Brendan Howard and his University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown teammates had completed two workouts and were ready to take the mat the next day at the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships when a startling development occurred.
Mountain Cats head coach Pat Pecora had a meeting with his eight national qualifiers and informed them that the championships had been canceled due to the coronavirus.
“Obviously, it was a big shock,” Howard said. “I was about a pound-and-a-half off weight and we had two practices in at the facility. We were ready to go, but we had a meeting around 3. We kind of had a feeling of what was going to happen, but we hoped that they would let us compete, even if it was under certain restrictions.”
Howard, who is a Uniontown native and Jefferson-Morgan graduate, would have competed in his last collegiate wrestling matches in the national tournament, as he was the third seed at 125 pounds, but had to leave the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and fly back home as his career came to an unprecedented end.
He finished his senior season at 27-2 and was eighth place in the national tournament last season. Howard transferred to Pitt-Johnstown from Clarion University during the second semester of his sophomore year.
“We had gone through an entire season and worked to get to this level, and then, we can’t wrestle the last two days,” Howard said. “You are not able to get closure on your career as a wrestler. It is also tough for the underclassmen that were here because you never know what will happen down the road in their careers.”
One of those underclassmen for UPJ was freshman and Hopewell graduate Jacob Ealy, who was the top seed at 141.
“He definitely had a chance to win a title after winning the super regional tournament,” said Howard of Ealy. “You hope that he can get back to the national tournament, and I know he will do everything he can to get back, but you just never know what will happen in this sport. You just can’t take anything for granted.”
Despite the frustration in having an opportunity to become a national champion taken away from him, Howard looks back fondly on his career as a wrestler.
“I have been wrestling since I was a little kid, so it was definitely shocking and frustrating to not be able to wrestle at the national tournament, but I am proud of what I did in my career,” Howard said. “I think I did really well and always gave my best effort. I am looking forward to helping younger wrestlers, and I would like to own a wrestling club one day.”
Howard is also interested in getting into the coaching ranks.
“I would definitely like to be a coach one day,” Howard said. “I had great coaches all the way through, and it was Jody Strittmatter who told me about going to UPJ. I met Jody when I started club wrestling at Young Guns, and there are so many more clubs now. I think there were just two or three when I started wrestling. My coaches were great role models during my career, so I had awesome teachers if I get into coaching.”
Sports have come to a halt while the coronavirus is ongoing, and in addition to the NCAA National Championships, the Pittsburgh Wrestling Classic was cancelled. The committee was hoping to reschedule the event, but it doesn’t appear the top grapplers in the country will be able to showcase their skills at Pitt’s Fitzgerald Field House.
Howard wrestled in the Classic, and feels for the wrestlers that weren’t able to compete.
“It is tough,” Howard said, “because you get to wrestle one last high school match and make a statement in front of a big crowd with a lot of college coaches and big names in the wrestling community watching.”