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Short-handed Cougars may have state champ

| Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, 12:21 a.m.
Charleroi's Nick Gavazzi (top) prepares to pin Bethlehem Catholic's Ryan Todora at 3:30 during their 138-pound match during the opening round on Thursday, March 7, 2013, at the PIAA Class AA Individual Wrestling Championships at the Giant Center in Hershey. (Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review)

Charleroi may be suffering from a drought of wrestlers – it finished last season with only five wrestlers and currently has eight — but it boasts the area's most distinguished active wrestler in senior Nick Gavazzi.

While the team will most likely not win a dual meet due to forfeits, the 145-pound Gavazzi will chase his third straight WPIAL title and a PIAA championship. He hopes to eventually earn collegiate All-American status when he takes his talents to the University of Pittsburgh next year.

“This is his year, I think,” Cougars' coach Chad Alexis said. “The past couple years he has had it physically, but I think this year he gets over the hump mentally, and that starts with the regional tournament. The past two seasons he has won the WPIAL and made it to the semis at regionals before dropping two straight matches and needing to win for fifth to even go to the state tournament.

“But I think he is ready to get that monkey off of his back. He is currently suffering from an injury, so we are going to be cautious with him for a majority of the season, but I think he is ready to go mentally and that is really all that has held him back. I really think this is his year to win a state title.”

Outside of Gavazzi, the Cougars are lean and inexperienced. With several returning starters and a few more wrestlers than it had last season, the team should be improved, but it is still in for a tough season, with the possibility of forfeiting six weight classes.

“We are looking all right, better than last year,” Alexis said. “We have some first-year varsity guys, a couple returners and of course, Nick. We started the year with 13, but some guys quit and we are down to eight that I think will stick it out. So numbers are up from last season. But most of our guys are around 120 and lower. Our heaviest is 160 and Nick is 145.”

Alexis believes some of his returning starters — two in particular — will build off last year and are due for success this season.

“Tanner Large was a first-year varsity starter for us last year and qualified for WPIALs after only a week of practice because he broke his hand in the middle of the season,” he said. “Another guy, Jeremy Jones, has been working really hard this off season, going to Quest (wrestling club), and really devoting himself to getting better. I'm excited to see what they can do this year.”

However, inexperience will be the big issue.

Time will tell if Alexis' wrestlers commit themselves to bringing Charleroi wrestling back to where it was during the 2009-2010 season, when the Cougars finished the season ranked ninth in the WPIAL and sent four wrestlers to Hershey.

“Nick is a huge help in the practice room and the guys look up to him because of all the success that he has had,” Alexis said. “It would be easy for him to get upset that he doesn't have a great team around him, but instead he tries to make everyone around him be the best they can be. He is a smart kid — the valedictorian of his class — and he is going to a great school to wrestle in college.

“If our kids start buying in like he did, we are on our way to bringing Charleroi wrestling back to where it used to be.”

Donnie Tasser is a freelance writer.

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