Athletic Director Pat Pecora surveyed the crowd of administrators, coaches, student-athletes, supporters and media gathered in the new Pitt-Johnstown Athletics Hall of Fame room Tuesday afternoon and smiled.
The gathering at the Sports Center coincided with the official announcement that UPJ and Seton Hill University accepted an invitation to join the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC). They will begin play in the expanded 18-team conference in 2013-14.
Schedules for the upcoming sports seasons already are complete, so UPJ and Seton Hill each will remain members of the WVIAC for one more academic year.
“This is where we belong. No doubt about it. It’s Pennsylvania,” UPJ’s Pecora said of the PSAC.
The news conference had an upbeat, almost festive atmosphere with occasional cheers and applause, photo opportunities and an appearance by the UPJ mascot.
PSAC Commissioner Steve Murray introduced Pitt-Johnstown President Jem Spectar and Seton Hill President JoAnne Boyle.
Pecora was joined by Seton Hill Athletic Director Chris Snyder. Coaches from both universities attended as well as a number of UPJ student-athletes.
“This is a great moment for Pitt-Johnstown athletics,” Spectar said. “For 60 years our athletes have been competing, excelling. But this moment is a great moment. We’ve been waiting for this day.
“We think it’s a great fit with Pitt-Johnstown and the PSAC schools and Seton Hill. We look forward to robust competition.”
Spectar then addressed the UPJ athletes and coaches.
“Our student-athletes are in here. Are you excited?” Spectar asked, drawing a loud response from the back of the room. “Our coaches are in here. Are you excited? I know many of us in the Johnstown community look forward to visiting our campus to see our athletes compete with students from the region. We know alumni who reside in the area welcome this move. I’m particularly pleased to say that Pitt-Johnstown in the PSAC, our motto will be, ‘We came to play.’ ”
The move enables UPJ to land on its figurative feet after nine football-playing West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference schools announced in June their intentions to leave the WVIAC and form a new conference. UPJ, which doesn’t have a football team, was left in limbo after playing six seasons in the WVIAC.
“The day the (football) schools in West Virginia announced they were going to try to form something, we got a call within hours from Pitt-Johnstown,” the PSAC’s Murray said.
Coincidentally, Murray said the PSAC had talked about future expansion even before the WVIAC situation arose. UPJ’s name had surfaced in those conversations.
“The old saying is one door closes and another one opens,” Pecora said. “It happened fast. We got the news about the WVIAC separating and us kind of being left behind. The first place we looked was the PSAC.
“I gave Steve Murray a call. Right away he said, ‘We’ve been looking at you guys for a while now.’ They were looking to bring in one football school and one nonfootball school. It was in their minds already.”
The decision was made at the presidential level among the 16 PSAC schools as well as UPJ and Seton Hill.
The PSAC currently includes 16 full-time members and will expand for only the second time in the conference’s 61-year history in 2013-14.
UPJ had at least theoretically explored the possibility of joining the PSAC decades ago, but the fact that the Mountain Cats program doesn’t field a football team always had been an obstacle. Back then, all PSAC schools had football programs.
That changed in 2006 when PSAC member Mansfield dropped its football program.
Another development the next year opened even more possibilities. The PSAC admitted Gannon and Mercyhurst, two Erie-based private schools that began competing in the conference in 2008-09. Prior to those additions, all members had belonged to the state system.
“The football issue for decades would have been the problem, but six years ago when Mansfield dropped football it became more of a reality for us that we could see that the world doesn’t end for an institution or the league when everybody doesn’t have football,” Murray said. “That opened the door in the last five or six years that would probably never have opened in the past.”
The PSAC’s current lineup includes full-time members Bloomsburg; California; Cheyney; Clarion; East Stroudsburg; Edinboro; Gannon; IUP; Kutztown; Lock Haven; Mansfield; Mercyhurst; Millersville; Shippensburg; Slippery Rock; and West Chester.
The PSAC competes in NCAA Division II and includes 23 sports and team championships. UPJ will field teams in 12 sports, while Seton Hill has 19 sports, including football.
“It is a new era and we’re excited about the challenges that lie ahead,” said Seton Hill AD Snyder.
“There’s no doubt there are going to be challenges as we make this transition into the PSAC. Their history on the national level, the regional level is really going to force us to pick up our competition level among our coaches and our recruiting efforts to stay competitive.
“We accept the challenge. We embrace the challenge. It’s a tough row to hoe in this league.”
Pecora said UPJ will forge ahead in the WVIAC this season before beginning play in the PSAC. The long-time athletic director and wrestling coach said he appreciated UPJ’s time in the WVIAC.
The program had been an independent for years and encountered many scheduling difficulties.
As an independent, UPJ had a more challenges in securing postseason tournament berths.
“The WVIAC was good for us,” Pecora said. “We needed a conference and they brought us in and we were very satisfied with the WVIAC. But things out of our control started happening.”
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