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Connellsville wrestling success starts with youth programs

| Monday, April 8, 2013, 12:16 a.m.
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Several Connellsville Junior Olympic and junior high wrestlers placed at the Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling State Championships. Wrestlers are (front, from left) Kyle Burkholder (12U division, 65 pounds, second place) and Jared Keslar (8U, 70, fifth); top row, Todd Brothers (14U, 252, sixth), Louie Mauro (14U, 187, fifth) and Bryce Butler (14U, 140, second).

Each year, the Connellsville High School wrestling team is one of the top Class AAA programs in the WPIAL. The program seems to churn out top-notch grapplers every year, and the team is always in the hunt for a WPIAL championship.

But perennial success doesn't start at the high school level. It begins at a much younger age, when many wrestlers from the Connellsville area begin developing their love for the sport in elementary school.

Connellsville is fortunate to have a tremendous Junior Olympic (elementary wrestling) and junior high program that have served as feeder programs for the high school team.

“Every year we have a group of kids, and the heart of that group are the kids from the JO and junior high programs,” Connellsville High School coach Tom Dolde said. “The junior high and Junior Olympic programs are the backbone of our program. That's where they learn the passion for the sport, and we are so lucky to have the people that we have involved in the program. That's where our tradition starts.”

This year, 58 kids took part in the Junior Olympic program. One of the keys to the success of Connellsville's Junior Olympic program is a willingness to compete at a number of different events. Nearly every weekend from November through March, young wrestlers are engaged in tournaments all over Western Pennsylvania.

Frank Ross, the coach of the Junior Olympic program, explained that the level of competition is determined by the amount of experience each wrestler possesses.

“I like to pick some of the tougher tournaments,” Ross said. “That's where the older kids go because that is where the tougher competition is at.”

Connellsville also hosts an annual tournament, which attracts top wrestlers from all over the region.

“We start them off with the basics, and we teach them the fundamentals to get to the next level,” Ross said. “The sixth-graders are preparing for the junior high level, and hopefully they stay in the program so that they can then wrestle at the high school level.”

Of course, when dealing with young kids, hard, daily practices don't produce the desired result.

“At this stage, you can't pound them every day because you'll chase them off,” Ross said. “One or two days a week we will have a takedown tournament, and the kids have a blast with that. We'll also do sumo wrestling, where they try to knock each other out of the circle.”

When the kids reach the junior high level, things get a little more serious. Getting better each day becomes a goal.

“It's consistency,” said Connellsville junior high coach Don Dolde, who just completed his 20th year of junior high coaching. “I try to model the junior high program after the high school program, and the Junior Olympic program does the same thing. Tom (Dolde) talks to the kids and when the kids see that, they want to wrestle for the program. Seeing the success at the high school level means a lot to me.”

Ross and Don Dolde each pointed out that much of the success can be attributed to the dedication of the many coaches and assistants that work with the kids. Many of the coaches are former Connellsville wrestlers who are giving back to the program, often coaching their own sons.

Parents also play a key role.

“We talk to the parents about having to be just as dedicated as the kids are,” Ross said. “The parents have to get the kids to practice and make sure they make weight. The dedication is very high with our parents. We tell them that they are entering our wrestling family. We eat, sleep and drink wrestling.”

And ultimately, the wrestlers have to have the desire to learn the sport and develop their own talents. This year, 15 Connellsville Junior Olympic and junior high wrestlers qualified for the Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling state championships, held in late March in Harrisburg. Five of the wrestlers won state medals.

“What made me want to be a wrestler is that I saw other people doing it,” said Jared Keslar, who finished fifth in the 70-pound weight class in the state 8U division. “I told my dad that this was something I wanted to do. I got excited when I made it to states, and I was excited to make it to the podium.”

Jason Black is the Local Sports Editor of the Daily Courier. He can be reached at jblack@tribweb.com.

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