Kriss Bellanca became Alvernia University's first-ever head wrestling coach in 2019 after spending the previous 12 seasons on the coaching staff at Kutztown University. At Kutztown, Bellanca helped the program finish in the top 20 nationally nine times, and in the top five in the region eight times. He coached five NCAA Division II national champions, 19 NCAA Division II All-Americans and 40 NCAA qualifiers.
Bellanca has made a major impact at Alvernia in a short period of time. In the program's first season, he led Alvernia to a winning record and sent two wrestlers to the national tournament. This season, all 10 Alvernia wrestlers placed at the regional tournament, which included a champion, two finalists and four NCAA qualifiers.
MatBoss caught up with Bellanca and talked to him about this season, his coaching philosophy, why character matters, differences between Division III and Division II wrestling, current state of college wrestling and more.
Your team finished runner-up at the Southeast Regional. Placed all 10 wrestlers placed and you qualified four wrestlers to the NCAAs. How would you asses your team's performance at the regional?
Bellanca: They performed as hard as they could. Our conversations are always about competing the very best we can compete. We talk very little about winning and placing and talk very much about controlling our effort level and our competition level. At the end of the day all I ask of these guys is they come off the mat and be able to say that's as hard as I can compete today. Placing ten guys at regionals, I think it's an exceptional performance. We are technically in our second year competing. We are a third-year team, but it's our second year competing. We had six freshmen, three sophomores and a junior competing at the regional tournament. Pacing all ten guys is an incredible performance. They competed as hard as they could.
Matthew Lackman won the regional title at 165 pounds. He has had a tremendous season. He's highly ranked and I think he has only one loss. What makes him successful?
Bellanca: His work ethic and his commitment to the sport. He's one of those guys that lives in a wrestling room. Not just like hard training, but he spends time watching film. He spends time in the weight room. He spends time breaking things down. Technically, he just loves the sport and loves developing and getting better. He had a decent high school career. He was a one-time third place winner at the Pennsylvania State Championships. He was young coming out of high school. He was a 17-year-old senior who in that first year out of high school, matured and developed physically quite a bit. And combine that physical maturity with his commitment to learning and developing as an athlete, and we're seeing what we have. We have a freshman eligibility guy although he's second year college. A freshmen eligibility guy who I think will be in contention for a national title. So it's just really his commitment level. He loves to learn and develop.
Tell me about your other regional finalist at 197 pounds, Mauro Pellot. I believe he's a freshman. What have you seen from him?
Bellanca: He never won a state title in Virginia. Another kid who loves the sport. He started wrestling kind of late. I think he started in ninth grade. Still just very much in love with the sport. He loves to learn and develop. He's a very tall 6'3" kid. When he came in he was like, 'I want to be a 184-pounder.' I was like, 'I don't know about that.' He's like, 'No, coach, listen. I can do it.' At the time we weren't sure where Isaac Kassis was going to go weight-wise. Mauro committed to 184 and ended up not being able to beat Isaac Kassis, who was third in the regional tournament at 184. They wrestled at least four times this season in different events. Actually, Isaac Kassis beat Mauro in the conference finals. In our conference tournament you can enter more than one guy in a weight class. Mauro and Isaac wrestled each other in the finals of the conference tournament at 184 pounds. Mauro placed in every tournament at 184 pounds. Isaac would finish first or second. Mauro would finish second or third right behind him in every tournament. It was a tough, tough year. He wanted to start. He just couldn't beat Isaac. Our 197-pounder for most of the season was named an NWCA All-American in that 2019-20 season when NCAAs got canceled. Tonee Ellis was a national qualifier and got named like NWCA Third Team All-American that year.
Mauro came in as a young 18-year-old. He turned 18 in August right before he came to school. He just couldn't beat Tonee either. So he sat behind those guys for a while. About four weeks before the regional tournament he asked me if could wrestle off Tonee and go up to 197 pounds. Because he's done everything right this year I gave him that opportunity. Unfortunately, Tonee got hurt. Two days before the wrestle-off he tore his meniscus in his MCL. So by default Mauro became our 197-pounder. He went into the regional tournament not having wrestled 197 pounds the entire year. He wrestled 184 pounds the entire year.
