doing at Duke—it’s special right now. It’s special for the way our guys are coming here and competing and the steps that the program is taking. Obviously we’ve got some steps to go. We’ve got to continue to work hard and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Hartmann had no trouble taking his No. 1 seed into the championship bout Sunday to vie for his second title in as many years. The redshirt senior received a bye into the semifinals, where he defeated N.C. State’s No. 4 seed Michael Boykin 2-0 to enter the evening’s championship round. There, the Port Orchard, Wash., native faced off against Virginia Tech’s Jared Haught—the No. 2 seed—and maintained control en route to a 4-2 victory to defend his crown.
With the victory, Hartmann becomes the eighth Blue Devil to win multiple titles and qualifies for the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in his career. When he enters The World's Most Famous Arena March 17, the 197-pounder will be seeking his third consecutive All-America bid, which would make him the first Duke grappler to achieve the honor.
“The guy has been...a beacon of light for the program,” Lanham said. “Conner from day one bought in to what we as coaches were trying to do here at Duke and he’s going to be truly missed. We’re savoring every second that we have with him right now because he’s a true leader and as much of leader as he is for our program, he’s a better person. It’s great to see him succeed and I want to see him get on top of the podium not because of the person he is, but the work he has put in.”
After battling from the sixth seed at 133 pounds last season to a runner-up finish, Finesilver utilized his No. 2 seed at 149 pounds to achieve the same feat in his sophomore campaign. With a bye into the semifinals, the Greenwood Village, Colo., native took on the Hokies’ No. 3 seed Sal Mastriani for a spot in the title bout and an automatic NCAA bid. Despite being pressed late, Finesilver held on for a 5-2 win, setting up his first match of the year with Evan Henderson of North Carolina, who was the No. 1 seed.
But unfortunately for the Duke grappler, he came up just shy of snagging gold from his Tobacco Road rival, falling 8-3. Despite the loss, Finesilver captured his second silver at the ACC tournament and his second NCAA bid in two seasons. The 149-pounder was also named to the All-ACC team—alongside Hartmann—at the end of the tournament.
“It’s awesome [to see Mitch in back-to-back title matches],” Lanham said. “He’s just a hard worker, he stays the summers [and] he makes the sacrifices. Obviously, it’s going to pay off for him. We’ve got to find a way to get him some gold now, but he’s wrestling tough…. We’ll just go back to business again and it’d be nice to get him on top of the podium, so we’ll see what happens.”
No. 4 seed Zach Finesilver had his sights set on an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament as well for the Blue Devils. Although he dropped into the consolation semifinals, the redshirt freshman battled back into the third-place match, where he fell 4-0 against the Tar Heels’ No. 3 seed Joey Ward. With four automatic bids available at the weight class, though, the 141-pounder joined his twin brother in punching a ticket to the Big Apple.
Despite having the No. 2 seed, 165-pound grappler Jake Faust dropped two consecutive matches to start his day and fell into the fifth-place matchup. With five automatic bids available in the weight class for the conference, Faust stepped up to dispatch No. 6 seed Garrett Peppelman of Virginia, 11-4. The victory locked up Duke’s final automatic bid of the day, after No. 5 seed Trey Adamson lost the 184-pound third-place match 4-2 to another North Carolina grappler, No. 3 seed Alex Utley.
“Obviously I felt like we left some guys that could have qualified out there,” Lanham said. “You always want to do better than the year before, so it’s a little disappointing in a couple of things about the overall tournament. But we’ve got four guys going to nationals. We still may get one more.”
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With 46 at-large bids remaining, the Blue Devils will await the announcement Wednesday to see if they can sneak in another grappler, most likely Connor Bass at 157 pounds. The junior scored a pin in his first match as the No. 4 seed Sunday, but could not secure a third-place finish to receive one of the three automatic bids at his weight. He is currently No. 28 in the RPI, one of the criteria used for consideration.
Last season, then-redshirt senior Immanuel Kerr-Brown received an at-large bid at 157 pounds for Duke, earning the program-record five NCAA tournament bids.