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    Benton looking to repeat as national champion

    Thad Benton is on track to become one of the most accomplished wrestlers in University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown (UPJ) history.

    But if you ask Benton about his place in school history, he suddenly shifts gears. The two-time Division II All-American and defending NCAA champion at 141 lbs, would rather talk about his team.

    Thad Benton
    "To be honest, I'm more concerned this year about bringing the team title back to Johnstown, than where I stand," said Benton. "I already have my individual title."

    UPJ, which sits less than 70 miles east of Pittsburgh, has an extremely rich wrestling tradition. The Mountain Cats have captured 18 regional titles since 1976, including the last three, and 10 in a row from 1992 through 2001. They claimed the Division II national team title in 1996 and 1999.

    Carlton Haselrig is, without question, the most accomplished wrestler to come through the program. He won an unprecedented six NCAA titles at heavyweight from 1987 to 1989 (three in Division I and three in Division II). Haselrig later went on to play professional football in the NFL for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    The other household name, at least in wrestling circles, is Jody Strittmatter. Strittmatter was a two-time Division II NCAA champion for UPJ (1998 and 1999), before transferring to the University of Iowa, where he placed third as a junior, and was an NCAA runner-up as a senior. In two seasons as a Mountain Cat, Strittmatter compiled a .967 winning percentage, which ranks second all-time at UPJ, only behind Haselrig.

    UPJ coach Pat Pecora, who has coached 106 All-Americans and has twice been named NCAA Division II National Coach of the Year, believes Benton could solidify his place in school history, just behind Haselrig and Strittmatter, by adding another national title to his already impressive wrestling resume this season.

    "We've had some great ones," said Pecora, who has coached 29 seasons at UPJ. "From Carleton Haselrig to Jody Strittmatter to John Strittmatter to Lee Schickel. Thad is right up there. Carleton Haselrig obviously has to be at the top because he won six national titles. Jody Strittmatter has to be the next one in line because he won two Division II national titles and placed twice in Division I. We've had eight other national champions, but each of those guys only won it once. If Thad repeats, then you have to put him right up there as the third best wrestler to ever come out of our school, with the only ones ahead of him being Jody and Carlton. That isn't too bad."

    Pecora believes that Benton has all of the ingredients necessary to be a great wrestler.

    "He has a lot of physical tools," said Pecora. "He's good on top. He's good on bottom. He's good on his feet. He's good on attacking legs. He's good with upper body. He's very flexible. So he has a lot of good things in terms of wrestling skills. His body fat is low. I always say he has ice in his veins. He's very cool in big match situations. He's not intimidated by anybody."

    In high school, Benton placed three times in the rugged Pennsylvania AA State Tournament (5th, 2nd, 3rd), and compiled a record of 132-15 while wrestling for Claysburg-Kimmel High School.

    Through the years, Claysburg-Kimmel has created a pipeline with UPJ -- sending numerous wrestlers to the Division II powerhouse. Their coach, Dave Marko, is a former UPJ wrestler who wrestled for Pecora. So when Benton made the decision to attend UPJ, he already had an idea of what to expect from his new coach.

    "When I got up here, he was exactly like how my high school coach explained him," recalled Benton. "He'll push you to the limit and won't let you stop short of any goal you have. He'll push you as hard as you can to achieve your own goals. He's just a great guy and a great coach."

    Benton arrived on the UPJ campus in the fall of 2001, and redshirted his first season.

    "It kind of let me mature a little bit in terms of my school work and with wrestling," said Benton. "I thought I was ready to start in the lineup right away, but after wrestling a few tournaments, I was glad that I did redshirt that season."

    The next season, as a redshirt freshman, Benton not only found a spot in the UPJ lineup, but he also found a spot on the All-American podium -- placing fifth at 133 lbs. He finished the season with an impressive 25-9 overall record and led team in pins with 17.

    As sophomore, Benton had hoped to improve upon his fifth-place finish. After compiling a 16-2 record, he appeared to be on the right track. But suddenly, in a midseason practice, while wrestling live, his knee popped out of place, and he ripped the tendon. He immediately began rehab with hopes of returning to the lineup. But his rehab made it tough for him to maintain his weight. UPJ already had senior All-American Jason Nestor at 141, so moving up a weight class was out of the question.

    Pat Pecora
    "We just got to the point where rather than hurt his knee or push the senior out, we decided that it would be best to take the rest of that season off," said Pecora. "Then he could move you up to 141 and get ready for the next season."

    Benton spent that off-season lifting and training like a madman. He gained a lot of muscle. His knee had healed. And he had come back in great shape.

    Last season, he rolled through the regular season with a 22-5 record, with four of the five losses coming to Division I wrestlers. At the East Regional Tournament, Benton pinned all three of his opponents to capture the title and advance to the NCAA Division II Tournament.

    "He just got to the point where he was starting to dominate people," said Pecora. "You just had a feeling about him. You just knew something good was going to happen. I always said that he was going to be the next national champ we had."

    Two weeks later … it happened.

    At the NCAA Tournament, Benton won his first three matches to advance to finals. In the finals, Benton faced the highly touted Eli Dominguez of Nebraska-Omaha.

    Benton wasted little time against Dominguez -- taking him down 45 seconds into the match -- and putting him on his back to go up 5-0. That would be enough to propel him to an easy 9-4 victory and the national title.

    "When I put him to his back in the first period, I knew that it was over," said Benton. "There was no way that I was going to lose that big of a lead. The match just went on and on. He started scoring a few points. I knew what my cutoff point was for points, so when he started getting close, I started wrestling harder. Next thing I know … I got my hand raised."

    Added Pecora, "More than him winning nationals, was how he won it. He dominated that national tournament. He was basically tech falling national runner-ups from the year before. He was breaking people. The dominance of the way he won the national tournament performance was very impressive."

    During his time at UPJ, Benton has formed a close friendship on and off the mat with Strittmatter, who serves as an assistant coach under Pecora.

    "Jody and I grew a lot closer this past summer," said Benton. "We were hanging out all the time. We were practicing all summer long. I can call him and talk to him about anything. He's not the kind of guy who is going to run off and tell everyone. He is just a nice, down-to-earth guy who you can just talk to about wrestling, non-wrestling, or anything."

    Pecora sees Strittmatter as a symbol for the UPJ program.

    "Jody has helped tremendously with the development of a lot of the wrestlers on the team," said Pecora. "He is just a great asset to have both as a coach and as a workout partner. I also think with the mental side -- he has helped a lot. With Jody being a two-time national champion for us, and an outstanding wrestler, and then moving on to Iowa, I think all the kids really admire him. He is one of them. He wrestled for me. He wrestled at UPJ. He was in this uniform. But yet he also wrestled for Iowa and was a Division I national runner-up. And he was ranked third in the United States in freestyle at one time. And he's one of them -- a local boy from Cambria Heights. Jody represents every UPJ wrestler's dream. They can identify with him because he is from their hometowns. He has a real big impact on our program. I'm just delighted to have him."

    Thad Benton pinned all three of his opponents at the 2005 Eastern Regionals.
    As Benton begins his senior season, he is focused on defending his national title and bringing the team title back to Johnstown. He's not yet certain of his post-collegiate plans. Pecora believes that he has the potential to continue his wrestling career in freestyle.

    "He's a very good freestyler," said Pecora. "I think if he wanted to, he's somebody who might be able to take it to the next step. But that step is such a big one for anybody. We'll wait and see. We'll worry about that later. We always sit down and talk about those things at the end of the year after they get their degrees. With Jody here, he has someone he can talk to about it. He went that route for a while and knows what it's like."

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