It’s rare for Pitt-Johnstown to start a wrestling season ranked outside of the top 10 in Division II.
But it’s also unusual for the Mountain Cats to have such a young squad.
In his 37th season as head coach, Pat Pecora will have one of his most inexperienced teams in years. No. 11 UPJ might not have a senior in the starting lineup this season.
“We’re a real young team,” Pecora said Wednesday, two days before UPJ was set to open the dual-meet season at West Liberty. “I’m a little concerned. (But) we’ve got some good ones coming back.”
Taking a cue from Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, Pecora isn’t about to lower his expectations for his team.
“What do the Steelers say, ‘the standard is the standard?’ ” said Pecora, who has built UPJ into a national power. “Every time I read that, I think ‘Yeah, I know what you’re talking about.’ The standard is the standard. We’re expected to have a great dual-meet season, we’re expected to be in the hunt for a regional title and we’re expected to stay in the top 10 or so in the nation.
“That’s the bar we’ve raised for ourselves, and I think every wrestler on the team knows that that’s what Pitt-Johnstown wrestling is all about and that they’re going to try to continue to meet that standard,” he said.
UPJ returns three All-Americans in Forest Hills graduate David Fogle, Jack Bachman and Travis McKillop. All three will be wrestling in a heavier weight class this season.
“All three are bumping up a weight class, which is interesting, but it will help us, especially in dual-meet situations,” Pecora said.
Fogle went 23-9 last season and finished third in the NCAA tournament at 125 pounds.
This year, redshirt freshman Evan Link, whose older brothers – Ryan and Nathan – were All-Americans at UPJ, will take over the 125-pound spot.
“You know, of course, he’s a Link,” Pecora said of Evan. “He’s a good one. We’re looking for him to make an immediate impact.”
Fogle is excited about moving up a weight class.
“I like it a lot more from last year,” he said. “At the end of last season, me and Coach talked about it and thought it would be best if I went up to ‘33. I just worked hard over the summer in the weight room and the wrestling room to get ready for this year.”
McKillop, who became one of the few true freshmen to start for Pecora over the past decade, will look to build upon an impressive opening campaign. He went 22-7 and finished seventh in the NCAA tournament at 174 pounds.
Pecora sees that as just the beginning of what could be a very special career.
“He could win multiple national titles,” Pecora said. “He’s very, very good. ... He might go down as one of the top wrestlers we’ve ever had, and that says a lot. He could be in the top five.”
The move to 184 pounds didn’t seem to have any negative effect on McKillop at the season-opening Washington & Jefferson tournament – he pinned each of his four opponents in the first period.
“All summer I’ve just been hitting the weights real hard, just getting some size on me,” McKillop said. “I’m excited. I’ve got some high goals. Got to keep working hard to achieve them.”
Bachman, who was an All-American at 141 pounds in 2011, went 19-8 last season. He’ll move up to 149 pounds this year. He got off to a good start there by winning a W&J championship.
The three All-Americans give UPJ a good start, but there are question marks about some of the other weight classes.
“We’ve got a core right there,” Pecora said. “It’s just trying to build around that.”
Dave Cawley, who went 16-6 while filling in for Bachman in 2010-11, is expected to step in at 141 pounds.
“He wrestled two years ago and did a fine job when Jack Bachman was hurt,” Pecora said. “He’s a tough kid. I like him.”
The 157- and 165-pound weight classes aren’t so clear. Sophomore Joel Paolo, redshirt freshman Dylan Killian and two true freshmen – Sam Molina and Conemaugh Township graduate Cory Berchick – are competing for time at 157.
Richland grad Chad Miller – a junior – is battling senior Keith Ryan, redshirt freshman Christian Bosco and true freshman John Blankenship – a United alum – for the starting spot at 165 pounds.
“We’ll figure out who’s going to be there, but whoever it is will be a first-time starter, whether it’s a upperclassmen or freshman,” Pecora said.
Gary Lantz, who wrestled 184 last year, was expected to start at 174 this year, but he has been sidelined by a shoulder injury, opening the door for Brian Gibbons, a redshirt freshman from Bedford who won the W&J tournament title.
The Mountain Cats lost another starter to injury at 197 pounds, as Penn Cambria grad Zak Newton is out with a knee injury. Instead, Nikos Garafola will move up from 184 pounds. Another intriguing option is Phil Steinberg, a Central Cambria graduate who transferred to UPJ from Army.
Josh Krupa, a Bedford grad who went 13-11 last year, was expected to hold down the heavyweight spot, but could miss the entire season with a knee injury. Josh Duplin, a true freshman from Westmont Hilltop who finished second in the PIAA Class AAA tournament last season, will take over that spot.
Duplin, who won a W&J title, has caught Pecora’s eye.
“I’m just excited about having him,” Pecora said. “I’m just impressed with the young man. He’s done a fantastic job. He works hard at practice, he’s doing well in the classroom right now, working hard.”
Duplin, who weighs about 260 pounds, is athletic for his size, but he’s also got another quality that Pecora loves.
“He’s a little mean when he’s out on the mat, which in heavyweight is very important,” Pecora said. “Most heavyweights, they’re nice guys. They share sandwiches all the time. ‘Here, you want a bite?’ So when you get a heavyweight that throws a mean crossface, you get a little excited.”
If the young Mountain Cats can learn quickly, there might be plenty for Pecora and the team to get excited about this season.
“We’re really young, actually, but we have a lot of talent on this team,” Fogle said.