Wrestlers finish season strong at PIAA tournament
Franklin Regional's super sophomore class has been at the forefront of the team's growing list of accolades, but it was the Panthers' junior leader who finally made the breakthrough at the biggest tournament of them all.
Tyler Smith became just the second state champion wrestler in Franklin Regional's history with a 5-3 decision over Cumberland Valley sophomore Patrick Duggan to win the 132-pound final of the PIAA Class AAA championships in Hershey last weekend.
Smith, who ends his season with a 45-4 record after being the Section 1 champ and WPIAL runner-up, joins three-time champion Nico Megaludis as the only Panthers to stand atop the medal stand of the state tournament.
“It was one of the greatest feelings I've ever felt,” Smith said. “I trained for a long time, pretty much my entire life, for that moment. It was worth every minute of it.”
Smith was tested in his opening match, but he was able to squeak out a 4-3 decision over Middletown's Bryce Killian in the rematch of a bout Smith won in last year's state tournament. He then picked up a 7-1 win over Easton's Robert Rizzolino in the quarterfinals and a 13-1 win over Francesco Fabozzi of Central Bucks East in the semifinals to set up his championship chance.
“That first match, I didn't wrestle my best match, but that was also one of the toughest kids I've had to face all year,” Smith said.
“Everyone was telling me the kid in the finals was pretty good, and he beat some outstanding wrestlers to get there. But I was confident and wanted to prove to everyone that I could do it.”
By capturing a state title, Smith bridges a gap between the Megaludis years, when FR wrestling began to reemerge as viable program, and the younger crop of wrestlers, who should have the Panthers in WPIAL title contention for the forseeable future.
“Tyler works his tail off in the room,” Franklin Regional coach Eric Mausser said. “He started out working out with Nico when he was a freshman, and now he's working with Mikey (Kemerer) and the other sophomore guys. He's definitely shown that he's able to be that next champion for us. His win is a great win for the program and for Tyler.”
“Nico is one of the greatest high school wrestlers ever, and he's carried that on into college,” Smith said. “It's great to win a state title like he did, and I want to do keep doing the same things he did.”
Smith wasn't the only FR wrestler on the medal stand, as teammates Michael Kemerer, Josh Shield and Josh Maruca all finished in the top eight of their weight classes. Norwin also was represented on the medal stand by two-time WPIAL champ Heath Coles, who took fourth at 152 pounds.
Of that group, Kemerer came the closest to joining Smith by reaching the 126-pound final, where he faced a WPIAL final rematch against Canon-McMillan senior Connor Schram.
In his second state final in as many years, Kemerer (38-6) was unable to change the result of their WPIAL title match, as Schram came away with a 5-3 win for his second state title.
Shields (44-6) was unable to get a WPIAL title rematch at 145 pounds after losing, 1-0, in the semifinals to Chris Vassar of Cedar Cliff. Vassar would go on to lose to WPIAL champ Solomon Chishko in the title match, 8-0.
Shields came away with the bronze medal by coming out on top in two more close decisions, the last by a 5-2 score over Nolan Barger of Clearfield in the consolation final.
Coles (36-6), wrestling in Norwin colors for the final time, followed a similar path to Shields at 152 pounds. He reached the semifinals before dropping his own 1-0 decision to T.C. Warner of Cumberland Valley.
In the consolation bracket, Coles needed overtime to get a 2-1 win over Austin Rose of Central Dauphin, but he ended up settling for a fourth-place finish after dropping a 3-0 decision to Pocono Mountain East's Raymond Nicosia. Nicosia, coincidentally, reached the consolation final with a win over Coles' season-long rival, Tyler Reinhart of Greensburg Salem, who placed sixth.
Franklin Regional's reigning WPIAL champ, 138-pound sophomore Josh Maruca (43-8), took a fifth-place finish in his state bracket.
Like Shields and Coles, he fell victim to a 1-point semifinal defeat, as he lost by a 3-2 score to Joe Galasso of Father Judge. Maruca then lost, 2-1, in an ultimate tiebreak to his WPIAL final opponent, North Allegheny's Jessie Rodgers, before rebounding to win his fifth-place match convincingly, 12-7, over T.J. Brandt of Altoona.
FR and Norwin each had one other competitor at states — Panthers senior Luke Fleck and Knights freshman Drew Phipps.
Fleck (23-5) was pinned in his opening 285-pound match by eventual state champ Aaron Bradley of Nazareth. He picked up one win in the consolation bracket before falling in overtime, 2-1, to Tracey Green of Methacton.
Phipps (37-8) was narrowly beaten by eventual fourth-place finisher Marcus Johnson of Governor Mifflin, 3-2, in his opening match. He would recover to pick up his first career win in Hershey before losing his second consolation match, 3-1, to Gordon Bolig of Owen J. Roberts.
While the Star-area schools did their part, Westmoreland County and Section 1 were well-represented by other local teams, too. Hempfield's Sam Krivus (120) and Latrobe's Luke Pletcher (106) also won state championships, while Kiski Area's Matt McCutcheon lost the 195-pound final to Hampton's Jake Hart in a WPIAL final rematch.
The team point standings looked eerily similar to the final brackets of last month's state team tournament, as Canon-McMillan placed first, followed by Central Dauphin and Franklin Regional, which was 13.5 points clear of fourth-place Nazareth.
“Usually, you don't see that. There's normally a good tournament team that will jump into those top three,” Mausser said. “Our goal was the top two, but finishing third behind those two is still pretty impressive, and our goals will definitely be a lot higher for next year.”
Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5830 or firstname.lastname@example.org.