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Duke wrestling closes regular season with losses to Gardner-Webb, Pittsburgh

Senior heavyweight Jonah Niesenbaum.
Senior heavyweight Jonah Niesenbaum.

All endings are bittersweet, and this one was no different for Duke. 

The Blue Devils have had a grueling year, and their regular-season closer Saturday against Pittsburgh was indistinguishable from the rest. Duke lost 43-3 to the Panthers, and out of the nine wrestlers, only senior heavyweight Jonah Niesenbaum ended up with a win. Before that matchup, the Blue Devils were defeated Wednesday evening by Gardner-Webb at home 30-10, with victories from redshirt junior Patrick Rowland and Niesenbaum.  

“When you wrestle a match, and it's 43-3, there's a lot more downs than ups,” head coach Glen Lanham said after Saturday’s loss. “You want to see the fight and the effort. And that's what I saw from a few of the guys today. So hopefully, we can carry that into the ACC tournament where we can correct those mistakes and get some wins.”

While the end result might not have been what the Blue Devils (3-12, 0-5 in the ACC) were expecting, the fight was undoubtedly there. Junior Logan Agin (133 pounds) was pinned by Micky Phillippi, yet the Lancaster, Ohio native showed resilience in the six-minute bout. Similarly, senior Vincent Baker battled five minutes before losing to Nino Bonaccorsi at 197 pounds.

Through all the losses at Pittsburgh (10-4, 4-1), there was one win from Niesenbaum. Winning a 5-3 major decision against Jake Slinger, the Allentown, Pa., native completed his undefeated regular season. The heavyweight is a senior, but due to a lost year from COVID-19, he will see the mat again in the upcoming season. The senior is one to look out for during the ACC Championships. 

“[Niesenbaum] has a great shot at winning the ACC,” said Lanham. “[He has] really not been on the mat for a long time, but he's a sponge. He's been absorbing a lot of the coaching from [Tom] Erikson and [Corey] Bell … his growth is unbelievable.”

On the flip side, the only freshman for the Blue Devils at the meet, Ethan Grimminger, struggled on the mat. The Orange, Calif., native fell in just under four minutes to Colton Camacho at 125 pounds. As a freshman, though, Grimminger has the potential to flourish and grow. 

“We can get them stronger next year. And I think [Grimminger] can have a really better season next year,” said Lanham. “But definitely learning how to wrestle like a college wrestler is something that he's still trying to get a grasp of.”  

Duke did not wrestle at 174 pounds due to what Lanham called “weight management problems” from junior Conor Becker. While freshman Gaetano Console was a viable option for the weight class, the Blue Devils maintained his redshirt status, instead forfeiting the match and letting the Panthers add to their score.

“Besides some weight management problems [from Becker], I don't think that weight was too big for him. I just think he didn't manage his weight,” said Lanham. “We ended up having to forfeit the weight … we'll have to do that at ACC as well.”

The Blue Devils’ matchup earlier in the week was comparable to Saturday, as Duke battled on the mat in Cameron Indoor Stadium against the Runnin' Bulldogs. Niesenbaum continued in his glory, winning at heavyweight for Duke. 

One stark difference in Wednesday’s meet was Rowland’s triumph at 149 pounds. The Woodland Hills, Calif., native kept his opponent in check and was able to secure a critical win for the Blue Devils.

While the Blue Devils are done with their regular season, they will return to the mat March 5 for the ACC Championships in Raleigh. 

“It was a rough season for us. We lost some strong leaders on the team,” Lanham said. “[But] we just got to go to ACC …  anything can happen if you just can put it together at the right time.” 

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