Few high school sporting events in Pennsylvania carry as much luster as the PIAA individual wrestling championships — a non-stop, three-day long, all-out slugfest requiring the ultimate combination of heart, grit, endurance, strength, technique and sheer will to succeed at all costs.
A total of 520 competitors have earned the right to call themselves state qualifiers in the toughest state in the country for high school wrestling, but only 26 will reach the top of the podium, with 13 weight classes apiece in Class 3A and 2A. With several brackets featuring multiple nationally ranked wrestlers, there are sure to be some memorable matches during the event, which begins Thursday morning and wraps up on Saturday night. And for a handful of the WPIAL’s best, a chance to secure their place among the all-time greats is just within reach — but if history has proven anything, it’s that anything can happen in Hershey.
In the 85-year history of the PIAA wrestling championships, only 51 wrestlers have won three PIAA titles. This year, three local stars will attempt to join that exclusive club, while another tries to join the even more exclusive club of four-time finalists. Needless to say, the WPIAL will be packing plenty of star power into Giant Center this weekend, and there are no shortage of storylines to follow along the way.
The two-time PIAA champions seeking to bring home a third gold medal are Latrobe senior Vinny Kilkeary (25-0 at 127 pounds), Waynesburg senior Mac Church (32-2 at 145 pounds) and Frazier junior Rune Lawrence (41-3 at 189 pounds). Kilkeary, who holds a career record of 127-12, won his first state title as a freshman before placing third as a sophomore. He won his second title last year with an impressive 12-3 major decision win in the Class 3A 120-pound finals.
“He wants to be the second three-time state champ in the history of Latrobe, because [Luke] Pletcher is the only one who’s done that. He’s been focused on that since November,” Latrobe coach Mark Mears said. “He understands that whoever wins his weight class is probably going to have to have their best tournament of their year.”
Church owns a career mark of 148-12, having earned a third-place finish as a freshman before winning back-to-back titles as a sophomore and junior. He scored a 3-1 win against Central Dauphin’s Matt Repos in last year’s Class 3A 132-pound finals, and the two stalwarts could be on a collision course to meet again in this year’s 145-pound championship match — unless undefeated sophomore Collin Gaj of Quakertown has anything to say about it. Fortunately for Church, Gaj (ranked No. 5 in the nation at 145) and Repos (ranked No. 12 at 145) are on the opposite side of the bracket, so he will only have to beat one or the other to win the championship.
“I know with Mac, the bottom half of the bracket is definitely tough,” Waynesburg coach Kyle Szewczyk said. “I know if Mac wrestles to his capabilities, I’m definitely confident in him getting a third state title.”
Lawrence is 100-7 for his career, with two of those losses coming via injury default earlier this year. Only a junior, he is an overwhelming favorite to win the Class 2A 189-pound title, and the “Frazier Phenom” carries an absurd 23-match pin streak into the PIAA tournament, with 22 of those falls coming in the first period. All three aspiring three-time champs are ranked among the best in the country in their given weight class by FloWrestling, but only one WPIAL wrestler holds the No. 1 spot in the national rankings — Waynesburg senior Rocco Welsh (39-0 at 172 pounds).
Welsh is a three-time PIAA finalist and defending state champion who is heavily favored to defend his 172-pound title, and most expect him to make it look easy doing so.
“Rocco will probably dominate his weight class,” Mears said. “I told Vinny, ‘If you want to win OW [Outstanding Wrestler], you’ve got to pin four people.'”
Both Welsh and Kilkeary are committed to wrestle at Ohio State next season, while Church is a Virginia Tech recruit. Church is ranked No. 3 in the country at 145 pounds, while Kilkeary is ranked No. 6 and Welsh is ranked No. 1 at their respective weights. Welsh is also ranked No. 8 in FloWrestling’s pound-for-pound rankings, his resume bolstered by his back-to-back titles at the Walsh Jesuit Ironman tournament — widely considered the toughest high school tournament in the country — not to mention a 78-match winning streak. He also owns an exhibition win at FloWrestling’s “Who’s No. 1” event in preseason against Penn State recruit Josh Barr, ranked No. 1 in the country at 182 pounds.
Perhaps the two most impressive wins of Welsh’s career came last year, when he became the only wrestler from Pennsylvania to defeat Lawrence in a pair of thrilling matches — one in the third-place match at the Powerade tournament and another in the finals at the TRICADA tournament.
“Taking second at PA states two years in a row didn’t sit well with him, as well as WPIALs two years in a row,” Szewczyk said. “I think it kind of gives him an edge mentally for his workouts to keep pushing himself. He works tremendously hard in the room.”
Lawrence’s only loss on the mat this year came via a 6-4 defeat to Nebraska recruit Camden McDanel in the Ironman semifinals, and he bounced back to claim third place with a show-stopping 32-second pin against Oklahoma State recruit A.J. Heeg. Lawrence nearly body slammed Heeg through the floor before scoring the pin against his stunned opponent, who is ranked No. 6 in the country at 182 pounds. The jaw-dropping display of dominance only served to further the notion that Lawrence is a virtual lock to win his third state title in as many tries this weekend.
But remember, anything can happen in Hershey.
“To be quite honest, I don’t even think Rune Lawrence has looked at his bracket once. I don’t think he cares. He expects himself to win,” Frazier coach Buck Watkins said. “He wants to pin everybody, and he’s going to go for it. I don’t doubt that one bit.”
Other WPIAL wrestlers looking to claim a second state title are West Allegheny senior Ty Watters, Chartiers Valley senior Dylan Evans and Laurel senior Grant MacKay. Watters is 35-0 this season at 152 pounds and 94-8 for his career, and the West Virginia recruit has looked downright dominant as a senior with 23 of his 35 wins coming via pin and six by technical fall. He beat three-time state finalist and former PIAA champion Finn Solomon of Franklin Regional in last year’s Class 3A 145-pound finals, 7-4.
Evans is a Pitt recruit and three-time PIAA placewinner with a record of 33-4 this season and 135-28 for his career, but he is not the favorite this year at 160 after taking home last year’s Class 3A 152-pound title. That’s because Watters’ teammate, West Allegheny junior Shawn Taylor, has won three out of four matches between the two this season. Also a West Virginia recruit, Taylor is 34-2 this season and 89-15 for his career, having placed fourth in the state as a sophomore. All four matches this season between Taylor and Evans have been decided by two points or less, including a pair of overtime wins for Taylor.
As for MacKay, he is the only returning champion who did not win a title last year, having placed second at 160 pounds as a junior following a 152-pound Class 2A title as a sophomore. The Pitt recruit appears to be on a mission this year, though, sporting a pristine record of 43-1 for the season to go with a career record of 162-19. His only loss this season was a 2-1 decision against Taylor on Jan. 14, and 32 of his 43 wins have come via fall. His foe from last year’s 160-pound finals, Notre Dame-Green Pond senior Holden Garcia, has moved up to 172 pounds, making MacKay the clear favorite this year at 160.
Elsewhere, Thomas Jefferson sophomore Maddox Shaw (41-2 at 133 pounds), Latrobe sophomore Luke Willochell (34-2 at 114 pounds) and Bentworth junior Chris Vargo (39-2 at 127 pounds) are a few of the leading candidates to bring home their first state title this weekend, with dozens of other WPIAL standouts aiming for a spot on the podium and the PIAA medal that comes with it. All in all, there are sure to be plenty of upsets, shocking comebacks and dramatic finishes over the next three days, and you can bet there will be plenty of hardware coming back home to Western Pa. when it’s all said and done.
“We’re anxious. I’m chomping at the bit to get there,” Mears said. “This is why you do all the offseason running and lifting. These [three] days are the crescendo. This is what it’s all about.”
Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.