Mauro was seeded eighth the regional tournament, even though he hadn't wrestled at 197 pounds. He ended beating the No. 1 seed by nine in the quarterfinals. And then won in the semis and actually almost pulled it off in the finals. Incredible, incredible story. The best thing I can say about Mauro is that he's one of those kids that is smiling from the minute he walks in the wrestling room to the minute he leaves. He walks out to the middle of the mat smiling. He says hello to the ref. He just loves being out there. He just has fun every single day. It's incredible.
Obviously, last year was a bit of a lost season. So this is really your second full season as a program. Finished 16-4 in dual meets and qualified four wrestlers to the NCAAs. Did you envision you could have this kind of success at Alvernia so soon?
Bellanca: I think the company line would be yes. But no. I knew that we were going to build quickly. If you've seen the hashtag that we use for our social media, #quicklyrelevant … that came from a conversation with my athletic director and the president of the university when I was in the hiring process. I was at Kutztown University for many years prior to coming to Alvernia. I was the assistant and associate head at Kutztown and we had a lot of success there. A bunch national champs and All-Americans every year. Things were great. I loved my job at Kutztown.
When Alvernia approached me about this job, it was really just about me seeking information about will this place fit for me. Is Alvernia the right place for me to coach at? I had an initial interview. It was really me questioning them and asking what kind of salary, what kind of budget, what kind of support, what kind of facilities, like all of those pieces. Because I loved my job at Kutztown. We were incredibly successful .. top 10, top 15 in the country every year. I didn't necessarily need to leave there. So I came over to have that conversation and things seemed really positive. I figured I would shoot for the stars when I was interviewing for this job. It was going to be, 'Hey, this is the salary I need. This is the budget I need. This is the support system that I need. And if you do that, I'll make you relevant very quickly. I can do that. I was part of that process at Kutztown 15 years ago, and they were not good and became good. And I think we can do it here with the right support.' And so that #quicklyrelevant piece came from that conversation because I made some pretty big asks to the university in order for me to come to Alvernia. And they gave me, for the most part, the things that I needed. Because of that, though, I feel very obligated to make sure that that happens. So does our team. So we have this conversation very often about what does 'quickly relevant' look like for us. It's not just about winning wrestling matches. We're a small, private Catholic university that never had a wrestling team. So with that comes some perceptions of what wrestlers are and who wrestlers are. We need to be quickly relevant in proving that we are here to be great students and we are here to be great community members. We are here to serve others. In addition to those things, we are going to be a great wrestling team. So that #quickrelevant has kind of become like our all-encompassing mantra. So did I think we could have this great of a season right away? I didn't. But I knew that we had the guys, personnel, facilities and the support to become quickly relevant, which is why we chose that as our hashtag.
Obviously, you spent a lot of years as an assistant coach. Did your coaching philosophy change when you became a head coach?
Bellanca: I'm trying to learn and develop as a human, as a coach, as a mentor and an educator every day. So certainly, yes. I'm trying to change and develop. But I think as a whole, no. My philosophy has been pretty much the same for many years. I was an educator. I was an elementary teacher in the beginning of my career. I was a behavior specialist in public ed at one point, and a college coach. Right now I coach full time. My job is getting paid to be to be a wrestling coach. But I still consider myself an educator because I just think that mentality of an educator of we're going to help you grow and develop and learn as a student, as an athlete, as a human, I think that process is who I am as a person. It's why I chose education and the behavioral world, in addition to coaching. I'm somebody who wants to help people grow and develop and learn. So that has not changed. That core kind of mentality has not changed. But certainly I'm learning some new things every day as the boss.
I have heard you say character is the most important thing when recruiting. Why do you believe that?
Bellanca: I think when you have the right people, for you, for your culture, for your team, for your coaching staff, I think everything else is easy. I think teaching somebody how to wrestle is easy. I think teaching somebody how to multiply and do some kind of schoolwork is pretty easy. I don't find that very difficult. What I find difficult is motivating people, connecting with people, building the relationship in which people will buy into your mission and the team's mission. So for me, priority No. 1 has always been about finding the right kind of athletes. It's far less about who they are as a wrestler, and much more about who they are as a person and how do they fit. I say this often to recruits. Just because I don't believe somebody is the right fit for our program certainly doesn't mean they are a bad person or not a good person. They may be an incredible person and incredible student or an incredible wrestler, but maybe just not the right fit for what we're building.
