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Redbank Valley wrestlers off to strong start

In a trophy case located just outside of Redbank Valley's gymnasium, three photo collages draw attention to what the hardware behind them only subtly documents: There are a lot of Bulldog wrestlers climbing medal stands this winter.

Redbank Valley is on a roll.

Through two months, the Bulldogs have placed first in three out of the four tournaments and won five out of six dual meets. Tougher tests are ahead, but the Bulldogs like their chances.

"The kids are wrestling great for this time of year," coach Mike Kundick said. "We had one letdown against Ridgway — we thought it'd be a lot closer than (a 42-25 loss) -- but tournament-wise, they've wrestled fantastic all year."

Redbank Valley entered the season with high expectations, as five District 9 Class AA placewinners returned, and several other underclassmen seemed poised to contribute immediately.

A first-place finish at the season-opening Hickory tournament only added to Redbank Valley's confidence. Senior 132-pounder Garrett Hildebrand, juniors Cole Shirey (160) and sophomore Willis Gruver (113) won titles, and junior Brandon Bailey (170) was a finalist for the Bulldogs, who placed fourth and second the previous two years.

The Bulldogs defended their own Christmas tournament's title and blew away the competition, accumulating 460 team points. Gruver and Hildebrand claimed championships, as did freshman Kolbin Altobelli (106), and second-place finishers included Bailey, Shirey, freshman Luke Gallo (126), junior Aaron Hook (182) and sophomore Mark Strothers (195).

And on Jan. 20, Redbank Valley won the Northeast tournament, where the Bulldogs placed second and 10th the past two seasons. Gruver and Shirey were champions, while Hildebrand and Haines were finalists.

But the performance the Bulldogs considered most impressive was their third-place finish in the Fred Bell tournament last weekend at Grove City. The competition included 30 teams, and Redbank Valley was among the smallest schools.

"I really didn't expect to take all three tournaments," said Haines, who placed fifth at the Fred Bell and improved to 23-8. "I'm usually a glass-half-full kind of guy, but I wasn't expecting much at Grove City. Then, we came out with third, and I was like, 'Holy (cow), we can do something here.' "

Kundick attributed the better tournament showings to more bonus points. Of the Redbank Valley wrestlers' 250 wins, 146 came by pinfall.

Oddly, Redbank Valley's two most successful wrestlers, Shirey and Gruver, are not its top pinners. Shirey is 27-2 with eight pins, while Gruver is 18-2 with 13. Hildebrand (27-4) is tied with Strothers (18-11) for second on the team with 14, but top honors go to Bailey (25-7), who has 21.

Hildebrand said the pin-or-be-pinned approach used by a few Bulldogs contributed to Redbank Valley's dual meet loss to Ridgway — the Bulldogs had one pinfall win, while Ridgway had five.

"I'd rather you have 10 pins and 10 more wins than 15 pins and get pinned another 10 times," the senior said.

Bonus points will be a subject of much discussion when Redbank Valley meets defending District 9 Class AA team champion Brookville on Thursday. The match will set a tone for the programs, both of which are expected to contend for the team title in the dual meet tournament as well as the individual tournament.

"I'm just looking forward to, in every match we have, just going out and trying to impress someone new and getting some more people looking at us," Shirey said. "I think the program is just going up and up."

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