The Pitt-Johnstown wrestling team has surprised coach Pat Pecora throughout a 15-2 dual-meet season.
The Mountain Cats overcame a 1-2 start by winning their final 14 dual meets. Along the way, UPJ upset then fourth-ranked Newberry en route to an impressive sweep of the NCAA Division II Super Region I Duals last month.
The Cats are ranked fourth in the nation entering the Division II Super Region I Tournament at Kutztown University today and Saturday. Pecora still considers his team an underdog, which, based on recent history, is a good thing.
“We’re going in with the attitude that this team has done special things all year,” Pecora said. “We beat teams we were not supposed to beat. If someone would have told me in November we would be 15-2 I would have told them they were crazy. We’re going to have to continue to beat the odds.”
UPJ overcame the sluggish start to the season and finished on a roll.
“We’re not picked individually to add up to win the region, but as a team all year we’ve beaten the odds,” Pecora said. “We’re definitely going to have to do it again. This team has done something teams haven’t done in the last five years. This is the first (UPJ) team in five years to beat Newberry, be ranked first in the region and be ranked top five in the nation.
“We haven’t won the regional title in five years,” he added. “We’ve been second the last five years.”
To move up a notch, UPJ must put together a complete effort throughout 10 weight classes.
Fourteen teams will participate with the top four wrestlers in each weight class advancing to the NCAA Division II National Tournament in Birmingham, Ala., on March 8-9. In addition to UPJ, other ranked teams at the regional include No. 5 Newberry (S.C.) College, No. 10 Mercyhurst, No. 12 host Kutztown and No. 18 North Carolina-Pembroke.
Other teams include American International, Anderson (S.C.) University, East Stroudsburg, Gannon, Millersville, Ohio Valley (W.Va.), Seton Hill, Shippensburg and West Liberty State (W.Va.).
“It’s definitely a big, big challenge,” Pecora said. “The tournament season is a completely different season than the dual-meet season. I’m concerned about how we’re going to transition. The dual-meet season to me says a lot about the program, being prepared every match and getting better and a solid performance out of each weight class. It’s the whole team and it says a lot about all the pieces of the program.
“We made a really remarkable season out of a season that could have been disastrous. Guys pulled through in big matches for the team.”
UPJ’s lone top-ranked wrestler is 184-pounder Travis McKillop, a returning All-American who finished seventh at nationals last year as a freshman. McKillop is 25-1.
The Pitt-Johnstown sophomore heads into the regional tournament as the most dominant wrestler in Division II, according to the NCAA.
The 184-pounder is 25-1 this season with 10 pins, three victories by forfeit, four technical falls and two major decisions. He averages 4.619 team points per match, the best in Division II. He moved ahead of former leaders Shamus O’Grady of St. Cloud State and Carl Broghammer of Upper Iowa in the standings released on Thursday.
“I think it’s just a product of hard work,” McKillop said Thursday in a cellphone interview as he was headed to Kutztown for the Super Region I tournament. “I’m buying into Coach (Pat) Pecora’s system. I’m working hard and living the lifestyle. It’s a nice accomplishment.”
But McKillop’s more worried about capturing a national championship.
“That’s definitely the main goal,” he said. “I was an All-American last year. Anything short of that, I’d be upset. I’m taking it one weekend at a time. Right now, my goal is to be a regional champion and dominate guys.”
Forest Hills graduate Dave Fogle is at 133 pounds after earning All-American honors for placing third nationally at 125 last year.
UPJ 149-pounder Jack Bachman was an All-American in 2011 and a national qualifier last year.
Dave Cawley is ranked seventh at 141 pounds after missing all of last season due to an injury. He is 18-4.
Gary Lantz was a national qualifier last year and is wrestling down a class at 174.
“Nine of our 10 weight classes might be ranked in the top six but we’re going to have to finish a lot higher than that,” Pecora said. “We’re going to have to have a balanced attack and score points in every weight class. We only have one wrestler ranked first nationally.
“We’re going to need some guys to pull off upsets to get into the finals and score some points. We have guys who are capable.”
Pecora pointed to Cresson’s Evan Link (125), Joel Paolo (157), Keith Ryan (165), Nikos Garafola (197) and Westmont’s Josh Duplin (heavyweight) as wrestlers who will play key roles.
“The tournament season is a whole different animal,” Pecora said. “A lot of it is how good an individual is. We’re ranked fourth nationally and might have only one or two guys ranked nationally. I’ve seen teams come into nationals with five guys and win the national tournament. They won it because they had five really good guys who scored points and became national champions.
“It’s like an obstacle course. It’s not a team versus another team. It’s about a 125-pounder making his way through the bracket. We’re going to need a special tournament to pull this off.”
Session I begins at 3 p.m. today with preliminaries, quarterfinals and the first and second rounds of the consolations.
Session II will begin at 11 a.m. on Saturday with the semifinals and the consolation quarterfinals, followed by the consolation semifinals at approximately 12:30 p.m. The final session will start at 3 p.m., featuring the finals, consolation finals, fifth-sixth place matches and true fourth matches.