PITTSBURGH — The gates opened late Thursday morning at PPG Paints Arena, and nearly 20,000 fans streamed through for the first session of the 2019 NCAA wrestling championships.
Many, many more tuned in on ESPNU.
They came to see the likes of Penn State, Oklahoma State, Iowa and Michigan — the top national contenders. They came for Pitt and West Virginia, and to see the legion of local wrestlers participating.
But first, they watched Bloomsburg.
In most sports, Bloomsburg is a member of NCAA Division II and the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, better known as PSAC, the home of regional schools such as Cal U, IUP and Slippery Rock.
But in wrestling, several of the PSAC schools “play up” in Division I. Bloomsburg, Clarion, Edinboro and Lock Haven are all members of the Division I Eastern Wrestling League and have sent wrestlers to this week’s championship in Pittsburgh.
It just so happened that the first match of the 125-pound weight class featured Willy Girard, the lone Bloomsburg representative and a surprise winner of his weight class at the EWL championships.
Girard dropped a 6-5 decision to Army’s Trey Chalifoux, and will compete in wrestle-backs on Thursday evening. Some of the other PSAC/EWL contenders faired better, with Lock Haven’s D.J. Fehlman beating Cornell’s Charles Tucker at 133 pounds, Kyle Shoop beat Matt Findlay at 141 pounds, Chance Marsteller earned a major decision over Minnesota’s Carson Brolsma at 165 pounds, Corey Hazel earned a decision over Kent State’s Andrew McNally at 184 pounds, and heavyweight Thomas Haines won by major decision over Virginia Tech’s Billy Miller.
But none of them had the honor of beginning the proceedings in Pittsburgh.
“It a was rush,” Girard said. “All the lights, the whole video. It was fun. I lost the first one, I’ve got to battle back, but that was a great experience.”
Girard was mindful of the fact that many of those watching, whether from the stands or on television, had never heard of Bloomsburg, a school with 9,000 undergrads about four hours northeast of Pittsburgh. He hopes the exposure will lead to growth for the program.
“For the president, the AD, to everyone down the line, any time your university is on national TV, it’s a positive thing,” Bloomsburg coach Marcus Gordon said. “Even for students that aren’t wrestlers or aren’t even athletes, that catches their eye. For our guys, it’s great, because you can go to a small school but still compete at the highest level… Overall, it’s great for our institution and great for our town.”
Gordon wrestled at both Eastern Michigan, Division I school, and Ashland, a Division II school. He was also a coach at Ashland before coming to Bloomsburg. He thinks that the wrestling program playing at the top level puts an emphasis on the sport that might not happen everywhere else.
“If you’re Division I across the board, you’re looking at football, basketball, other stuff that’s the premier sport,” he said. “With us being the only Division I, you’re held to a higher standard.”
The landscape that has allowed those PSAC schools to compete at a higher level has been in place for some team. Each Division II school can choose one sport to play up in for men and one for women. But with the consolidation of sports conferences, it hasn’t always been easy for the smaller schools to maintain a level playing field.
The EWL was given just 10 automatic qualifying spots to this year’s tournament, the second-fewest of any conference. Next year, the EWL will cease to exist, as the four PSAC schools, along with fellow EWL members Cleveland State, George Mason and Rider, will join the Mid-American Conference as members for wrestling only, making a 15-team conference that also features full-time MAC members Buffalo, Central Michigan, Kent State, Northern Illinois and Ohio, along with affiliate members Missouri, Old Dominion and SIU-Edwardsville.
Gordon thinks the change will make for better opportunities for Bloomsburg’s wrestlers.
“I think it’s a good change,” he said. “I think you’re going to see a different caliber of recruiting that’s going to happen. Right now, we have 14 (NCAA) bids. They used the numbers from last year, and (the new MAC) would have had 54 qualifiers. That’s a big jump. If you don’t win in the EWL, you pretty much don’t go to the national tournament.”
The presence of smaller schools as legit competitors at the Division I level goes to show how big wrestling is in the state of Pennsylvania where even the presence of a national contender in Penn State and another quality program in Pitt doesn’t run the well dry of local talent. Girard is one of seven Pennsylvania natives on the Bloomsburg roster. That’s also what brought the national championship to the region, and it also is a tying bind for many in the crowd and on the mat.
The big schools are likely to dominate the headlines — and the matches — going forward. But the little guys of the EWL are hoping for one more push before the league fades away, even if it comes from the competition.
“There’s a respect level,” Girard said. “We battle all season, but when we’re here, it’s like, ‘Let’s go get it. Let’s represent what we are: a bunch of small schools.'”