CLEVELAND -- Minutes after he finished off his own opening-round match with a pin in the first period on Friday afternoon, Pittsburgh-Johnstown's Zac Bennett quickly moved to the opposite side of the competition area at Cleveland Public Hall.
That’s what you do when a hometown neighbor is wrestling.
Josh Duplin, Bennett’s college teammate and childhood friend, was battling Lorenzo Serna of Newman in the 285-pound heavyweight class.
Bennett yelled support at Duplin and loudly applauded when Duplin emerged with a 2-1 win to advance to the quarterfinal round.
Who could have predicted that when Bennett and Duplin were kids in Johnstown, Pa., growing up a mere 500 yards from each other, that they’d be competing in the NCAA Div. II Wrestling Championships a decade later at the same time two wrestling mats away from each other?
The relationships go way back in this Pennsylvania community.
“I’ve known Zac a long, long, long time, since he was a young boy,” Pitt-Johnstown coach Pat Pecora said, holding his hand underneath his waist as if to show the height of a toddler. Pecora has been the school’s wrestling coach since 1976, long before Bennett was born.
Bennett, a Pennsylvania state champion when he wrestled at Westmont Hilltop High School, is the nation’s fourth-ranked wrestler at 197 pounds.
That’s a quite a change from a year ago, when Bennett wasn’t sure if he’d ever wrestle again. A serious injury and a lost scholarship will do that to you. He had virtually talked himself into quitting the sport after injuring his shoulder at North Carolina.“I’ll always love wrestling,” Bennett said. “Maybe it was my time not to be doing it anymore. I’m really happy I was able to connect with coach Pecora. My dad reached out to him. He’s such a great resource.”
Bennett left Johnstown after his senior year in high school in 2009 for Div. I North Carolina and a full athletic scholarship. He won an Atlantic Coast Conference individual title his freshman year with the Tar Heels and was an ACC runner-up his sophomore season.
Then, fortunes turned. Bennett injured his shoulder so severely in his freshman year that it needed surgery later on. He rehabbed, but couldn’t wrestle for eight months. Physical pain turned into mental pain when he says the scholarship was taken away.
He moved back home to attend school at Pitt-Johnstown, wondering whether his wrestling career was don and he needed to concentrate solely on academics.
“When I left North Carolina, there was a point I didn’t know if I wanted to keep wrestling,” Bennett said. “I just felt that maybe wrestling wasn’t supposed to be what I should be doing.”
It was his dad, Nick, who actually got in contact with Pecora. In time, Zac decided that he could resume his wrestling career in Johnstown because, after all, what wrestling coach wouldn’t welcome the surprise of a hometown ACC champ wanting to join the team?
“I think he needed it,” Pecora said of Bennett’s return home. “I think the move was good for him and us. A definite marriage. He’s coming to do his best. This is the best he’s ever wrestled in college. We’re glad to have him.”
Home meets turned almost into a high school reunion every time out.
People remember him as a wrestler and as a football player at Westmont Hilltop. He remains close with his high school wrestling coach. A junior in athletic eligibility, Bennett still has a year to go.
“It’s cool when you get to see people from our high school, people from around town,” Bennett said. “I like to think that we get a little bit extra support just from being from our hometown. That’s really nice.”
Bennett won an individual title at the Super Region I tournament. He entered the national championships with an 18-2 record, including 15 falls, which placed him atop the NCAA Most Dominant Wrestler rankings.
He added 19th win, with another fall, in his first-round win against Joe Grisko of Newberry, but then lost a decision in the final minute of his quarterfinal match against Carl Broghammer of Upper Iowa.
The loss erased any national title hopes, but Bennett did earn All-American honors by winning a match Friday and advancing to Saturday’s consolation round. The same thing happened to Duplin, who lost in the last minute of his quarterfinal match. For Bennett, becoming an All-American is an added plus. Just getting here was the bigger point.
“It’d be nice to win, but it’s just really great to be here and wrestling again,” he said.