Not all that different from their peers, nine particular WPIAL wrestlers begin the PIAA individual championships Thursday at Hershey's Giant Center with their minds set on attaining round, gold-colored objects at the end of the tournament.
To seize those coveted medals, the nine, unlike the majority of their cohorts, must preserve another round item: the zero in their season records.
Led by two-time PIAA Class AA champion Jason Nolf of Kittanning, nine grapplers from the WPIAL will try to stay perfect as they pursue state titles. There are only 15 unbeaten wrestlers from elsewhere in the PIAA.
Nolf (40-0), a Penn State-bound senior, has a 172-1 career record with his only loss coming in the PIAA semifinals as a sophomore. The others — Avella's Jake Temple (39-0), Franklin Regional's Devin Brown (33-0) and Spencer Lee (45-0), Jefferson-Morgan's John Demaske (40-0), Latrobe's Luke Pletcher (39-0) and Zack Zavatsky (38-0), Montour's Cole Macek (32-0) and South Fayette's Mike Carr (40-0) — hope to finish a high school season undefeated for the first time.
During the past 30 years, more than three unbeaten state champs emerged from the WPIAL just four times (1989, 1990, '95 and '96). The highest total was six in '95.
“There's just dream talent in Western Pennsylvania, and it's really noticeable right now,” said Zavatsky, a four-time PIAA qualifier and two-time placewinner headed to Virginia Tech. “I remember all of us when we were little kids, we didn't know we were in this hot zone for wrestling. But we've grown to realize that we're in the best spot in the country.”
When he arrived at Kittanning as a freshman, Nolf, a standout at the youth level, had an unflappable notion that he would go undefeated on the way to four PIAA titles — nevermind the fact that only four grapplers in state history managed that feat, and only one, 1992 Jefferson-Morgan grad Cary Kolat, did it during an era when wrestlers competed in 30-plus bouts.
“I always believed it,” said Nolf, now a 145-pounder. “I'm still mad that I lost. I had to get over it and get better.”
Closing in on his third undefeated season, Nolf considers his each of his runs comparable.
“It's not that different,” Nolf said. “But when I was a freshman, I was underestimated a little bit.”
Franklin Regional's Lee, a freshman 113-pounder, began his career with the same goal as Nolf — be an undefeated four-time state champ — but a considerably different reputation. Ranked No. 1 among all freshmen in the country by several publications, Lee is 45-0 with 27 pins, 10 technical falls and four major decisions. Only once has he wrestled a full match and not won by at least eight points.
Aside from Nolf, two other unbeatens from the WPIAL are returning state champions. Pletcher, now a sophomore 120-pounder, finished 41-2 last season at 106 on the way to gold. And Brown, a junior 106-pounder who wrestled for Saegertown last season, went 48-1 en route to a Class AA title in the same weight class.
Losses in December as a freshman removed the opportunity for Pletcher to ponder a Kolat-esque career. The lack of setbacks this season, on the other hand, caused bouts of uneasiness.
“At the beginning of the season, (the perfect record) didn't really get to me at all,” Pletcher said. “Toward the end, maybe at sections or a little before that, it started getting to me. … I was wrestling not to lose instead of to win.”
Carr's performance likely ranks as the most improved among the nine. The sophomore 132-pounder reached the PIAA tournament at 120 last season but lost his first two bouts to wrap up a 29-13 campaign.
Echoing a sentiment expressed by several of the others, Carr claims his wins and losses are meaningless if he doesn't end up at the apex of the state medal stand.
“I don't even have a record in my head,” Carr said.
For seniors Demaske (Class AA 126), Temple (Class AA 220), Macek (Class AAA 195) and Zavatsky (Class AAA 182), just one shot at an unblemished season remains.
“(An undefeated record) says dominance,” said Temple, who topped previously unbeaten West Branch junior Reynold Maines last weekend. “It's kind of cool knowing you can go a whole season not losing a match, especially as a senior. ... I don't feel pressured by it at all. But if you're undefeated at this point, you want to stay that way now.' ”
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