Eyeing gold, not chocolate, in Hershey
Austin Bell, Brendan Hasson and Jarod Verkleeren of Belle Vernon Area and Devin Fallenstein and Doug Gudenburr of Ringgold will put their seasons on the line at the PIAA AAA State Wrestling Tournament in Hershey, which gets under way Thursday.
Two wins place a wrestler in the top eight in the state, but if the Mon Valley's best grapplers want to taste gold they will have to string together four straight victories against the best competition Pennsylvania has to offer.
“We had a couple of really good days of practice,” BVA coach Tyler Nauman said. “Ringgold came to work out with us and so did South Park. I think everybody is ready to go.”
At 160 pounds, Bell (38-5 on the year), the WPIAL champion as a sophomore, will face General McClane freshman and the Northwest Region's third place finisher Ethan Laird (27-14) in the first round. Central Dauphin's Garret Peppleman, a two-time finalist, is on the opposite side of the bracket.
“I am very satisfied with Austin's draw,” Nauman said. “If he wrestles like he is capable of wrestling he could be in the state finals as a sophomore. Peppleman is the guy to beat in the bracket and he is on the bottom half, so the guy standing in our way to the finals is Bobby Fehr from Northampton.
“We've faced Fehr already this year and lost to him 3-2 in a preseason tournament, but Austin has taken tremendous strides since then and we are confident in his chances in the event of a rematch.”
At 170, Fallenstein (30-2) drew Downingtown West senior and Southeast Regional runner-up Gabe Hale (37-4) in the first round. If Fallenstein wins, he will likely face Kennard-Dale's Chance Marstellar, a three-time undefeated state champion who is ranked as the number one pound-for-pound high school wrestler in the country by flo-wrestling.org.
“Hopefully we get to see Marstellar because that means we won our first match,” Ringgold coach Bob Bove said. “Obviously, he's in a different league from other high school kids. But Devin's pretty capable; it depends on if he shows up to wrestle or not. If he does, we have every confidence that he will place very high.”
At 113, Ringgold sophomore Gudenburr (27-5) will face off with Owen J. Roberts senior and Southeast Region champion Derek Gulotta (33-5).
“We feel like Dougie has a pretty good draw,” Ringgold coach Bob Bove said. “Gulotta is tough — he is a two-time placewinner — but if he can get past the first guy he has a very good opportunity to make a nice run through the bracket.
“Last week, Dougie showed a lot of poise rebounding from that quarterfinal loss to wrestle probably the four best matches of his career and it got him to the state tournament. Hopefully he can carry it over.”
At 120, WPIAL runner-up Hasson (34-8) drew Williamsport junior and the Northwest Region's runner-up Rashaun Cooley (18-1) in the first round. If Hasson wins, he will likely face Pennridge's Scott Parker in the quarters, one of three wrestlers ranked in the top six nationally in the bracket.
“Hasson got about a good of draw as we could've hoped for,” Nauman said. “Considering how many big names are in his bracket – (Latrobe's Luke) Pletcher, (Parkland's Ethan) Lizak and Parker – it's good that he gets a very winnable match under his belt before he catches one of them. And winning that first match will go a long way towards getting on the podium.”
At 145, BVA freshman Verkleeren (20-4) — one of just three freshmen who qualified at a weight heavier than 120 — will face the Northeast Region runner-up, Bangor's Charles Sell (37-3) in the first round.
“Now predictions are just that, predications, but I have seen a couple of reputable sources predict Sell to finish fourth in the bracket, so it seems we didn't get a good of draw as I originally thought,” Nauman said. “But Jarod is a bad matchup for a lot of guys in that bracket. He's young, but he is immensely talented and he went out and took third in a very tough WPIAL bracket last week to qualify.”
For many coaches and wrestlers, the state tournament is time to put aside inter-district rivalries.
“This is a nice time of the year,” Bove said. “We compete against each other all season, but now we come together, help each other prepare and root each other on. Hopefully we can bring five medals back to the Mon Valley.”
Donnie Tasser is a freelance writer.