Winning tradition motivates Kiski Area wrestlers
Chris Heater saw trophies and other commemorative artifacts from Kiski Area's wrestling history scattered around the high school halls. He had them collected together and displayed in a much more conspicuous place: right outside the Cavaliers' wrestling room.
Now any time a wrestler leaves the room, he can see proof of Kiski Area's accomplishments, including one case filled with evidence of what the Cavaliers achieved the past two seasons: a 2017 WPIAL Class AAA title, the program's third, plus two top-five PIAA finishes.
“There's some pretty high-level stuff in there, which we're happy about,” said Heater, entering his third season as coach after 20-plus years as an assistant. “But when they have to come out and get a drink and come back and pass that and see we were third in the state, (they think) maybe this time we can put a state championship trophy in there.”
Heater is doubling down on Kiski Area's history, making this team's motto “built on tradition” after the Cavaliers rode the mantra “band of brothers” to their WPIAL title and third-place PIAA finish last season. And proof of the success also can be found inside the wrestling room, where championship banners and team photos cover the walls.
“The group that comes in (wants to see) how many of them can we put up this year?” Heater said.
Kiski Area wants one more banner than any other — one that commemorates a PIAA title. The Cavaliers have a pair of runner-up finishes, but no top prizes.
However, with 12 returning wrestlers who have extensive varsity mat time, this could be the year Kiski Area changes that.
“I see a WPIAL title and a state title (when I look around the room),” senior Noah Levett said. “Everyone's in there working hard, pushing one another. No one's really slacking. Everyone wants to get better. So, if we keep having that throughout the season, when we're here for that state tournament, I feel we'll be ready to go.”
The past two seasons, Kiski Area experienced heartbreak in Hershey at the PIAA team championships. The Cavaliers dropped into the consolation bracket in 2015 after losing a way-down tiebreaker to Nazareth — “Criteria I,” Heater remembered. Last season, a hard-fought loss to Bethlehem Catholic, where nine of 14 bouts were decided by a point, forced Kiski Area to win its way through the consolation matches to take third in the state.
“Going up there, knowing that we've been up there already, that relieves a lot of pressure for us wrestling,” Levett said. “There is such thing as stage fright, so kids get it, but since we've been up there almost every year of my high school career, I feel comfortable wrestling there. It's like a second home for me there. We've got to go up there and let it fly; we know what's on the line.”
Ten wrestlers who started much of last season return for Kiski Area — seniors Levett (138 pounds), Logan Pollick (182), Danny Starr (195) and Isaac Reid (285); juniors Julian Jones (106), Darren Miller (120) and Cam Connor (145); and sophomores Jared Curcio (132), Jack Blumer (152) and Nick Delp (160). Senior Bobby Lawrence (126) and junior Colin Murray (170) started in previous seasons, leaving the Cavaliers with just two newcomers in their lineup — freshman Sammy Starr (113) and junior Troy Kuhn (220).
Miller, Levett, Connor and Reid all qualified for the PIAA individual tournament last season. Levett (Bucknell) and Reid (Lock Haven) are two-time state placewinners and Division I recruits, and Miller also medaled last season.
“They're all hard workers,” Miller said. “It doesn't matter if you're on the starting team or if you're on JV. They're all giving the same effort, they're all going as hard as possible and pushing each other to the next level.”
With its championship pedigree, Kiski Area opens the season ranked No. 1 — but Heater said he doesn't exactly feel a target.
“I think there's teams out there that respect us for what we do year-in and year-out, and I think there's teams that hate us for what we do year-in and year-out,” he said. “So I'm not really sure if this year is much different than last year or any of the other years that we've been able to put together some high-level teams. It's just kind of what comes with the territory a little bit. I don't mean that to come across the wrong way, but that's just kind of what we see.”
Ron Frank has more than 400 victories in his coaching career, and he now will lead one of the youngest teams of his Fox Chapel tenure.
Graduation and fall injuries to two projected starters leave the Foxes with an inexperienced group, but one Frank said should improve as the year goes on.
“The group is working hard,” he said. “Obviously, there are some kids that have never wrestled before that are going to be in our starting lineup. That is balanced with some of our kids who have pretty good experience.”
Frank said he changed his coaching style, teaching the basics to the younger wrestlers to help them catch up.
Fox Chapel will lean on its most experienced wrestlers. Senior Zach Carcy qualified for the PIAA tournament as a sophomore before dealing with injuries last season. Senior Juan Morales, juniors Avery Bursick and Jordana Matamoros and sophomores Eddie Farrell, Gunnar Loeffler, Josh Miller and Alex Wecht started last season.
In their second season competing at the Class AAA level, the Golden Rams will field a young roster following the graduation of 11 seniors.
Coach Grant Walters said he made some adjustments to training in the offseason and is working to mold his wrestlers into a group that can compete in Class AAA. He said he has a full lineup and a strong class of junior high wrestlers waiting in the wings.
Senior 195-pounder Lucas Lamer and senior 126-pounder Christian Lechner are Highlands' top returning wrestlers.
“We approached this season as a big building season for us,” Walters said. “We're going to take our bumps and our lumps ... but I see good things in the future. A lot of kids are buying in. The expectations are still staying high. They're higher than they were last year.”
Realignment before last season placed Plum in the rugged Section 1-AAA last season, along with WPIAL champion Kiski Area and perennially strong programs like Franklin Regional and Penn-Trafford.
The Mustangs acquitted themselves well, placing third in their subsection before ultimately falling short of the WPIAL playoffs. But they'll face a difficult task this season after the graduation of top wrestlers like Dom Davido and Keyshawn Smith, both WPIAL qualifiers.
Gavin James, a WPIAL qualifier as a 113-pound freshman last season, returns as Plum's most decorated wrestler. Senior Joe Delpino just missed on a WPIAL bid. Other returnees include seniors Mike Delpino and Karrson Ewing, juniors Tallon Auth and Colin Stecik and sophomores Rylan Cramer and Cole Yocca.