TULSA, Okla. – A year after hitting the lowest point in his college wrestling career Nino Bonaccorsi stood atop the podium as the 197-pound titlist at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships on Saturday night.
“I dreamed of this moment,” Bonaccorsi said after his 5-3 victory over South Dakota State’s Tanner Sloan. “You have no idea, every single day. And I can’t believe it. I put in so much effort. I have no words. I’m just so blessed and grateful. And I can’t believe I’m sitting here right now.”
Bonaccorsi’s victory capped a 21-0 season and gave Pitt its first national champion since Keith Gavin – the current Panthers coach – won the 174-pound title in 2008.
“This means everything to me,” said Bonaccorsi, a Bethel Park graduate. “I was born in Pittsburgh. I’m 20 minutes from Pitt. That’s my hometown. … I always dreamed of wrestling at Pitt and winning a national title. And what better place to do it than my backyard school? I can’t believe it.”
Bonaccorsi lost in the 2021 final, and when he failed to make the podium last year, he hit a low point. Motivated by that result, he made an effort to focus on performing well and having fun instead of worrying about wins and losses.
That approach paid off, as the wins piled up and the losses disappeared.
His new focus was “just continuing to wrestle my way – and that’s hard every minute no matter what the score is – down 8-0, up 8-0 – I’m always trying to win the next point, and it worked out.”
That mentality was important in the championship bout, as Sloan scored the opening takedown and added a second-period escape to go up 3-0. Bonaccorsi kept battling, shooting a single-leg attack to Sloan’s right leg and finishing quickly.
“We’re confident that if he gets his hands around a leg, he’s going to finish right now,” Gavin said.
The takedown was especially important because Bonaccorsi rode Sloan for the remainder of the period to build up more than a minute of riding time. That’s something that he might not have been able to do in years past, and it allowed him to take neutral in the third period.
“I knew he was tough on top,” Bonaccorsi said. “While I might not be the most technically sound rider, I certainly try to be stingy and try to wear on you a bit. … When I got that riding time, it was essentially tied, (and) I’m going to take it to where I do best and I think that’s neutral. I trusted myself to get that takedown got it done.”
That’s exactly what happened, as Bonaccorsi shot on Sloan’s right leg again and came up with a quick, hard finish. He rode Sloan the remainder of the period, then celebrated his victory.
In addition to being among the 12 Pitt wrestlers to win an NCAA title, Bonaccorsi and Gavin share another bond – neither won a state title in high school.
“We always talked about how it’s about getting better every day,” Bonaccorsi said. “It’s not what you were. It’s about the daily process of just trying to get better every day. We had a similar bond. And we love this sport just because of that aspect of you can go in and hone your craft and see visible results every day.
“So, we do have a lot in common. While he was the last national champ, I’m his first national champ at Pitt. It was awesome.”
Gavin was asked how coaching a national champ compared to winning a title as a wrestler.
“It’s better,” Gavin said. “I’m just so happy for him.”