Maintaining success no easy task for perennial postseason qualifiers
When the WPIAL decided to hold a team wrestling tournament in 1979, many coaches were skeptical it would be popular.
Some old-time coaches argued wrestling was an individual sport.
Someone who loved the idea was former Connellsville coach Tom Dolde Sr. He felt it was good for the sport.
Turns out it was very good for the Falcons, who have never missed out on the WPIAL wrestling tournament.
The Falcons have qualified 39 straight times, winning seven district titles and one state title, making the WPIAL finals 15 times, the semifinals 23 times and positing a 75-32 record in postseason matches.
Connellsville (6-5), which upset Belle Vernon to win the Section 2-AAA title last week, will take on Penn-Trafford (4-2) in the first round at 6 p.m. Wednesday at North Allegheny.
While the sixth-seeded Falcons might not be favored to win another title, first-year coach and former Connellsville wrestler Jesse Swink has the tradition still going.
“When I wrestled, I knew about the history and the streak,” Swink said. “I don't talk about it with the kids because I don't want to put unnecessary stress on them. We know we have the work ethic to be one of the top teams. We're aiming high and hoping to do well.”
Connellsville isn't the only program that has had success in the Class AAA team tournament. North Allegheny has qualified 36 times and won five titles, Canon-McMillan has advanced 35 times and claimed nine titles and Kiski Area has two titles and 28 appearances.
“The team tournament is very important to us,” Kiski Area coach Chris Heater said. “We treat the season in two parts. The team portions, what we're in, and the individual tournaments. Right now we're focused on winning the team title, and the team is excited about it.”
Canon-McMillan athletic director Frank Vulcano, who wrestled for Chartiers-Houston when the Bucs won titles in 1981 and ‘82, said it was a fun time when he was competing in team tournaments.
“We were a Class AA school competing against bigger teams,” said Vulcano, the WPIAL wrestling committee chairman. “We had a great following, and it was fun beating the bigger schools.”
The WPIAL team tournament grew so well that 20 years after it began the PIAA started its own team tournament to decide state champions.
That didn't go well the first season as some teams protested the tournament. In fact, Northampton — considered the best team in the state — sent its reserves to wrestle Gettysburg in the opening round.
The protested lasted one season as Northampton defeated Connellsville, 30-19, in 2000.
One thing that worries Vulcano is dwindling crowds. He said when he wrestled, gymnasiums were usually packed.
“We're hoping that we get a nice crowd for the Class AAA semifinals at Penn Hills,” Vulcano said of Saturday's event that also includes the championship match. “We should have two pretty good matches. The crowds were usually good at Chartiers Valley and Charleroi.
“Coaches like the team tournament because it gives wrestlers a chance at winning a title. Wrestlers like the state tournament because it gives them a chance to wrestle in Hershey.”
In Class AA, Burrell has passed Jefferson-Morgan and qualified 25 times and won 12 WPIAL titles, including the past 10. Washington, which hasn't qualified for the tournament since 2006, has won seven titles and Jefferson-Morgan five.
Franklin Regional coach Matt Lebe said flourishing feeder programs have helped the perennial qualifying teams have lasting success.
“These kids have bought into the system and look forward to competing on the high-school level,” Lebe said. “The reason we've qualified the past nine years is because the wrestlers and parents believe in the system.
“There is a lot of pride among the wrestlers on those teams. They want to be good and compete for titles. I believe a strong feeder system is a must.”
It doesn't hurt that those teams have had continued success over the years.
“Winning breeds success,” Lebe said. “These kids strive to be the next Nico (Megaludis) or Mike (Kemerer) or Spencer (Lee). Young kids look up to those guys and want to be successful.”