Pitt’s success already paying off, wrestling coach says during stop in Johnstown

Pitt's success already paying off, wrestling coach says during stop in Johnstown

It’s been less than four months since Jake Wentzel and Nino Bonaccorsi made the finals of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, but that success is already paying dividends for the Pitt Panthers.

Coach Keith Gavin fielded multiple questions about the rise of the program on Thursday during a clinic at Bishop McCort Catholic High School’s wrestling room.

“Kids want to know that they’re going somewhere that they can win a national title,” Gavin said.

“Having two guys in the finals, knocking on the door to do that – in just our fourth year as a staff – proved a lot. It certainly has helped with recruiting.”

Gavin knew such success was possible – he won an NCAA title wrestling for the Panthers in 2008 – but he also knows that’s a lifetime ago for many of those in attendance on Thursday.

“You’ve got to be more relevant than that,” Gavin said.

“Having Nino and Jake in the finals kind of proved that. We already knew it, but it showed it to everybody else.”

Pitt has often been referred to as a “sleeping giant” in the wrestling world because its geographic location puts it in some of the most fertile recruiting ground in the country.

Bonaccorsi and Wentzel both came from the WPIAL, and Gavin has begun gaining traction in the Greater Johnstown area as well. Jared McGill, who won a state title for Chestnut Ridge in 2019, started at 174 pounds for the Panthers this season. McGill went 4-6 during a redshirt freshman season that was limited by pandemic protocols.

“We’re hoping this year will be a full season and he’ll get some more matches in,” Gavin said of McGill. “That would be good for him. Jared’s doing a good job. I think there’s an adjustment to being in the lineup at first. He had some good wins, but there was some inconsistency. We’re hoping that he’s matured since last year and he’s going to iron that out and be a little more consistent.”

Brock McMillen, a three-time state champion from Glendale, is set to join the Panthers in the fall, as is Richland graduate Cooper Warshel, a two-time state medalist.

Gavin said Warshel is a “great kid with a strong work ethic.”

Gavin was the fourth Division I coach to be at the Bishop McCort complex this week, following Cornell’s Mike Grey, Ohio State’s Tom Ryan – who brought four-time NCAA champ Logan Stieber and NCAA runner-up Sammy Sasso with him – and Rutgers’ Scott Goodale.

They were with a talented group of wrestlers. In addition to Bishop McCort’s Bo Bassett, who leaves next week for the Cadet World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, and eight of his Ranger Pride Wrestling teammates who are set to wrestle at the U.S. Marine Corps Junior & 16U National Championships in Fargo, North Dakota, wrestlers from more than a half-dozen states came to Johnstown to work out this week.

“It was fun to work with some motivated, passionate kids,” said Gavin, who concentrated on freestyle technique. “Hopefully, they got something out of it, and it was productive for everybody.”

Bassett was quick to ask questions of the visiting coaches and wrestlers.

“I’m asking them how to approach the Worlds, what are the Europeans going to bring, what it’s going to be like overseas on a different continent,” he said. “It’s great to be able to pick these guys’ brains.”

Erik Gibson, a Cornell recruit who will be a senior at Bishop McCort in the fall, was excited to be a part of the event.

“It’s been really amazing,” Gibson said.

“The past three days we had the coaches, we could see how involved they were with the athletes.”

Not surprisingly, Gibson was partial to Grey’s visit. He said that he remains committed to the Big Red despite the departure of coach Rob Koll, who left for the same position at Stanford. Gibson visited the New York campus last week.

“There’s nothing I can say about it that wasn’t great,” Gibson said.

Ranger Pride Wrestling coach Bill Bassett, who will be Bishop McCort’s coach next season, felt the same about this week’s training sessions and clinics.

“We’re very grateful and thankful to be living here in Western Pa.,” Bassett said.

“All of these people believing in what we do makes things easy.”

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