Pat Pecora

Pitt-Johnstown wrestling coach Pat Pecora leads a group of wrestlers onto the mat during the parade of All-Americans during the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA., Saturday, Mar.23, 2019.

Pat Pecora is a father of four and a grandfather of two with a third grandchild on the way, but the legendary Pitt-Johnstown wrestling coach is feeling like a youngster again after finding out that he has not one, but two national champions set to join his team this fall.

“You feel like when parents are expecting their first child,” Pecora said. “You’re so excited about it, but you want to make sure everything’s OK before you let anyone know.”

The cat – or maybe that’s Mountain Cat? – is out of the bag now. Ty Warner and Connor Craig have both confirmed that they have left Wheeling Jesuit, will attend Pitt-Johnstown in the fall and be eligible to compete immediately.

Warner won the 133-pound Division II national title in March while Craig captured the 174-pound crown. They’ll join a lineup that already features Chris Eddins, a two-time national champion, at 149 pounds. 

Title favorites

“I don’t think we’ve ever had three national champs returning,” Pecora said. “That’s a good way to start the season off! I just want to sit back and take it all in. It’s like it’s too good to be true – you don’t want to think about it.”

There are plenty of others who are already thinking about it. One national wrestling writer pointed out that Pitt-Johnstown would have won the national title in March if Pecora’s squad had the 40 points that Craig and Warner combined to contribute to Wheeling Jesuit. The Open Mat’s Bryce Villa also wrote that the transfers make the Mountain Cats the favorite to claim this year’s title and included the hashtag #BadKitties.

“There’s nothing less than winning it all,” Craig said on Thursday. “I’d be very disappointed if we came up runner-up.”

Warner, who chose Pitt-Johnstown over Division I power Ohio State and Division II champion St. Cloud State, expects the Mountain Cats to dethrone the Huskies, winners of four of the past five titles.

“It’s going to be scary for a lot of people and a lot of teams,” he said.

‘Blessing in disguise’

Craig and Warner helped lead Wheeling Jesuit to a second-place finish at the NCAA Division II tournament last year, but the celebration was short-lived as they learned that the financially strapped school in West Virginia’s northern panhandle was looking to cut costs and that the 6-year-old wrestling program was a likely casualty. Coach Danny Irwin, who was named the D-II coach of the year, entered his wrestlers into the transfer portal – freeing them up to wrestle for other schools next season – and took the head coaching job at West Liberty.

By the time the school let the wrestlers know that there would be no program in 2019-20, most had already found new homes.

Craig was excited to get a new opportunity at the Richland Township campus.

Many of the Cardinals – including freshman All-American Cole Laya, who competed in the 2018 Mason-Dixon Border Brawl Wrestling Classic – followed Irwin to West Liberty, but for Craig and Warner, Wheeling Jesuit’s demise represented an opportunity for a fresh start.

“I think it’s a blessing in disguise,” Craig said. “I was looking to leave already … but it’s hard to leave your best friends.”

‘An unbreakable bond’

Luckily, he’ll have one joining him in Johnstown – even if Craig and Warner started out as adversaries.

“We actually butted heads when he first got to Wheeling,” recalled Warner, who will be a redshirt junior and is a year ahead of Craig. “He wouldn’t talk to me and I wouldn’t talk to him.”

After a few minor skirmishes, the Ohio natives realized they could be good for one another. Warner, who was wrestling up a weight at 141, became an All-American as a redshirt freshman, but after winning three state titles in high school, he wasn’t accustomed to finishing seventh. Craig, who was plagued by injuries during his high school career, didn’t qualify for the NCAA tournament in 2018. Neither was happy with his season.

“We committed to each other,” Craig said. “We saw what potential we had. We saw each other’s success. We slowly became the best of friends. It’s an unbreakable bond. It’s good to have him by my side.”

Both wrestlers say they’ve already found kindred spirits in the Mountain Cats program, which uses the motto “brothers for life,” to describe the bond between its members.

“Once I heard that and paid attention, that’s legit,” Warner said. “Knowing what the team’s going to do next year and knowing I’m going to be a part of that gets me excited. That’s one of the reasons I decided to go there. Excited to be a part of a great team with great coaches in a great area.” 

‘Bursting at the seams’

Craig and Warner each raved about the Mountain Cats’ coaching staff, which includes assistants Jody Strittmatter, Shad Benton, Cody Law and Tyler Reinhart – each of whom won national titles while wrestling for Pitt-Johnstown.

“To me, UPJ has the best coaches in the country,” Warner said.

Craig agreed.

“You can see the people they produce and the guys they are,” he said. “(Pecora has) done incredible things. My freshman year, I pretty much got my butt whooped by one of them (Law). Tyler Reinhart is exactly how I am. He’s going to be my drill partner every day.”

Along with Reinhart, Craig will have Devin Austin – a bronze medalist at 165 – and Brock Biddle – who was named the PSAC’s Division II Freshman of the Year after placing fourth at 184 pounds last season – to push him in the practice room.

Warner has Brendan Howard – an All-American at 125 – and Eddins, the national champ at 149 – to roll around with on a daily basis.

They will be joined by some impressive newcomers. The school has not yet released its recruiting class, but it does include Jacob Ealy, a PIAA Class AA champion from Hopewell, and Hunter Tremain, a fourth-place finisher at 195 pounds.

Pecora, who coached Pitt-Johnstown to Division II championships in 1996 and 1999, knows the additions of Craig and Warner mean his team will be a favorite to bring home another title.

“That’s what I don’t want to think about yet,” he said. 

“Things have to fall in place to win a national title or to repeat is tough enough. I don’t want to put any undue pressure on them. I’m trying to take as low-key approach as I can, but I’m definitely very, very, very excited. I’m bursting at the seams, almost.”