Often with a grimace, Kiski Area wrestling coach Chris Heater admits this season's Section 1-AAA team tournament is a gauntlet.
Whether his Cavaliers will come out of Wednesday's tournament at Latrobe better off is, at least in Heater's mind, a bit of an uncertainty.
No matter their finish in the four-team event, the Cavaliers will qualify for the WPIAL Class AAA team tournament, which begins Monday. Their place in the section competition will influence their WPIAL seeding. Unfortunately for Kiski Area, the strength of Section 1's top four teams — Kiski Area, Franklin Regional, Latrobe, Hempfield — is unrivaled in Western Pennsylvania, so few bouts will allow the Cavaliers' coaches to breathe easy.
“You are going to come out of this battle-tested, and you are going to come out of this with matches that maybe some other teams from some of the other sections might not see until the quarter- or semifinals,” Heater said. “That's what we get right out of the gate. And it's good to be battle-tested, but you can get beat up in the process, too, and then the next week, you're maybe not in shape to go against somebody you should beat.”
Franklin Regional, which will wrestle Hempfield in one of the two semifinal-round dual meets, enters the Section 1 team tournament as a heavy favorite. The Panthers (8-1, 5-0), whose only loss came against national prep school powerhouse Wyoming Seminary, are ranked No. 9 nationwide by Intermat Wrestling and No. 8 by Flowrestling. They placed first in the team standings at the celebrated Powerade Christmas Tournament in December and cruised to another team championship at the Westmoreland County Coaches Association tournament.
Kiski Area (13-1, 4-1) finished second behind Franklin Regional in Section 1-AAA subdivision A, as the Panthers beat the Cavaliers, 38-24, earlier this month. Latrobe (8-0, 5-0) took first in subdivision B, and Hempfield (4-1, 4-1) placed second.
The section tournament's semifinal matches begin at 6 p.m. The winners will wrestle for the title at 7:30 p.m., while the losers will determine who takes third.
How Latrobe and Kiski Area match up has been a topic of speculation for several weeks among Westmoreland County wrestling fans. Their performances at the WCCA tournament, though based on individual achievements rather than dual meet-style clashes, suggested their match Wednesday might go down to the wire: Kiski Area took second in the tournament with 187 points, and Latrobe placed third with 186.5.
Hempfield grabbed fifth in the WCCA event with 129.5 points.
“It's a different scenario in a tournament, but you do kind of get a gauge and see what their kids like to do,” Heater said. “You get an idea of who you'd like to get against them, which is the same thing they're trying to do against us.”
Collectively, the four teams possess a who's who of PIAA standouts. Franklin Regional features five returning state placewinners, including two champions, as well as freshman phenom 113-pounder Spencer Lee, who is regarded as the best wrestler in the country at his weight class. Latrobe's lineup includes returning state champ Luke Pletcher, now a 120-pounder, and Zack Zavatsky, a 182-pounder who placed third in the PIAA at 160 last season. Hempfield has returning state champ Sam Krivus, who won a title at 120 and now competes at 132. And heavyweight Shane Kuhn, who placed third in the PIAA last season, leads the way for Kiski Area.
After almost a month away from the team, coach Chuck Tursky has returned to lead the Cavaliers. Tursky, who underwent surgery in mid-December, trusted Heater, a longtime assistant, with control of the program while he recovered from his procedure.
“I'm loving life,” Tursky said. “I'm just glad to be back, and I'm feeling better — recovering every day and just enjoying everything I do.”
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