With my behavioral background and education background, it's very important to me that I build relationships during that recruiting process so I can tell if they are the right fit for us, and if we're the right fit for them. I think when you find an athlete who just buys into you and your staff as humans and buys into your team culture, then everything else is easy. You can teach them how to wrestle. You can motivate them to get good grades. You can motivate them to work hard. So we just work really hard during that process to make sure we're finding the right guys. I think a big part of that is not being a salesman. Just explaining to them who we are, what we do, how we do things and who our team is as a group. Then we ask if it's a good fit for them and a good fit for us. Bigger than character, just that who they are as a person is the bigger picture for me.
Kutztown was a Division II program. Alvernia is a Division III program. What do you see as the biggest differences between Division III and Division II wrestling?
Bellanca: I don't think there are. I think when you start talking about maybe seventh or eighth place wrestlers at the Division III tournament versus the seventh or eighth place wrestlers at the Division II tournament, you might see a little difference as far as ability level, or maybe just depth in general. But I think at the top end both are very similar. Division III is tough. I didn't realize how tough it is until I got here. Not that I thought it was easy. I certainly didn't think it was easy. I just didn't realize how tough it was. I don't really see huge differences. I'm running my program with a lot of the same mentality that I ran or worked in Division II. I don't really think it's a giant difference to me. I think there are more small, private, religious focused schools that I think that sometimes changes what kind of athletes you're trying to find. But as far as competition level, I just don't see a giant difference. I really don't.
Alvernia announced the addition of women's wrestling with next season being the first season of competition. What will the relationship look like between the men's and women's program? Will you work together on some things?
Bellanca: The intention is that we will work together very much. The intention is Alvernia wrestling as a brand is one brand. Certainly they'll have their training times, we'll have our training times and there may be times where things cross over. But it's two programs. There is a separate head coach for that program. With that said, we've talked about how the brand of Alvernia wrestling now includes both men and women. So as much as possible we plan for that brand to continue to grow together. At least that's my intention. And from my conversation so far with the woman's head coach, that's where we're at. I think it will be one brand. They will go out and compete at their competitions. But I think we're going to grow this together. We will grow our support on campus together. As far as some renovations that we're trying to plan already for facility upgrades, I think those will happen together. Our camps will often happen together, both men and women at the same time. So I think it'll be a united front.
What are your thoughts on the current state of college wrestling? Do you think it's in a good spot? Are there any major changes you'd like to see in the sport? There's been talk of making NCAA wrestling a one-semester sport.
Bellanca: I'm on a committee that's exploring that option, actually. I'm a bit of a traditionalist, so it's hard for me to sort of wrap my brain around new, creative processes at times. I've had to personally work very hard to be openminded and try to weigh positives and negatives regarding some of these updates to our sport that are coming. I very much respect some younger, forward thinker, kind of coaches. But it's difficult for me for sure. I think wrestling is in a good place, especially in Division II and Division III, where we've seen the most growth by far. I'm not opposed to the one-semester process. My concern for the Division III world is that we are handcuffed in many ways with training time and opportunities to have our hands on our guys and be in front of our guys. There's no question that the more my guys are in a wrestling room, in front of me, the better students, the better behavior, the better all-around people they will be. So I keep having that concern about how much time can I keep my hands on my athletes and following NCAA rules. I don't want to see us get cut down. One thing I didn't realize when I came from Division II to Division III is that in Division III there's no preseason. There are no countable athletic activities during preseason. That was mind boggling to me. I was like, 'Man, how do I get in front of my guys on a near daily basis? Because the more we're together, the better they're going to be as far as their discipline, their time management, their academics, and all of those things go hand in hand.
We're growing in Division II and Division III. We've been adding. Women are adding. Division I is a different animal. They have their own processes. I think at the end of the day they'll drive whatever decisions are coming for us. I don't know that Division II and Division III coaches' groups are really going to have as much say as everybody thinks they will. The big dogs with the big money are going to be the guys making the decisions. I don't think Division I wants to go to one semester, at least in my conversations. I think we're in a healthy spot. We're seeing wrestling growing even at the Division I level. We're seeing teams coming in. We're seeing teams transition to Division I. I think that's happening more than we're dropping the last couple of years. Division III and II are adding like crazy. Women are adding like crazy. We're giving more and more opportunities. In the women's world, there are almost more opportunities than there are athletes right now. We're finding that with trying to recruit our first team. I love that. I would rather have more opportunities than too little opportunities.