Nick Piccininni hasn’t been making headlines all season.
Though he was one of just two undefeated wrestlers at 125 pounds, the Oklahoma State redshirt junior hadn’t done enough to impress voters – settling in a No. 4 for most of the season, with the only other undefeated right behind him at No. 5.
But things changed on Sunday.
The East Setauket, New York, native shocked the wrestling world not by just winning, but in how he did it.
Opening the Iowa dual in front of a sold out crowd of 13,811 in Gallagher-Iba Arena, Piccininni kicked things off in the best fashion possible for any wrestling dual – by pinning Spencer Lee, the second-ranked wrestler at the weight and the defending NCAA national champion, to spark the powder keg inside GIA that propelled the Cowboys to a 27-12 victory.
“I knew it was big for our team to start it off – six points is always going to carry over,” Piccininni said. “I knew it was something big.
“Obviously for me, it was a big feat. And for our team, I knew it was just going to light us up.”
Despite the attention falling short of him prior to Sunday, he has certainly shown an improvement from his first two years on the mat.
He also reached his best total win output in a season – going 27-8 in 2016-17 – and has put up almost as many bonus-point victories in the previous two years, combined.
Heading into the Iowa dual, Piccininni ranked ninth overall – pound for pound – on the list of “most dominant wrestlers” in Division I, based on average team points. He was accounting for 4.32 team points, where as Lee was a few spots ahead at 4.53.
“I’ve been feeling like a different person this year,” Piccininni said. “Confidence level is through the roof. My training has been building and building, and I knew I was just a little bit different this year. I knew I had that going in.”
The outcome of Sunday’s dual will obviously move Piccininni up in the rankings at 125 pounds, but how far will he rise?
The No. 1-ranked wrestler at the weight has been Northwestern’s Sebastian Rivera since he beat Lee – the man Piccininni just pinned Sunday – by 7-3 decision in late December. Rivera has a 22-1 record – his lone loss being a 10-3 decision to the No. 1-ranked wrestler at 133 pounds – with a 7-0 record against ranked opponents at 125 pounds – three of which were in the top 10. On the season, he has six major decisions, seven technical falls and two pins.
Piccininni’s resume certainly stacks up with Rivera after Sunday’s result. The Cowboy has a 27-0 record with a 6-0 mark against ranked foes – three of which were in the top 10. However, he’s been more dominant on the mat in terms of getting bonus points with six major decisions, 12 technical falls and four pins.
It may be difficult for Piccininni to improve his mark against ranked opponents with the Big 12 Conference championships next up for the Cowboys. There are only two other ranked wrestlers at the weight in the Big 12, where as Rivera and Lee will have a more daunting gauntlet in the Big Ten tournament with a total of eight ranked wrestlers in their conference.
Regardless of ranking, or seeding come the NCAA national championships in mid-March, Piccininni only has one goal in sight – a national title.
“I think this is a statement for anybody,” Piccininni said. “I don’t pay attention to (the rankings). It hasn’t been a quiet season to me. I think I’m doing well, but I’ve still got work to do and can improve in some areas.
“I haven’t been complacent. Even after every win, I look and knit-pick what I can try to do better.”
Follow News Press sports editor Jason Elmquist on Twitter @jelmquistSW for updates on Oklahoma State athletics.