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Lost shot: UPJ’s Biddle misses chance at Division II national title

Photo courtesy University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown Central High School graduate Brock Biddle was in position to compete for an NCAA Division II wrestling championship.

Brock Biddle had a realistic chance to win a Division II wrestling national championship, and his UPJ team was in strong position for the team title, two weeks ago in South Dakota.

Biddle and his teammates were already on location 1,250 miles away, had already held one practice on site and were one day away from the start of competition on March 13.

Then everything got shut down because of the coronavirus.

Biddle’s opportunity — and that of his team’s — were taken away without ever getting a chance to compete.

“It was kind of heartbreaking for me,” said Biddle, a Central High School product, “because you work for something all year long, and then they cancel it last minute. It was pretty tough.”

Tough indeed, although not unexpected at the time. Biddle and his fellow UPJ wrestlers had just been at a team meeting with coach Pat Pecora on March 12, and they knew things had been developing quickly with the coronavirus.

The athletes returned to their hotel rooms, and UPJ wrestler Connor Craig knocked on Biddle’s door.

“He was like, ‘It’s done, we’re done,”’ Biddle said by phone Monday.

“I really wasn’t super surprised because I thought that might happen,” he added. “I was like, ‘oh, I guess they canceled it,’ there was nothing we could do about it.”

Biddle wrestled at 174 pounds for UPJ as a redshirt sophomore this season, down from the 184 weight class last year. He finished fourth in last year’s national tournament to earn All-America honors, and he came on strong late this season to give him hope that he could win it all in South Dakota.

In his first match of the season, Biddle, who was coming off an ankle injury, lost to East Stroudsburg’s Mike Raccioppi in a tech fall, 18-3.

The two met again recently at regionals, with Raccioppi ranked No. 1 in the nation at 174. Biddle prevailed this time, 8-3, to earn a regional title and improve to 21-6 on the season.

“Brock just got done beating the No. 1 ranked guy in the country in the regional finals, and it wasn’t close,” Pecora said.

That kind of victory going into nationals could have been just the springboard Biddle needed to win it all.

“I was pretty confident,” he said, “and our assistant coach, Cody Law, and other teammates were telling me, ‘You’re going to be the national champ.’

“I was wrestling good and feeling good mentally after beating the No. 1 guy. I was going in there ready to roll.”

Unfortunately, his victory over the top-ranked Raccioppi turned out to be Biddle’s final match of the season.

The UPJ wrestlers also lost out on their chance to compete for Pecora’s third national championship. He’s the winningest coach in college wrestling history — having broken the record with victory No. 617 last month — and the Mountain Cats qualified eight wrestlers for nationals.

Pecora said the young men on the team handled the tournament cancelation with great maturity.

“It was a very difficult time at that moment because we were there and ready to go,” the coach said. “As individuals, we had great representation, and with eight eight classes, we were really in a good spot to win a team national title.

“I was very proud of them how they handled it. It was selfless. The way I explained it was you guys aren’t going to get sick; you’re young and healthy. But you could contract something and bring it home to your grandmother or grandfather, and they could die.”

Biddle already was dealing with the nerves of a tough situation going on back home.

His father, Brian, underwent quadruple bypass surgery on March 11, the day Biddle and his UPJ team left to fly out to South Dakota.

Brock said his dad has only missed three of his wrestling tournaments going all the way back to second grade, but Brian would not have been there to see his son try and compete for a national title across the country.

“I think God works in mysterious ways,” Brock said. “(My dad) got in (to surgery) right before they shut everything down and was able to get healed up enough to come back home.”

UPJ, along with colleges across the nation, was shut down for social distancing reasons, so Biddle has been back home with his family the past two weeks.

“I’ve always been close with my dad,” he said, “so to be here and help him through it has helped him, too, with his morale.”

Biddle enjoyed a standout high school career at Central, posting a record of 134-26 with 81 pins. He was a three-time qualifier for the PIAA state tournament, finished in fourth place in 2017 and set the Central record for most career wins.

Pecora raved about Biddle, going on for nearly a minute with one praising comment after another.

“I can’t say enough good things about Brock,” the coach said. “He is just a great young man. He’s a very good person, he treats people right, he’s very humble, he’s a very good student, he’s responsible and reliable. You can depend on Brock. You don’t have to tell him twice.

“In wrestling, you’ve got to live the life out of the room, too. You’ve got to eat right and sleep right. You’ve got to sacrifice if you want to be great. There’s not much time for the other stuff other than school and wrestling. Brock loves it. He loves wrestling and wants to be the best. … He’s putting the time in. No one’s going to outwork him. And he’s very coachable. He’ll do exactly what you tell him to do.”

Biddle, named a second-team all-PSAC selection, said that even though he wasn’t as disappointed as he thought he’d be when the national tournament was canceled, more disappointment has set in since then.

“It’s hit me more now that I’ve gotten back home instead of that initial moment,” he said.

A lot of that is about the opportunity taken away not just from him, but also his team.

“I was pretty upset because I think this year, even though our team had a rough start, we got it turned around at the end, and I felt very confident with our capabilities (to win the national title).”

UPJ had three returning national champs and six All-Americans who would have competed in the national tournament.

“I thought we were in a good spot,” Biddle said, “and it was very heartbreaking to not be able to compete with that team.”

Bryce Biddle ‘integral’ part of UPJ team

Brock Biddle’s brother, Bryce, also wrestles for the UPJ team at 184 pounds. He’s had some shoulder problems during his career that have limited his opportunities.

“Bryce is an integral part of the team,” coach Pat Pecora said. “He’s there for everybody, for workouts, never misses practice. He’s very reliable, a good person. He wrestled in a couple matches this year and did well.

“He’s not only making himself better, but he’s good about making everybody else around him better.”

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