Centre County’s wrestling programs are trending up.
They are experienced. Every team returns 10 or more letterwinners.
They are deeper. Every team begins the season with 20 or more wrestlers.
They are polished in some areas. Multiple county standouts attended rugged off-season tournaments like the Super 32 Challenge and Junior National Championships.
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The elements exist for a medal-filled winter. But outside challenges loom.
Bald Eagle Area, Bellefonte, Philipsburg-Osceola and State College are working to end Central Mountain’s prolonged dominance. Coach Doug Buckwalter’s crew has won every District 6 Class AAA duals and tournament title since 2008.
There’s also a potential power emerging from the southeast in Mifflin County, a second-year school with grandiose wrestling plans.
Still, when pressed, most coaches slap the favorite label on the Wildcats.
“Until someone beats them,” Bellefonte coach Mike Maney said, “Central Mountain is team to beat. They’re not going to roll over for anyone as long as Coach Buckwalter is the head coach.”
The list of Class AAA challengers originating from Centre County begins with Bald Eagle Area.
The Eagles return 11 letterwinners, including PIAA qualifiers Jake Taylor, Aaron Varner and Nate Sharkey. Taylor, a PIAA third-place finisher last season, had a sparkling fall. Shortly after committing to Division-I power Cornell, Taylor traveled to North Carolina and captured the Super 32 Challenge title at 182 pounds.
He will be followed in the lineup by Varner, a 195-pound state semifinalist last season, and Sharkey, a district and regional title contender at 220. BEA also returns senior lightweight Travis Giedroc, who came within one victory of joining the trio in Hershey.
January could be a telling month for the Eagles. During a 28-day stretch, they wrestle 10 dual meets and visit the Escape the Rock Tournament.
“If we are healthy, and we can get everybody where they need to be, we should do pretty well,” Millward said. “Everybody that has asked me, I tell them our January is loaded. It’s sort of packed into one month. That will be our proving ground.”
Bellefonte’s aging process will extend into January. Six of the Red Raiders’ 10 returning letterwinners are sophomores. PIAA medalists Nick Shawley and Garrett Poorman are the only seniors who wrestled last season. The roster includes a county-high five freshmen.
Bellefonte, which has produced at least two state medalists the past four years, has the makings of a solid tournament team. Shawley finished fourth at last year’s state tournament, Poorman should provide regular bonus points at heavyweight and sophomores Trevor Corl and Luke Leathers won multiple bouts at the Super 32 Challenge.
“Each dual meet we want to get progressively better,” Maney said. “Hopefully we can get into district duals and make some noise there and then get ready for the individual postseason. We have gotten progressively better the last few seasons. That’s what we want to do this year.”
No county team constructed a better dual meet team than P-O last season. The Mounties went 15-3 and reached the district semifinals for the first time since 2003. They return 10 letterwinners, including regional qualifiers Brian Evans, Caleb Shively, Andrew Greenawalt, Jay Prentice and Nick Gray. Three other Mounties came within a win of reaching the regional.
Two of P-O’s three dual meet losses last year came against Central Mountain. The Wildcats return eight wrestlers, including PIAA qualifier Blaze Buckwalter, from their postseason lineup.
“I think the balance in District 6 is pretty good this year,” McCamley said. “But until somebody beats them, Central Mountain is the top dog. We want to be in the hunt. We should have a good, balanced dual meet team with enough individuals who can advance in the postseason.”
No county program has added wrestlers faster than State College. One year after entering some dual meets with just 10 healthy bodies, the Little Lions are filling their practice room with 25 wrestlers, including 11 returning letterwinners. Junior Mike Kauffman, a PIAA qualifier last season, is State College’s most experienced wrestlers.
Coach Chad Dubin said he’s enthused about the direction of the program, which joins the brutal Mid-Penn Conference this season.
“I’m absolutely thrilled to death with where we are going with our youth program,” he said. “There are a lot of people involved down there and Steve Kurzinger has 55 out for the junior high team. That’s really exciting. It’s nice to have a full room. It’s starting to feel like a real team.”
Penns Valley faces more unknowns in Class AA, where as many as 10 teams, including the Rams, could develop into title contenders.
Westmont Hilltop returns to Class AA after a two-year run in Class AAA. Juniata returns to District 3 after two years as a District 6 and Mountain League member.
Four different teams — Mount Union, Huntingdon, Forest Hill and Westmont Hilltop — have won the past four Class AA team tournaments. West Branch and Blairsville are among this year’s other title contenders.
Penns Valley had a productive off-season, with junior Seth Decker and sophomores Michael Rogers and Corey Hazel qualifying for the Junior National Championships in Fargo, N.D. The Rams return eight other letterwinners.
“Westmont always puts a good product on the mat, and Mount Union, Huntingdon, West Branch, Blairsville and West Branch have a lot coming back,” coach Joel Brinker said. “But we can be right in that mix if everyone stays healthy and eligible. It should be a fun season.”