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Sacred Heart thrilled to open season Saturday at VMI

Sacred Heart’s Will Schmidt (174) and the Pioneers open the season on Saturday at 2 p.m. when they take on VMI in Lewisburg, Pa. (Photo courtesy Sacred Heart athletics)

It’s been 10 months since the Sacred Heart University wrestling team hit the mat. The last action that the Pioneers saw was in the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) championship tournament last February.

The first half of this season was wiped away by the COVID-19 pandemic. But now the Pioneers are literally hours away from their season-opening match against Virginia Military Institute (VMI) on Saturday at 2 p.m. in Lewisburg, Pa.

The match will be streamed live on ESPN Plus, their online cable network.

“We can’t wait to compete. It’s been 10 months,” said Sacred Heart wrestling coach John Clark, who will begin his fourth year on the bench. “We’re pumped.”

COVID isn’t far from Clark’s mind. To ensure that the Pioneers will have enough wrestlers eligible and healthy to compete, Clark and his staff have been holding up to seven practices a day for his team.

Wrestlers work out in small groups so in the case of a team member testing positive for the virus or having to quarantine due to contact tracing, it won’t force a large number of athletes to sit out and cancel a match.

EIWA rival Hofstra cancelled last Saturday’s season opening match against Lehigh due to a positive COVID test within the program.

The Pioneers only have five dual meets scheduled for this winter and Clark is determined to keep his team healthy enough to compete in all of them.

“It’s a huge undertaking but it is the responsible thing to do,” Clark said. “We want to keep everyone safe and competing. So far, so good.”

The Pioneers will have a team with some collegiate experience. Seven of the 11 wrestlers than may compete Saturday against the Keydets have at least two years of collegiate experience.

Redshirt junior Joe Accousti of Newtown (197) is returning for his fourth year on the mat and his second with the Pioneers. He spent his first two seasons in college at Appalachian State. Accousti, who was 15-13 a year ago, has a team-leading 46 wins in his collegiate career.

Accousti is the only Connecticut native in the starting lineup on Saturday,

Redshirt junior Nick Palumbo (157) of Andover, N.J., is back for his third season and his second with Sacred Heart. He was 13-8 with two pins a year ago for the Pioneers. He was 13-11 with four pins as a freshman at Buffalo in 2018.

Redshirt senior Will Schmidt (174) of Basking Ridge, N.J., is one of the more experienced wrestlers on the team with four years of experience. He has won 16 matches in four years of competition. Redshirt junior Ryan Burns (Clarence, N.Y.) went 17-20 in two years of work in 2018 and 2019 for the Pioneers.

Clark isn’t sure how his team will stack up with VMI since few wrestlers have had any real competition outside of their respective teams since the last February.

“We’ll see,” Clark said. “That’s the million-dollar question. What did teams accomplish in the offseason. I am just as curious as anyone to see where we are. We’re all excited.”

VMI wrestled last weekend in a round robin style event with Bucknell and Long Island. Bucknell scored 233½ points with VMI taking second with 187½ and Long Island finishing third with 123 points.

Sophomore Zach Brown (184) won all four of his matches with two pins for VMI while teammate Seth Fillers (157) also won four matches. Job Chishko won three bouts at 149.

VMI was 6-13 a year ago and 3-4 in the Southern Conference. Sacred Heart beat VMI a year ago, 30-9 and the Pioneers have won three of the last four bouts with the Keydets.

Sacred Heart (8-6) is looking to build upon their first winning season since 2004.

Sacred Heart (0-0) at VMI (0-0)
At Lewisburg, Pa.
Time: 2 p.m.
Watch: ESPN+ (streaming)
Series: Began 2014. VMI leads, 4-3
Last year: Sacred Heart won, 30-9

Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of Connecticut Wrestling Online. He is an award-winning writer and has been covering sports in Connecticut and New England for more than 40 years. He was inducted into the New England High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2018.

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