When the Pitt-Johnstown wrestling team hits the mats at the NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals on Saturday, the Mountain Cats will be looking for the same kind of start they got last year.

Coach Pat Pecora is looking for an even better ending.

A year ago, the Mountain Cats went into the Division II competition as the No. 7 seed and dispatched Central Missouri State 31-10 in the first round on the way to a sixth-place finish.

This time, UPJ is the third seed in the Division II brackets, but the Mountain Cats will face the Mules in the first round again. The event, which attracts the top teams in the NCAA’s divisions I, II and III as well as NAIA, junior college and women’s squads, will pack more than 130 dual meets into Saturday and Sunday’s action at the University of Northern Iowa.

It should also give Pecora a good idea of where his team stands. The Mountain Cats are off to an 11-2 start with both losses coming to Division I teams. At the duals, UPJ will see how it stacks up against the top teams in its classification. The 16-team Division II bracket has the nation’s top seven ranked teams and 15 of the schools are ranked in the top 17. North Carolina-Pembroke is the only unranked team in the duals. UPJ is No. 3 in the latest NWCA poll while Central Missouri State is No. 16.

“Central Missouri always brings a smile to my face,” Pecora said. “Their coach, Robin Ersland, and I go back a long way. He coached at California, Pa., for a lot of years. He’s coached at three different Division II schools. By knowing the coach, you know the team.”

Pecora might need that insight to recognize this Central Missouri State team, which looks far different from the one that UPJ faced a year ago. The Mules (2-3) could field a lineup featuring three freshmen and five sophomores.

Ersland’s squad could get a boost from the return of Plamen Plaskev. The two-time Olympian from Bulgaria placed third at nationals last year but has not suited up for the Mules this season.

The best individual match could come at 141 pounds. UPJ has Thad Benton, the defending national champion and top-ranked wrestler at the weight, while Central Missouri counters with Wade Kilgore, a returning All-American, who is ranked fifth nationally, but has struggled to a 7-10 record this season. Benton beat Kilgore 7-3 at the National Duals last year and 14-3 in the national tournament.

The Mules also have a returning All-American at 133 pounds. Senior Mike Hansen placed fifth a year ago and holds the same ranking this year. He could get a rematch with UPJ’s Brandon Reasy, who Hansen beat 11-3 at the National Duals a year ago.

In addition to Benton, the Mountain Cats have Mike Corcetti ranked No. 1 at 184 pounds. Ryon Mazzocco, a returning national runner-up, is ranked third at 125. Eli Garshnick is sixth at 174, while Mike Fowler (197) and Zach Majocha (285) are ranked seventh in their respective weight classes.

A win over Central Missouri State could give UPJ a rematch with No. 6 Ashland. Last year, the Mountain Cats edged Ashland 18-16 in the third-round consolations.

Ashland’s top wrestlers are Mike Compton (eighth at 125), Pete Carabuci (seventh at 157), Eric Lakia (eighth at 165), Clint Carmony (third at 174) and Ryan Kirst (fourth at 197).

Nebraska-Omaha, the defending NCAA tournament and National Duals champion, is the top-ranked team, meaning that UPJ could not meet the Mavericks in the winners’ bracket until the finals.

Minnesota State-Mankato is the second seed and could be a potential roadblock in UPJ’s route to the finals.

That’s where the Mountain Cats hope to end up.

“I think this year’s team has higher expectations than last year’s team, which came on strong at the end and finished fourth in the national tournament,” Pecora said. “I think this is a good barrier for us to break. This is where this team has to learn if we have what it takes to win a national title this year. This is where we’re hopefully going to end up meeting the Minnesota State-Mankatos and the Nebraska-Omahas and see how we match up.”

Eric Knopsnyder can be reached at 532-5080 or eknopsnyder@tribdem.com.

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