Burrell wrestlers work to stay atop WPIAL
Win WPIAL championships on a yearly basis, as the Burrell wrestling team accomplished over the past decade-plus, and it becomes more than just a goal.
By now, the Bucs, who claimed their 11th consecutive WPIAL Class AA title last season, expect to be on top in early February. The attitude extends into a powerful junior high wrestling program, which produces wrestlers ready to compete from the instant they join the varsity.
And if there's any question about getting complacent, Burrell puts that to rest.
At a recent practice, the wrestlers ran laps around the upper gymnasium as coach Josh Shields exhorted them to push the pace.
“We just work harder than everyone else,” said senior Shaun Gates as he tried to catch his breath following the conclusion of his run. “Everyone always has. When we're wrestling, we always make more time. We're always working out on the holidays, which other teams usually don't do. Halfway through the season, (we do) 5 a.m. workouts. That definitely helps a lot.”
Burrell's daily workouts at the high school are supplemented by extra work at Lower Burrell's Mat Factory, a wrestling and mixed-martial arts facility run by assistant coach Isaac Greeley, and the Bucs said they pumped up their conditioning to a higher level than usual this offseason.
“You've got to get into shape before you can get into wrestling shape, which is what coach (Shields) always tells us,” senior Trent Bechtold said. “Now we're pretty much trying to get ourselves into wrestling shape before the upcoming matches. We have a pretty packed schedule this year, so we're preparing.”
Burrell's roster includes a mix of seniors who started from their freshman years — Bechtold, Corey Christie and Gates among them — others who showed steady growth through their entire high school careers, such as Ethan Awes, and the usual crop of heralded freshmen, in this case Ian Oswalt and A.J. Corrado, who had strong performances in their Junior Olympic days.
It's a mix that added up to WPIAL championships each of the past 11 seasons.
“Everything's expected,” said Christie, a Coker College recruit. “The freshmen coming up, they're already high-caliber wrestlers before they even get there. Burrell's so solid, from the youth all the way up. The WPIAL title is expected, so we're looking at states. We're looking at the big stuff, so everyone feels they need to work harder.”
The state tournament remains Burrell's top goal. The Bucs went 1-2 in Hershey last season, matching their performances from 2015 and '16. Their best finish since a 2011 state title was third place in '14.
This season's goal is at least a top-four finish.
“We have a lot of individuals who have lofty goals, and as a team we have lofty goals,” Shields said. “We've got to keep working towards them and try to be a Burrell team that's more special than some teams in the past. We've won 11 WPIAL titles, but we haven't placed at the PIAA tournament in five years. I know that's something that's in the back of these kids' minds and something we've definitely listed on our goals — to be a special Burrell team and not just one that wins a WPIAL title.”
Although Burrell has no returning state medalists, the Bucs have a deep group, particularly in the lower and middle weights. The team strength in recent years trended toward the upper weights — recent graduates included state champion heavyweight Al Beattie, WPIAL champions Alex Moses and Bubby Scherer and 100-win club member Anthony Marra — but that will change this season.
Sophomore Trent Valovchik, who won a WPIAL title at 106 pounds last season, will bump up to 113 this year. Other potential standouts include Oswalt (120), Bechtold and junior Bryan Gaul (126), Corrado (132), Awes (138), Christie (152) and Gates (160). The depth in those classes allows for strong competition during practice and gives Shields lineup flexibility, which he uses to his advantage particularly in the postseason. Shields said those wrestlers also will be counted on for bonus points.
Junior Austin Mele, senior Colton Moorhead and junior Mason Slahtovsky are among the experienced wrestlers in the upper weight classes.
“Every year you look back, we always had an unsung hero, whether it be in the WPIAL playoffs, state playoffs,” Shields said. “There's always someone who goes above and beyond what they're expected to do. And I think the same thing will be true this year. We've got a lot of weights where we'll have wrestle-offs in the next week, and there's a lot of weight classes we'll be two or three deep in. The backups are tough kids who could be a starter and win us some matches down the road.”
Joe Murphy sees a much fuller wrestling room now than he did at the end of the last season, when Riverview finished with just four competitors. The Raiders' coach has 16 wrestlers at his disposal, though some are learning the sport.
Given Riverview's small size as a school, the Raiders face a yearly challenge of filling out a roster of 14 wrestlers to compete in Section 3-AA with the likes of Burrell, Valley and South Fayette, which joined the section last season. Murphy said, however, he expects to get close to having a full starting lineup by the end of the season and hopes the Raiders can compete for third place in the subsection and a playoff berth.
“I'd like to push the team a little bit further ahead this year,” Murphy said. “Individual-wise, I'm looking to move a few guys to each level (of the postseason). ... I'm trying to advance everyone another level, hoping to keep them together and push the team a little bit further and at least get in the mix.”
Riverview will lean on its core of experienced wrestlers for wins in seniors Christian Tamburro, Deonte Grigsby and Zayn Peters and Murphy's two sons, junior Lucas Murphy and sophomore Isaac Murphy. Lucas Murphy, Peters and Tamburro qualified for the WPIAL tournament last season.
The Vikings are coming off their second consecutive WPIAL playoff appearance and last season beat Bentworth in the first round before losing to eventual WPIAL runner-up Freedom in the quarterfinals.
The win over Bentworth represented Valley's first WPIAL playoff victory since 2009, and the Vikings could have a chance for more postseason success thanks to a strong core of returnees.
Junior heavyweight David Schuffert, who finished 34-6 and was WPIAL runner-up last season, leads the Vikings. Sophomore Trent Lasko also finished as WPIAL runner-up last season, falling to Burrell's Valovchik in the 106-pound final.
Other Valley wrestlers who should play a major role in the team's success this season include senior Nicholas Banko, junior Noah Hutcherson, senior Brandon O'Sullivan and sophomore Kain Stone. All four wrestlers qualified for WPIALs last season.