Norwin wrestling prepares to face difficult section
It's never easy in the deepest section in the WPIAL, but the wrestling teams at Norwin, Penn-Trafford and Franklin Regional are ready to begin another season on the mats.
The three Star-area schools are a quarter of the membership of Section 1-AAA again this season, but there has been some minor shuffling on the schedule for this year.
Gone is Central Catholic, one of the five playoff qualifiers last year, from the “A” subsection, which now features Franklin Regional, reigning champion Kiski Area, Gateway, McKeesport, Penn Hills and Woodland Hills.
The “B” subsection is home to Norwin, Penn-Trafford, Latrobe, Greensburg Salem, Hempfield and Indiana.
As in previous seasons, the top two teams from each subsection will advance to the sectional tournament and the WPIAL tournament, and the two third-place teams will face off for the final spot in the WPIAL tournament.
Below is a look at how each of the local teams shapes up entering this season:
The Knights' section-opening loss to Penn-Trafford last year ended up being the difference, as Norwin finished fourth in its subsection and missed out on the team postseason.
Norwin did have more success in the individual postseason tournaments, and no one had more than Heath Coles. He returns for his senior season as the reigning WPIAL champ at 145 pounds and the fourth-place finisher at states with a 38-7 record last year.
“Heath is the pace setter this year,” Norwin coach Todd Schuchert said. “His opponents are working to try and knock him off, so he's trying to work harder than his opponents. That trickles down to the whole team. It rubs off on everyone, and our guys are hungry to get to the top of the hill.”
Coles is part of a deep senior class for Norwin, which also includes 2012 WPIAL qualifiers Joel Pezze, Zach Gutshall, Colin Dalrymple. Other senior wrestlers, such as Rustin Casteel and Cody Drum, saw plenty of action last year, while sophomore Kevin Miller also is coming off of an appearance in the WPIAL tournament.
But after successfully putting a number of wrestlers beyond the section tournament last season, the Knights are aiming for more this season.
“If you wrestle in WPIALs, it does help you get adjusted to the level of competition, but you have to keep working to improve,” Schuchert said. “They can't be happy just making it there because that's when you start getting passed up by the competition.”
Schuchert also would like to see the team return to the postseason this year, which will require a winning start to the campaign. With section matches against Latrobe and Hempfield both scheduled for before Christmas, the early results could be some of the most important for Norwin's playoff hopes.
“We should be able to put out a full squad, which will help us. The killer has been starting slow in the dual meet season,” Schuchert said. “At the end of the season, you're already past all your section meets, and they're the ones that pay off in the end.
“Really, we want to win a section title. (Reaching the playoffs) will be a by-product of working for that goal. If you can win a title in our section, that means you're one of the elite teams in the WPIAL.”
No team in the section returns the number of state qualifiers that Franklin Regional boasts, and that amount of high-end talent makes the Panthers one of the favorites to challenge for the section title.
Sophomore Michael Kemerer's lone loss of his freshman season came in the 106-pound state final, as he racked up a 39-1 record and wins at the Powerade and WPIAL tournaments while bouncing between 106 and 113.
Kemerer leads a stellar sophomore group that also includes state qualifiers Josh Shields and Josh Maruca, while junior Tyler Smith has twice reached states and senior Luke Fleck went to Hershey in his sophomore season for the Panthers.
“This is my eighth year in the program here, and to have as many kids of that caliber as we do, that really sets the tone in practices,” Franklin Regional coach Eric Mausser said. “We took four guys to states last year and five the year before, so our goal is to get at least five out there again and hopefully get them all on the podium.”
As strong as FR's individual performances were last year, the team struggled in some dual-meet situations because of having too many wrestlers in the lower weight classes and too few in the heavier classes.
Though the team did reach the WPIAL tournament, where it lost to Butler, 34-32, in the first round, this year's Panthers should be better equipped to progress in the team events.
“Our guys have spread up a little bit, but some have bunched up, too,” Mausser said. “I know where each guy is (weight) certified, but we won't have our wrestle-offs and figure out the lineup until this week. It will be nice to get some more of these guys into the lineup.”
Kyle Berk, Dom Giannangeli, Connor Medlang and Brandon Yant all were wrestlers Mausser mentioned as casualties of crowded weight classes last year, but the Panthers' coach said he hopes to get all of them more time on the mat this year.
“We still have some guys getting healthy from football or recovering from other injuries, but once we have everybody, I think we're going to have a real solid dual-meet team,” Mausser said.
The Warriors were the odd team out from the WPIAL tournament last season, as a 37-36 defeat at the hands of fellow third-place team Franklin Regional gave the Panthers the fifth and final spot out of Section 1-AAA.
This year's P-T team is aiming to get back to the postseason, and a deep senior class will provide the spark if it is to be successful.
“I'm pretty excited. We had a strong preseason, and we have a mixed batch of seniors and sophomores with only two juniors on the team,” said Penn-Trafford coach Rich Ginther, who enters his first full season as the team's head coach.
“Guys are stepping up and doing their part. They realize we're in a meat grinder of a section, so they know what it's going to take just to qualify (for WPIALs). But we've had a lot of good workouts, and the guys are motivated for their opportunity.”
Seniors Casey McGowan, Craig Slepsky and Will Palarino are the team's captains. McGowan was fifth at WPIALs in the 120-pound class last year, while Slepsky missed the second half of the season, and Palarino will be a lineup regular for the first time this year.
That mix in experience goes down through the underclassmen, where sophomore Devin Austin is leading by example as he tries to build on a 20-win freshman campaign.
“Individually, we've been in a bit of a dry spell. We want to get back to Hershey, and we have some guys that are eager to do it in Casey McGowan, Jack McGillick and Devin Austin, and even Slepsky could be a good dark horse,” Ginther said.
The team goals come first, however, and Ginther has his group focused on making a run at a playoff spot.
“We're still looking to get a true heavyweight in the room, but other than that, we've got a nice lineup,” Ginther said. “We just want to get into that section playoff and be one of the top five teams that makes the WPIAL tournament. That's our biggest goal.”
Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5830 or firstname.lastname@example.org.