Dramatic consolation run carries Wilkins to states
Gateway senior A.J. Wilkins had a section title under his belt. He had been to WPIALs before.
But on Saturday at the WPIAL Class AAA championships at Norwin High School, he wanted to take that next step.
That next step is the state tournament in Hershey, and Wilkins didn't want to close out his varsity career without that.
With five wins in six matches at WPIALs, including a dramatic run of four straight victories in the consolation bracket on Saturday, Wilkins finished third at 113 and earned the right to wrestle at Hershey this weekend.
“It was an unbelievable feeling. I had tears of joy,” Wilkins said. “I couldn't hold it back.”
Wilkins is 16-3 overall and 10-2 since returning in early February from a foot injury that cost him a month and a half of action.
He avenged a 3-1 championship-quarterfinal loss to No. 3 seed James Harrison, a senior from West Mifflin, with a 5-1 triumph in the third-place match.
Wilkins had lost to Harrison six straight times in his career before the consolation finals bout.
The top three from each weight class at the WPIAL/Southwest Regional champ- ionships qualified for states.
”I remember my brother telling me after I lost to Harrison on Friday that it was OK and I would beat him (on Saturday),” Wilkins said.
“It was a great experience, and I couldn't have done it without the coaches' help and their game planning. It wasn't just me. It was a group effort. It is a blessing to have them in the (practice) room.”
Wilkins started Saturday's consolation-bracket run with a 7-0 win over Butler sophomore Connor Foust, and then he upended Connellsville sophomore Daniel Leonard in the consolation quarterfinals.
A 6-2 triumph over Peters Township sophomore Philip Mary set up the bout with Harrison.
“I was just thinking about what I could do next to score points,” Wilkins said.
“I wanted to stay aggressive. I didn't get tired because I was keeping my focus on wrestling and my next move as opposed to getting a lead, looking at the clock and wondering what I could do to stall out the match.”
Wilkins' run at WPIALs reminded Gateway head coach R.J. Santilli of another similar WPIAL run a decade ago.
At the 2003 WPIAL tournament, Gateway's Corey Idrogo, a senior that season, lost his first bout in the 189-pound bracket and then won five consolation bouts to place third and qualify for states.
“When your career is on the line every time you go out there, it can be stressful, but A.J. was able to keep it in check the whole time,” Santilli said.
“It was a very impressive performance. To say he wrestled well is a giant understatement. He stayed within himself and followed the game plan each time he went out there. We talked about the losses to Harrison, but he had total confidence going into that final match.”
The state tournament for AAA gets started Thursday at 4 p.m. with preliminary matches. Action resumes Friday and continues Saturday to the finals at 7 p.m.
Wilkins will face returning state champion Ethan Lizak, a junior from Parkland in District 11, in the first round.
Lizak is 40-2 this season, and he enters the state tournament after a first-place finish at the Northeast Regional tournament.
He won the 106-pound state title last year and finished as runner-up as a freshman in 2011.
Lizak is 112-13 in three years at the varsity level.
“I think I have an advantage, even though he's a returning state champion,” Wilkins said.
“There are videos of his matches everywhere on the internet, and he doesn't know much about me and how I wrestle. He may not take me as seriously as he would a Dom Forys (from North Allegheny) or an A.C. Headley (from Waynesburg). Those are the names he knows. I hope he does take me lightly, because I can do some things to pull off the upset. It's happened before in matches like this at states. Why not me?”
Wilkins said the run to states wouldn't have been possible without the help of Gateway athletic trainer Chris Klekker.
“Chris Klekker really helped me nurse my foot back to health and helped me move as fast as I normally do in such a short period of time,” Wilkins said.
“The rehab he had me doing really helped. He was there early before matches to tape my foot so I could get going and get prepared for my match. That was a big help to me.”
Gateway had five competitors at WPIALs, and senior Jaymar Parrish challenged for a spot at states at heavyweight.
For the second time in as many weeks, Parrish faced undefeated Kiski Area junior Shane Kuhn.
At sections, Parrish suffered a 3-1 loss to Kuhn. At WPIALs, Kuhn edged Parrish, 3-2, and went on to capture the WPIAL title.
Parrish went 3-2 at WPIALs, and he rebounded from the loss to Kuhn with a 5-0 victory over Norwin senior Rusty Casteel in the second round of consolations.
His bid for the third-place match ended with a pinfall loss to Hopewell senior Damon Sims Jr. in the consolation semifinals.
Parrish, who missed a majority of the regular season while recovering from a broken foot, ended his final varsity campaign at 10-4 and his three-year career, which included three trips to WPIALs, at 56-26.
“Jaymar showed a lot of guts coming back in the first place,” Santilli said.
“He's going to play football at Pitt, and he could've taken the easy road and not wrestled at all because of the injury and simply concentrated on the things he needed to do to get ready for football. Instead, he came back for one last shot. To put that much emotion and effort into trying to accomplish something, and you get that close, it can be painful. He fell a little bit short, but he had a nice run at WPIALs. Almost anyone would take that.”
Junior Cody Pawlowski (195), senior Malik Shuman (182) and sophomore Jalen Key (138) each wrestled at WPIALs for the first time. Key went 1-2, and he finished his season at 17-17.
Pawlowski found himself in a pigtail match at 195, and he suffered a pinfall loss to wrap up his season at 14-17. Those who do not advance in pigtail matches are eliminated and don't continue in the consolation bracket.
Shuman was in the same position at 182, and he also was defeated by pinfall. He finished his senior season at 16-15.
“Malik only wrestled for three years, and to make it to WPIALs is impressive and a nice way to finish his career,” Santilli said.
“He really enjoyed it, and it was a nice experience for him. It also was a good experience for Cody, and it gives him something to shoot for next year. Jalen, like Cody, was able to see what it is like at WPIALs, and it gives him motivation for next season.”
Michael Love is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5825 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.