Seniors to steel Kittanning into WPIAL team tournament
In their time with Kittanning's high school wrestling program, the current seniors have witnessed the Wildcats grow from an upstart bunch into one of WPIAL Class AA's premier teams.
One of the seniors' final opportunities to push the program further arrives Wednesday.
Kittanning (11-4) begins the WPIAL Class AA team tournament at 6 p.m., when, as the No. 6 seed, it'll meet No. 11 West Greene in a first-round match at Jefferson-Morgan High School. With a win, the Wildcats will meet No. 3 Jefferson-Morgan at 7:30 p.m. in the quarterfinals.
Each of the past three seasons, Kittanning at least made the quarterfinals. In 2011, the team made its first appearance in the WPIAL semifinals, where it lost to eventual runner-up Chartiers-Houston.
Prior to the quarterfinal streak, Kittanning had just one playoff appearance — a first-round exist — dating back to 2003.
There's confidence among the Wildcats that they, even with three forfeited weight classes, can at least get back to the quarterfinals. But talk about moving beyond that round and about contending for a championship is scarce.
“We're definitely just as good as any other team, besides Burrell,” said senior Christian Emminger, who acknowledged Kittanning's struggles against the six-time defending WPIAL Class AA champion. “I think if we had a full team, we'd be contending right up there.”
At no point this season has Kittanning possessed the lineup it planned to use. Senior 126-pounder Nathan Robb suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in early December. And in the last month, senior 182-pounder Nathan Watt went down with season-ending ligament tears in his knee, and sophomore 113-pounder Brody Trumbull broke a bone in his hand.
But the Wildcats' troubles in team dual-style tournaments run deeper than that, Emminger explained. Most of Kittanning's wrestlers simply aren't prone to pinning, nor are they wired to pile up points in ways that lead to technical falls.
Of the eight team members with winning records, only two have pin totals that account for at least 50 percent of their victories. Junior 132-pounder Jason Nolf is 29-0 with 23 pins, while sophomore Logan Robb is 15-12 with 10 pins.
And Emminger and fellow seniors Taylor Jack (152 pounds) and Zac Croyle (182) are each in Kittanning's top five win leaders, but all three have earned bonus points for the Wildcats in about half of their bouts. Jack is 24-8 with 11 pins, one technical fall and one major decision. Croyle is 17-8 with eight pins, one technical fall and two major decisions. Emminger is 15-11 with five pins and two majors.
“We just don't do it,” Emminger said of pinning. “It's not that we can't. But we just don't.”
The seniors and their younger teammates know bonus points — accumulated and allowed — become critical as the competition in the WPIAL team tournament improves, especially when surrendering 18 points with forfeits.
“I've got to change the mindset right now,” coach Brandon Newill said after a 49-18 loss to Burrell in the Section 3-AA tournament. “The way we wrestled (that night) has to change; and that's something I have to change. We can't go out there and wrestle that way and expect to win, because it's not going to happen.”