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Decorated Redbank Valley wrestling team awaits tough 1st month

| Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, 1:21 a.m.
Redbank Valley's Aaron Hook (right) trains with Brandon Bailey during practice on Friday, Dec. 7, 2012.
Redbank Valley senior Ty Haines works with coach Mike Kundick during practice on Friday, Dec. 7, 2012.

Early speculation in New Bethlehem suggests this season's Redbank Valley wrestling team might rank among the program's all-time best.

By New Year's Day, the Bulldogs undoubtedly will better grasp where they stand in District 9 and the state.

A daunting first month awaits a decorated Redbank Valley squad. Only three seniors graduated for the Bulldogs, and among the returning starters are six Class AA Northwest Regional qualifiers, including two — senior Ty Haines and junior Willie Gruver — who reached the PIAA tournament.

Several weeks stand between Redbank Valley and any postseason competition. But the Bulldogs will encounter some of their most serious challengers in a matter of days, as they'll head to Central Pennsylvania for the prestigious King of the Mountain tournament next weekend and then meet District 9 defending champion Brookville in a dual meet Dec. 20.

“For your new kids and your first- or second-year kids, this is probably not a good tournament to start with,” Redbank Valley coach Mike Kundick said of the King of the Mountain. “But for your experienced kids, it'll show them what they need to do for the rest of the year to get ready for states.”

Thirty five teams will head to Mill Hall, located just outside of Lock Haven, for the invite-only event. High-profile WPIAL programs Latrobe, Kittanning and Penn-Trafford will be there. So will District 10 powers Reynolds, Fort LeBoeuf, General McLane and Erie McDowell. Colonial Forge (Va.), Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy (Ohio), Phillipsburg (N.J.) and North Hunterdon (N.J.) add an out-of-state flavor.

“I think we know it's a harder tournament, and (the coaches) know it's a harder tournament, too,” said Haines, who has an 87-22 career record and will wrestle at 145 pounds this season. “This will open people's eyes and show what we're about to do, what we're ready to do.”

Gruver was a district and regional champion who went 30-5 a season ago. But, according to Kundick, even the junior, slated to wrestle at 113 pounds, might not receive a seed in the tournament.

“If I don't take the title,” Gruver said, “it just means I have to work harder in the room and get better at the things I messed up on.”

Seniors Cole Shirey (160 pounds), Brandon Bailey (170) and Aaron Hook possess the potential to accumulate individual hardware at King of the Mountain and later this winter. Each won at least 27 bouts a season ago, and Shirey and Hook took third in the district.

Sophomore Kolbin Altobelli (106) and junior Ben Carrillo (285) look to build off seasons in which they made regional tournament appearances. Altobelli's younger brother, Tanner, might make a dazzling varsity debut as a 120-pound freshman after going 27-1 in junior high. Sophomore Luke Gallo (138) and senior Luke Hinderliter (18 2195) are back after injury-spoiled seasons.

The Bulldogs' collective goal is to deliver Redbank Valley its first District 9 team title since 2008. Edging Brookville in the December dual meet will set a promising tone for later run-ins.

“They've had a good team, and it's just kind of a focus thing (for us),” Hook said. “We can't let them get in our head.”

Said Bailey: “It should be about a three- or six-point match. ... We have to win where we should.”

Kundick generally discourages his wrestlers from engaging in historical comparisons. He believes it creates undue pressure. But he senses his current group prefers to bear the weight of high expectations.

“These guys feed off of that,” the coach said. “They want that pressure.”

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at wwest@tribweb.com or 724-543-1303.

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