There really isn't a bull's-eye on Southmoreland sophomore Austin Griffiths' wrestling uniform, but when you're ranked No. 1 in the WPIAL and state in Class AA at 106 pounds, you are a target.
When you're a target, you expect to get your opponent's best. That's a challenge Griffiths welcomes.
With a record of 29-2 this season and 64-7 in his career, Griffiths begins a four-week journey Saturday at the Section 2-AA tournament at Charleroi — a trip he hopes ends atop the PIAA championship podium March 9 at the Giant Center in Hershey.
For the wrestling purist, this is the time of the season that counts.
Griffiths placed third at the PIAA and Southwest Regional tournaments a year ago and was the WPIAL runner-up, falling to Patrick DeWitt of Valley, 1-0.
But Griffiths has worked hard to get better. His previous strength was preventing opponents from scoring from the bottom position. Now he's scoring from that position.
“Austin is able to turn opponents from the top position,” first-year Southmoreland coach Ryan Shaw said. “Before, Austin kept things close. Now he's opening up his style, which I like.
“Last year, he was letting kids in the match with that head and arm move. Now he can tilt you or cradle you. You don't know where he's coming from. That's his biggest improvement.”
Griffiths has met tough competition this season. His losses were to Derry freshman George Phillippi, when he went up to 113 pounds, and Latrobe freshman Luke Pletcher, the state's top-ranked Class AAA wrestler at 106.
He's dominated the rest of his opponents, but Shaw said the loss to Pletcher was an eye opener.
“He's starting to do the extra little things top wrestlers do,” Shaw said. “He goes to different clubs or stays after practice to get an extra lift in. He knows he's the hunted in the Class AA bracket. He's got to do everything in his power to stay on top the podium. That's where he wants to be, and it was his goal was at the beginning of the season.”
His goals also include becoming the school's first state champion.
“It feels pretty good to be ranked No. 1 in the state,” Griffiths said. “I don't feel any pressure because I've been putting in the work. I've been working hard, and so much is pride.”
He said he learned plenty from the losses to Phillippi and Pletcher.
“I've had good matches and some bad ones,” Griffiths said. “I've been able to bounce back from my bad matches. My goals are to get to states and win. I know what to expect at states. I'm sure I'll have to meet some of the kids I beat last year.”
Griffiths said he's a better wrestler on his feet and on the bottom, but he knows to win matches he'll have to be able to escape. The two-time Junior Olympic state champion has received help from former Connellsville state champion Steven Bell, a volunteer assistant.
“I like putting yourself against someone else and getting a challenge from it,” Griffiths said. “It pushes you to your limits. It's fun.”
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