These three wrestling coaches showed their brotherhood

Updated: December 19, 2023

By Tristan Warner

The Friday evening quarterfinal session was getting underway at the 2023 NCAA Division II National Championships at the Alliant Energy PowerHouse in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

This was the round that separated the All-Americans from the non. The round where a career’s worth of work is put to the test, and some dreams are realized while others are dashed.

Avery Shay, a Division I transfer from Clarion who found a new home at Shippensburg University for his final collegiate campaign, was preparing for his quarterfinal bout in the 157-pound weight class.

As the minutes quickly approached the biggest match of his life, Raiders head coach Seth Bloomquist had his sight set on guiding his seventh student-athlete to All-American honors.

This column appeared in the December issue of WIN Magazine. Click on the cover or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.

The problem was, however, that Bloomquist quite literally was progressively losing his eyesight as the night wore on.

“It’s called an ocular migraine,” he recalled. “I couldn’t see out of my left eye. I was not feeling well at all, but I was the only Shippensburg coach present, so I was just trying to get through it to coach Avery.”

Legendary Pitt-Johnstown coach Pat Pecora and Mercyhurst front man Mike Wehler, both highly-esteemed leaders of fellow Super Region I programs and personal friends of Bloomquist, were alarmed when he accosted them.

“When I first saw Seth, he looked kind of different,” Wehler remembered. “I could tell something serious was going on. He never complains, so when he told me he was not feeling right, I knew he needed to seek medical attention right away.”

Determined to stay on the floor and coach his athlete, convincing Bloomquist to head to the medical tent was among the toughest coaching obstacles Pecora and Wehler faced that night.

Reluctantly, the 15-year veteran head coach obliged and was urged by the NCAA medical personnel to go to the hospital immediately. However, he only managed to stay on his feet momentarily, as Bloomquist collapsed and started convulsing on the arena floor.

“We were really worried about him when he went down,” Pecora commented. “It got realistic very quickly. He was going in and out and having a serious medical episode but was still more worried about who was going to coach his athlete.”

While Pecora had a 157-pound Mountain Cat still alive in the tournament, without hesitation, Wehler assured Bloomquist as he was being wheeled into the ambulance that he would coach his Raider in the NCAA quarterfinals.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Wehler would coach an athlete from an opposing school with whom he had virtually zero prior interaction during the most important match of his career.

Mike Wehler (left) of Mercyhurst congratulated Avery Shay of Shippensberg after he helped the 157-pound wrestler earn a NCAA Division II All-American honor last March in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“It was actually a really cool moment,” Wehler said. “I just told him, ‘You don’t know me and I don’t know you, but just tell me how you want me to coach you.’”

“I really just wanted to stay out of the way and not overstep my role, but most importantly, I just wanted Avery to know someone was there to support him. Somebody was there for him in this huge moment.”

Meanwhile, yet another Super Region I coach, Rich Hasenfus, who led the American International College (AIC) program and considers the longtime Shippensburg coach a close friend, grabbed the keys from Bloomquist’s panicked wife, Shellee, and drove her to the hospital.

There, Hasenfus sat next to him in the hospital bed, at times holding his hand, and at one point had to use his coaching voice to advocate for urgent medical attention when his friend’s blood pressure dropped to 75/40.

“It was really nerve-racking,” Hasenfus recollected. “Seth cares so deeply about his athletes, and as one of the only part-time coaches in DII wrestling, I always have had so much respect for how passionate he is for his team and his kids.”

That care was on full display when a barely-conscious Bloomquist retrieved Hasenfus’ phone to stream the wrestling action from his hospital bed, just in time to watch Shay become his seventh All-American.

Despite losing in the quarterfinals to the eventual champion, Shay claimed his spot on the podium with a 5-2 Blood-Round win over Carter Noehre (Colorado School of Mines) that evening.

While it was Wehler who coached him from the mat’s corner, Shay evidently had a battalion of Super Region I coaches behind him.

“It is amazing how quickly his goals became my goals and how quickly I became emotionally invested,” Wehler observed. “He did all the work; he did not need much from me.”

“My favorite moment as a coach is when they become All-Americans for the first time. I always tell them I am getting a hug. There was so little relationship there, in this case, and he was pretty stoic once he won, so it was a little different, but I think we just high-fived. But for me, I was really happy for him.”

Bloomquist was released from the hospital that night and was allowed to return to the tournament Saturday but only under the condition that he had to sit quietly in the corner and was not allowed to yell.

“It was cathartic for him,” Wehler said. “Seth and I have been friends for a long time and always joked about coaching together some day. These weren’t the ideal circumstances, but it was still a special moment.”

Only after returning home with his newly crowned All-American did Bloomquist learn that he had indeed suffered a heart attack on the arena floor that fateful night.

Nine months removed from the ordeal, albeit still navigating some health issues, Bloomquist has made positive lifestyle changes and is doing well. He feels eternally grateful for the fraternity of coaches that very well may have saved his life.

“I am so grateful for Coach Pecora, Wehler and Hasenfus, and of course my wife, Shellee,” Bloomquist declared. “They not only helped save my life but made sure my athletes were fed, transported to and from the venue and cared for while I was in the hospital. They still check in on me constantly to this day.”

A brotherhood of opposing coaches, Bloomquist has done his share of reciprocating in recent months as Hasenfus and Pecora battle their own health issues.

“Seth offered to come sit with me during my chemo treatments,” Pecora pointed out. “He and Wehler and I are great friends. It is bigger than wrestling. Wrestling is just the vehicle that brought us together.”

(Tristan Warner is a former PIAA finalist and three-time NCAA qualifier for Old Dominion. The two-time Elite 89 Award recipient and CoSIDA Capital One Academic All-American lives in Shippensburg, Pa.)