It has never been easy for Nico Pecora to just be himself on the wrestling mat.
He’s always been the son of legendary Pitt-Johnstown coach Pat Pecora. And the younger brother of standout Marco Pecora.
Now, he can be known by a different name: State finalist.
Nico Pecora continued his improbable run in the PIAA Class AA Wrestling Championships on Friday night by beating Montoursville’s Garrett Hoffman 8-6 in overtime to reach the 170-pound final.
Bedford 113-pounder Jon Gabriel also will be wrestling for gold this afternoon. Cambria Heights heavyweight Aaron Gill will have a chance at third place while Central Cambria’s Max Murin will face Chestnut Ridge’s Aaron Burkett for fifth at 106 pounds. Other local wrestlers going for fifth are: Cambria Heights’ Levi Nibauer (160), Forest Hills’ Triston Law (120); and Meyersdale’s Gavin Berkley. Bedford’s Ryan Easter (132) and Garrett Thomas (138) will wrestle for seventh, as will United’s Tyler Oliver (195).
Nico Pecora was a District 6 runner-up and third-place finisher in the Southwest Region, so few would have predicted his run to the state final.
“Nobody saw it (coming),” he said. “That’s what I love about it.”
He trailed Hoffman 4-0 entering the third period but looked like a different wrestler after Hoffman took a timeout with an apparent head injury late in the second. Nico Pecora scored a takedown, let Hoffman up and then scored another. Another Hoffman escape led to the tying takedown with 50 seconds remaining in the third. The Richland wrestler rode him out for the final seconds and needed just six seconds of overtime to score the winning takedown.
It was his second overtime victory of the day, as he had beaten Bethlehem Catholic’s Nick Cortopassi 7-5 in overtime to reach the semifinals.
“That’s where people break and I come out strong,” Nico Pecora said of the extra period.
Perhaps that’s fitting since he’s been a late bloomer.
“His whole athletic career he’s kind of been overshadowed and overlooked,” said his older brother Marco, who was a standout wrestler for Richland and played Division I football for Pitt. “I’ve been telling everyone: This kid is special. He has great athletic ability. He matured late. He’s just hitting his peak now. It’s great that he’s making a name for himself and everyone knows the name of Nico Pecora.”
Marco Pecora recently wrapped up his playing career and was able to coach his younger brother, which Nico appreciates greatly.
“It’s the best feeling ever having brother right there beside you,” he said. “He was there for your whole life and he’s going to be there for the best memories of your life.”
Nico Pecora has the potential for one more great memory, as he faces Kane’s Evan Delong with a state title on the line.
He’ll be joined in the finals by Gabriel, who will look to become Bedford’s first state champion since Ron Hamilton in 1964. In the past 50 years Bedford wrestlers have taken second place eight times but haven’t been able to capture the elusive gold.
Not that Gabriel is concerned about his school’s history.
“I’m not really worried about Bedford records or any of that stuff,” Gabriel said moments after he pinned Reynolds’ Seth Hogue in the semifinals. “I’m just worried about how well I do. Being the first possible Bedford state champion since how many years ago, that doesn’t really add any extra pressure on me.”
He’ll have enough on his plate in facing Bethlehem Catholic’s Luke Karam. Karam beat Gabriel 11-0 earlier this season.
“That was at the beginning of the year,” Gabriel said of their earlier meeting. “I’ve gotten a lot more aggressive, a lot more physically fit. I’m just going to go out and push the pace like I always do.”
Gabriel certainly did that on Friday. He scored a first-period takedown, then reversed Hogue and pinned him in the second.
“I tried to go for the cradle, but I missed it,” Gabriel said of the sequence that led to the pin. “I saw his arm pop up and I just shot it through, took him to his back. At that point, I just wanted to end the match, get it over as fast as possible.”
Gabriel also had a technical fall in the quarterfinals, as he beat Jamestown’s Faris Messai 23-8.
Eric Knopsnyder covers wrestling for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/eric_knopsnyder.