College wrestling’s ‘passionate’ fan base prepares to descend upon PPG Paints Arena
Jennifer Tuscano has attended enough basketball tournaments to know how fans of that sport act.
When a game ends and another is scheduled back-to-back, the gym empties. Fans from two schools head straight to the parking lot and two other groups take their place in the bleachers.
Wrestling isn’t like that. At least that’s what Tuscano, an associate athletic director at Pitt, observed last year at the NCAA championships at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
And that is what she expects March 21-23 when the top collegiate wrestlers gather at PPG Paints Arena for the 2019 championships. Pitt is host for the event for the first time since 1957.
Tuscano, the tournament co-director with Pitt associate AD Paul Klaczak, was one of a five-person Pitt contingent that attended the event in Cleveland to get an up-close look at what’s in store this year in Pittsburgh.
“When I walked out at 11 a.m. on a Thursday,” Tuscano said, “the arena was packed. Wrestling fans are very passionate about the sport.
“They just connect, and they want to see good wrestling. It’s pretty impressive.”
The tournament sells out every year, and Tuscano said when tickets went on sale last fall, they were gone within hours. It starts with practice March 20 (closed to the public), followed by six sessions (two each day) the next three days.
A total of 330 wrestlers, each of whom is guaranteed at least two matches, will compete, starting with the first session that runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., March 21, followed by the night session from 6 to 11 p.m. The next day, the schedule follows the same format, with quarterfinal and semifinal competition.
The last day consists of the wrestle-back semifinals and third-, fifth- and seventh-place medal round matches.
The finals are Saturday night in 10 weight classes, preceded by the Parade of All-Americans (wrestlers who win in the first, second and third rounds).
“Everywhere you turn, there will be a mat,” Tuscano said.
In conjunction with the tournament, SportsPITTSBURGH will hold a Fanfest at David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
Wrestling is one of 22 NCAA championships that have been scheduled for the Pittsburgh area from 2018-22. In the past, Pitt has hosted NCAA women’s basketball and volleyball tournament first- and second-round competition.
Duquesne also has been heavily involved, serving as host for previous NCAA basketball first- and second-round games, this year’s Atlantic 10 women’s basketball tournament March 8-10 at Palumbo Center and the NCAA women’s volleyball championships Dec. 19-21 at PPG Paints Arena.
The ACC wrestling tournament, which will be held March 9 at Virginia Tech, will be at Petersen Events Center next year.
“I don’t think we would turn anything down,” Tuscano said.
Based on past experiences, Tuscano and her team of about 300 volunteers are anticipating 20-hour work days.
“But you feel good about it because of the people you surround yourself with,” she said. “You have help whichever direction you look.”
By the time the first match begins, Tuscano expects all her questions will have been answered well in advance, thanks to monthly NCAA conference calls and her observations at last year’s tournament in Cleveland.
“They gave me an opportunity to be right by their side for everything,” she said. “As questions have come up, it’s easy for me to pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, how did you manage this piece?’ ”
What’s in it for Pitt? Plenty, Tuscano said.
“We want to be able to showcase Pitt, our student-athletes, our staff, our facilities,” she said. “Those are all important things for us.”
Under athletic director Heather Lyke, Pitt is pushing for these type of high-profile events more than under previous administrations.
“There is a big-picture look,” Tuscano said. “People recognizing Pitt all the time is important to her. She talks to us all the time about hosting ACC championships, hosting NCAAs, whether it’s first and second round, whatever it might be.”
Lyke said having the wrestling championships in Pittsburgh is “an absolute natural.”
“Our region is a wrestling hotbed from both a recruiting and fan perspective,” she said.
Plus, Pitt is expecting its team, ranked No. 15 in the nation, to be well-represented on the mats. Coach Keith Gavin is a former NCAA champion.
“I am confident he and our staff will have our wrestlers prepared to compete for highest honors that weekend,” Lyke said.
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Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .