Spending two days in a hot, sweat-filled gymnasium is likely not how most people would picture spending their Mother's Day weekend, but for area wrestling fans, there's no better place to be on Saturday and Sunday than State College High School's north gym.
Some of the best freestyle and Greco Roman wrestling at the junior and schoolboy levels will be on display this weekend as State College plays host to the Pennsylvania Amateur Wrestling Federation Junior and kids duals, as well as the final qualifier for next weekend's state tournament.
"Just from the local kids I know are wrestling, we’ve got every state place winner that we had, other than a couple of the seniors, but all of the underclassmen are wrestling for M2 or for Black Dog, so local kids are wrestling," tournament director and State College junior high wrestling coach Aaron Pavlechko said. "I know Edmond Ruth, Young Guns, which is the No. 1 club in the country, is bringing three teams in the junior division, which is crazy. You’ve got so many good kids."
One of the local wrestlers who's looking forward to getting the chance to wrestle freestyle in front of friends and family in his home gym is State College junior Cole Urbas.
"It’s awesome. We’re so lucky to have this tournament and I’ll probably invite some friends down to watch me wrestle, and freestyle is a great style of wrestling," Urbas said. "A lot of people who I know, who wrestle folkstyle in high school, don’t really know how to wrestle it (freestyle), but I think they would enjoy it."
Since wrapping up a successful folkstyle season with the Little Lions that saw a first-place finish at Class 3A Northwest Regionals and second place at PIAAs at 195 pounds, Urbas has been busy training and wrestling in freestyle tournaments with his club team — M2 Training Center, created by former Penn State standout David Taylor.
Urbas placed third in the Northeast Regional in April, qualifying him for the Junior National Championships in Fargo, N.D. He said that training and competing in freestyle during the spring and summer helps prepare him for the high school folkstyle season in the winter.
"I think if Northeast Regionals was a folkstyle tournament, I would not have learned as much about folkstyle as I did with it as freestyle," he said. "Because as a freestyle tournament, I’m forced to wrestle neutral, I’m forced to think about my positional wrestling; so I think I improved a lot more and it was a great experience."
Pat Flynn, coach at St. Joseph's Catholic Academy and Black Dog Wrestling Club in Boalsburg, will also have some of his St. Joe's standouts — Caleb Dowling, Evan Courts, Amon Ohl and Zack Witmer, among others — competing in the junior duals.
"I know these guys, since March, after the state tournament, they’ve all been starting to train for freestyle and Greco and we’re going to be able to showcase ourselves again," Flynn said. "So to be able to stack our guys up, you know St. Joe’s guys, up against some of these guys, some of the best in the country, is an awesome opportunity."
Pavlechko said that with the success of local wrestling clubs like M2 and Black Dog, he's seen an increased interest in freestyle from youth wrestlers.
"Last year, Mark McKnight (of M2) ran an amazing short program at State College and we opened it up to all local kids, and I want to say half our kids were there. We had an average of 40 kids a week at practice, half of them were from State College and half were from as far away as Mifflinburg that came in just because it was the only freestyle practice room available," he said. "So yeah, it’s been good. I’ve seen a big growth, just in watching the size of the tournaments that we go to like Pa. freestyle states or the northeast regional, which is a qualifier for the older kids for Fargo, the national championships. We’ve seen those numbers go up every year."
After being open for only a year, Taylor said M2 is already moving to a larger, 6,200-square-foot facility in Pleasant Gap, which will allow them to accommodate almost three full-sized mats.
"This is our first year as a club, and to see the numbers that we have on a consistent basis is definitely exciting and a good building block moving forward for wrestling in central Pennsylvania," Taylor said.
Flynn said that when he started Black Dog in the St. Joseph's gym in 2015, it was a down year for the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, and there weren’t a lot of other local options for freestyle wrestling. But since then, most of the area high schools have connected with a club team.
"I’m super excited about the fact that Black Dog has created this opportunity for everybody to wrestle, and everyone else has jumped on the bandwagon to create a club for their home team, which is awesome," he said.
This weekend's event starts Saturday morning with the PAWF kids' duals (13-14-year-olds) at 8 a.m., then the final state qualifier for all levels, including the open division, at 1 p.m. The feature event, the Junior Division club duals, starts Sunday morning at 8:30 and lasts throughout the day. Cost of admission is $10 for one day, $15 for both and free for kids 12 years and younger.
The State College Wrestling Booster Club will be providing various grilled, barbecued meats, as well as homemade snacks and desserts.
“If you’re looking to see some high-level competition and some big throws, and state champ vs state champ matchups, this is the place to be on Saturday and Sunday,“ Ed Urbas, booster club president, said.