By ERIC KNOPSNYDER
Zac Bennett chose Carolina Blue, in part, because of green.
Not the green of money – although the full scholarship he received to wrestle at the University of North Carolina certainly played a role. It was the campus in Chapel Hill that first attracted him.
The Westmont Hilltop senior, who signed a letter-of-intent on Friday to wrestle for the Tar Heels, said he first fell in love with UNC when he was 9 or 10. He and his father, Nick, stopped in to see the campus on a wrestling trip and it made a lasting impression.
“Everything is just so green there,” Bennett recalled Friday. “It’s a little different than Pennsylvania. Not that I don’t like Pennsylvania, but it’s really nice to see that atmosphere.”
Of course, there’s more to choosing a college than the campus, and North Carolina attracted Bennett in that way as well.
“The main reason was their academics are top-notch,” he said. “They have the seventh-ranked finance program, and right now, that’s what I’m leaning toward. They’re really strong academically.”
Westmont coach Matt Beaujon said Bennett put a lot of time and thought into his decision.
“He had a lot of offers from a lot of different schools,” Beaujon said. “He looked into what was best for him as far as academics and wrestling. He really couldn’t go wrong with any of the choices that he had. He visited all of the campuses. It was a really educated decision.”
Bennett has a career record of 81-7 at Westmont and was a PIAA finalist in 2006 and a state champion in 2007 before a knee injury robbed him of the opportunity to repeat in 2008.
Beaujon said there’s more to Bennett than an excellent wrestler.
“He’s very impressive when he’s on the mat, but he’s also an impressive young man off the mat,” Beaujon said.
And while North Carolina isn’t as highly ranked as some of the other schools recruiting him, Bennett saw more than just the chance to be a national champion.
“I saw the opportunity to succeed in the same ways wrestling-wise as I would at any other school (but) with a better education,” he said.
There is already a Pennsylvania pipeline running to North Carolina. Coach C.D. Mock is a former PIAA champion and coached at Council Rock High School before returning to UNC.
More than a half-dozen wrestlers on the Tar Heels roster hail from the Keystone State, including heavyweight Ziad Haddad, who played a key role in recruiting Bennett.
“That’s a big plus, knowing you’ll have a high-quality kid like that who will be able to push you,” Bennett said.
Bennett, who weighs about 205 pounds, hopes to wrestle 197 in college. It’s a big jump from there to heavyweight, where competitors can weigh up to 285 pounds.
West Virginia, Maryland and Oklahoma were the other top suitors for Bennett, who likely would have drawn much more interest if not for the knee injury. He also could have impressed college coaches with a strong senior season, but Bennett was convinced that North Carolina was the right choice for him.
“I didn’t think it would be fair for me to wait if there was a school that I thought I could get everything done at that I want to do in college,” said Bennett, who is the son of Nick and Jana Bennett.