Every time Travis McKillop takes the mat for the Pitt-Johnstown wrestling team, longtime coach Pat Pecora can’t help but smile.
That’s because McKillop was one of the biggest recruits the Mountain Cats have landed in recent years.
“He came to us as one of the top recruits in the country. It was a bit of a coup,” Pecora said following No. 11 Pitt-Johnstown’s 33-10 victory over No. 16 Ashland on Friday night at the Sports Center.
“First off, he’s huge. He’s athletic. He’s going to be an academic All-American. He’s a leader as only a sophomore. We’re building around Travis in the middle of our lineup.”
McKillop came to Pitt-Johnstown as a PIAA Class AA champion. His senior season at Burrell High School was capped when McKillop defeated highly touted Pitt recruit Cody Wiercioch, 7-3, in overtime in the 160-pound final. Wiercioch, a senior at Canon-McMillan, was a sophomore at Charleroi at the time and a defending state champion.
So, McKillop – cousin of former Pitt linebackers and former high school wrestlers Scott and Chris McKillop – arrived at UPJ with great expectations and, to date, the sophomore has delivered.
As a freshman, McKillop placed seventh at the NCAA Division II championships and earned All-America honors.
“He started as a true freshman last year and that’s tough on anyone jumping straight into collegiate wrestling,” Pecora said. “I always say your freshman year is a dog year because you learn about seven years worth of stuff.”
This year, McKillop is the eighth-ranked wrestler at 184 and his lone loss this season came against Findlay’s Adam Walters. Division II’s top-ranked wrestler at 184 decisioned McKillop 5-2.
“This year’s been going well,” McKillop said after a gritty but surprisingly easy 5-0 decision over Ashland’s Bryson Hall.
“I felt like I’ve been working hard like (Pecora) wants and it helps to be on a great team. Gary Lantz is my partner at practice as he pushes me every day.”
Against Hall, McKillop did most of the pushing against a wrestler who placed higher than McKillop at last year’s Division II championships.
“I think he took fifth or sixth,” McKillop said. “It was a good match. I’ve just been having a great year.”
McKillop’s win typified the night for the Mountain Cats (7-2), who ran their dual-match win streak to six.
“Coach is always preaching to have the perfect match,” McKillop said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean all 10 guys getting in the win column.”
It means working hard, racing back to the center and getting the tough points when it matters.
“I’ll never get mad at you if you lose a match because you can’t win every fight,” Pecora said. “When I see my guys working hard, I take pride in that. I feel that pride on the inside.”
After nationally ranked Max Boyd (125) and Michael Labry (133) staked Ashland (6-4) to a 7-0 lead, Pitt-Johnstown got going.
Dave Cawley’s technical fall over Nolan Dilts at 141 started a six-match win streak for the Mountain Cats. Jack Bachman (149) won by major decision. McKillop and Joel Paolo (157) had decisions. Keith Ryan (165) and Gary Lantz (174) had pins.
“Honestly, we thought we would do a little better than this. We came in here thinking we could win,” Ashland coach Tim Derlan said.
“We got off to a great start and were feeling pretty good, but that’s typical Pitt-Johnstown wrestling. They didn’t give up.”
And they capped the thorough victory with freshman Josh Duplin’s pin in the heavyweight bout. Duplin is a Westmont Hilltop graduate.
“When I’m out there, I don’t think about being tired,” said Duplin, who pinned Tyler Houska in 5:18.
“That is the goal. To go, go, go. That’s what we’re taught to do.”