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Baker, Niesenbaum post wins as Duke wrestling drops ACC opener to North Carolina

Vincent Baker celebrates a win at 197 pounds against North Carolina's Max Shaw.
Vincent Baker celebrates a win at 197 pounds against North Carolina's Max Shaw.

Duke could not break the Tobacco Road curse Friday night.

Coming off of a lopsided 35-4 defeat at the hands of Central Michigan the night before, Duke lost to archnemesis North Carolina 37-6 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Although the Blue Devils fought hard against the Tar Heels, who started six grapplers ranked in the top 25 in their respective weight classes, Duke lost the first eight matches in a row.

“Overall, the effort was good,” said head coach Glen Lanham. “The score obviously looks lopsided, but I thought the effort from some weights were pretty good.”

The grind finally paid off for the Blue Devils (3-6, 0-1 in the ACC), as Vincent Baker won an exciting bout at 197 pounds against Max Shaw. With his aggressive approach, Baker was able to tire Shaw and rack up more than a minute of riding time. Tied 2-2 going into the final round, Baker just had to keep Shaw from escaping to seal the victory.

“My motto is ‘just fight,’” said Baker, reflecting on the third round. “Keep it going through the match.”

Baker certainly battled, keeping Shaw within his grasp by rolling him backward multiple times. As the final seconds ticked away, Cameron Indoor, packed with K-Ville tenters sheltering from the outdoors, roared to life to urge its grappler to victory.

“The crowd was exploding,” Baker said. “It felt like a basketball game!”

The crowd was then treated to a special encore from senior captain Jonah Niesenbaum. The only Blue Devil to win against Central Michigan, Niesenbaum fought hard against Brandon Whitman of North Carolina (5-6, 1-0), forcing overtime with a third-round escape. After Whitman immediately grabbed hold of Niesenbaum’s leg, it seemed that the No. 22-ranked Blue Devil was doomed to be upset. However, Niesenbaum kept rotating his hips around Whitman and applying pressure, forcing the Tar Heel to fold, much to the delight of the crowd.

“[Niesenbaum’s win] is great for the crowd because they can go away with those two in their pocket,” said Lanham. “They’ll remember those two.”

It was tough going for Duke early, with 141-pound grappler Jarred Papcsy, 149-pound Patrick Rowland, 165-pound Gabe Dinette and 174-pound Gaetano Console losing abbreviated matches via major decisions. Preston Decker, wrestling at 157 pounds, got caught off guard by a single-leg takedown from No. 4-ranked Austin O’Connor and ended his night pinned to the floor. Blue Devil junior Luke Chakonis started his night promisingly at 184 pounds, aggressively charging No. 14-ranked Gavin Kane. However, Kane was able to elude Chakonis and come away with the victory.

“I mean, if you look at [Chakonis’ match], we got in on the leg five, six times,” said Lanham. “We just got to finish now.”

Duke shuffled its lineup at 125 pounds, as Logan Agin moved up to 133 pounds for the first time this season. The move suited Agin, and he seemed poised for an upset in the third round of his match against Jace Palmer. Up 5-3 after escaping from bottom, he needed to avoid hemorrhaging points for the final few minutes, but two massive takedowns by Palmer left Agin out of luck, and the Blue Devil junior dropped the match 7-6.

“It’s good for [Agin] to just concentrate on wrestling,” Lanham said of the decision to move Agin up. “At 125, he was battling the scale more than his opponent.”

Although the Blue Devils forfeited 125 pounds Friday, the move opens the door for freshman Ethan Grimminger from Orange, Calif., to see the mat and gain NCAA wrestling experience.

“We’re gonna pull Ethan out of redshirt,” said Lanham. “He’s a young guy stepping up.”

Duke, with 10 wrestlers healthy for the first time this calendar year, now enters a tough week of competition, with away meets at ranked Appalachian State and ACC powerhouse N.C. State. 

“Don’t lay down,”  Lanham said of his message to his team before this upcoming stretch. “Don’t be afraid to win. Don’t be afraid to upset someone.”

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