Pantaleo becoming “surprise” freshman superstar for Michigan

Updated: December 11, 2014

By Mike Finn, WIN editor

Michigan’s Alec Pantaleo (above left) isn’t the first true freshman to make an immediate impact in Division I wrestling in recent years. All one has to do is remember current Wolverine sophomore Adam Coon, a former four-time Michigan state champ who made an immediate splash in 2013-14 when the heavyweight was ranked No. 1 much of last season as a true freshman after winning prestigious tournaments like the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational and Midlands.

But Pantaleo, one year removed from finishing his high school career at Canton (Mich.) High, may be one of the more surprising rookie success stories after the 149 pounder finished second as an unseeded wrestler at the CKLV Invite, held Dec. 5-6 in the Las Vegas Convention Center.

“I’ve just been preparing,” said Pantaleo, who upset three seeded wrestlers — No. 2 Sal Mastriani of Virginia Tech, No. 7 Victor Lopez of Bucknell and No. 3 Cody Ruggirello of Hofstra — before losing 4-0 to No. 1-seed Chris Villalonga of Cornell in the championship bout. “I have nothing to lose. I’m doing what I can do. It’s a learning experience.”

Pantaleo, whose only state championship came as a sophomore before injuries sidelined him his junior season and he finished second as a senior, said he expected to redshirt this season. But that all changed when it came to the Michigan wrestle-offs.

subscribe“I wasn’t going to lose a wrestle-off because I don’t like to lose any match,” Pantaleo said. “I went in there and won the wrestle-offs and I figured if I could do that, even as a freshman, I might is well go with it.”

Michigan coach Joe McFarland said he is not surprised with the performance of Pantaleo, whose father, Mike, was a two-time All-American at Olivet (Mich.) College and whose uncle Joe was a two-time finalist for Michigan in 1988 and ’89.

“Alec comes from really good stock,” said McFarland. “In my conversations with his father and his uncle, they felt he really had a big upside to him and we felt the same way.

“A lot of people were not aware of who he was but they do now. He had not done a ton of summer wrestling when he did it was folkstyle. But if you look at the work he did this past summer, it was pretty impressive.

“You can see he’s really focused when he is out there competing. He has a lot of tools and he’s a really good athlete. He’s got a great attitude. He works extremely hard in our room and wants to be successful. He’s driven. Throw all that stuff together and you have an Alec Pantaleo.”

Coming into the Las Vegas Invitational, Pantaleo’s record was an unimpressive 5-2 and 1-2 in dual competition.

“Early in the year, he was a little nervous as a freshman going out there,” said Michigan assistant coach Kellen Russell, a former two-time NCAA champion from Michigan. “He just opened it up (in Las Vegas) and scored a lot of points on some really good guys. He wasn’t just scoring a takedown and hanging on. He was scoring, and then looking to score another takedown.

“He’s extremely quick and strong and knows when to be there in pulling on a front headlock to getting the angles. His natural athletic ability and feel on the mat makes it easy for him to wrestle a lot of these guys where he’s moving in and out and he also has a real good counter attack.”

Pantaleo said he was not that familiar with Coon’s rookie experience last winter, when the heavyweight failed to place as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. But they have grown close and roomed together in Las Vegas.

“He’s had a lot of experiences and tells me what to work on and what he thinks,” Pantaleo said. “I feel like I’m learning a lot.”