Year in and year out, the WPIAL sends dozens of championship-level wrestlers to Hershey, Pa., to compete for their sport’s ultimate prize at the PIAA individual championships — and time and time again, they leave with a hefty count of medals after cementing the WPIAL’s place as the top region in the state for wrestling.
This year was no different, as seven WPIAL wrestlers reached the top of the podium across the 26 weight classes in Class 3A and Class 2A. A total of 32 WPIAL entrants earned medals in Class 3A, along with another 11 medalists in Class 2A. Several local stars etched their place in history among the sport’s all-time greats, while others came just short of winning gold. In the end, the old adage proved true once again — when it comes to wrestling, Western Pa. is king.
Four of Saturday’s title bouts featured a pair of WPIAL wrestlers squaring off in the state finals, and one of those matches turned out to be the talk of the tournament after it was over — for all the wrong reasons.
For the fifth time this season, Chartiers Valley senior Dylan Evans (37-4) and West Allegheny junior Shawn Taylor (37-3) went head-to-head in an exciting, razor-close match, this time with the PIAA Class 3A 160-pound title on the line. For the second week in a row, the match was tied after regulation, sudden victory overtime and each of the first two tiebreaker periods, meaning it would be decided in the ultimate tiebreaker period. Taylor chose to take the bottom position, needing only an escape or a reversal to win the match. Evans, on the other hand, simply had to keep Taylor down for 30 seconds in order to win.
About halfway through the 30-second period, Taylor received a warning for standing up while Evans was on his back. The procedure when that happens is to first stop the match and issue a warning for a potentially dangerous position, and if it happens again, the wrestler causing the stoppage receives a stalling penalty. After the first warning, Taylor immediately stood up again following the restart while Evans was on his back. Some questioned whether Taylor had already stood up before Evans latched onto his back, but the referee hit Taylor for stalling, awarding a point to Evans and a 3-2 victory while ending the match in highly controversial and anticlimactic fashion.
“We didn’t want to win that way. We wanted to win by scoring an offensive point and close the match out clean. But at the end of the day, that official made a call, and he stood by his call,” said Chartiers Valley coach Bill Evans, who is Dylan’s father. “Every coach in America tells their athletes, ‘Don’t put it in the referee’s hands, because you won’t like the result.’ Last week, they had a tough match at WPIALs that went to the ultimate tiebreaker, and this time, it went the other way.”
A four-time PIAA placewinner and two-time champion, Evans finishes his outstanding high school career with a record of 139-28 before moving on to wrestle at Pitt next season. But first, he will represent Team PA in the 160-pound bout at the Pittsburgh Wrestling Classic on March 25 at Peters Township High School.
“At the end of the day, I’m not going to be super happy that’s how I won. But I did everything I could to score as many points as I could and be offensive,” Dylan Evans said. “I was just doing my best to ride. In no way, shape or form did I try to fight for that call. I didn’t want that call.”
Despite being a returning state champion, Evans went into his title bout this year as a slight underdog after losing three of four matches to Taylor so far this season. But all three of Taylor’s wins came in overtime, and his father knew the match would likely come down to the wire again.
“We knew it was going to be tight,” Bill Evans said. “It was a great wrestling match. Someone had to win, and someone had to lose.”
Evans will likely be joined by several fellow WPIAL standouts in the main event at the PWC, including Latrobe senior Vinny Kilkeary, West Allegheny senior Ty Watters and Waynesburg senior Rocco Welsh. All three capped off undefeated seasons last weekend and are ranked among the best in the country at their given weight.
An Ohio State recruit, Kilkeary (29-0) won his third PIAA title with an 8-5 win against Canon-McMillan junior Andrew Binni in the Class 3A 127-pound finals, finishing his career with a record of 131-12. Watters (39-0) breezed through his bracket for his second consecutive state title, picking up a pair of pins and a technical fall before scoring an 11-3 major decision over Central Dauphin’s Ryan Garvick in the Class 3A 152-pound finals. The West Virginia recruit finishes with a career record of 98-8 after missing nearly his entire sophomore season with an injury.
As for Welsh (43-0), the No. 1-ranked 172-pounder in the country solidified his standing as one of the top pound-for-pound wrestlers in the nation with another dominant PIAA tournament. A four-time PIAA finalist and two-time champion, Welsh defended his 172-pound title with a 9-2 win against Canon-McMillan senior Matthew Furman, defeating the Cornell recruit for the fourth time this season. Welsh also picked up a first-period pin, a 25-10 win by technical fall and a 21-8 major decision to get to the finals. He finishes his high school career with a record of 159-17 and will wrestle at Ohio State alongside Kilkeary next season.
Two other finalists from the WPIAL came up just short in Class 3A. Thomas Jefferson sophomore Maddox Shaw (44-3) lost a 1-0 decision to Central Mountain’s Luke Simcox in the 133-pound final, and Waynesburg senior and two-time defending state champion Mac Church (35-3) dropped a 7-1 decision to Quakertown’s Collin Gaj at 145. A Virginia Tech recruit, Church finishes his career with a sterling record of 151-13.
While the WPIAL only had five finalists and 11 medalists in Class 2A compared to nine finalists and 32 medalists in Class 3A, the Western Pa. contingent in Class 2A still made their presence felt by bringing home a trio of state titles.
Burrell junior Cooper Hornack (43-6) captured his first gold medal in his second finals appearance with a 2-1 win in the 127-pound final against Bentworth junior Chris Vargo (42-3), securing the victory with a third-period takedown. Like Evans against Taylor, Hornack had lost to Vargo in the WPIAL championship match one week earlier before turning the tables in the state finals.
At 160 pounds, Laurel senior Grant MacKay (47-1) capped off his stellar high school career with a 5-0 victory against Grove City’s Hunter Hohman for his second state title. A three-time PIAA finalist, MacKay lost in last year’s 160-pound championship match after winning a 152-pound title as a sophomore. The Pitt recruit finishes his career with a record of 166-19.
Finally, Frazier junior Rune Lawrence (45-3) took another step toward becoming the 14th four-time PIAA champion in the 86-year history of the tournament. After entering the tournament with a 23-match pin streak, Lawrence notched a first-period fall in his first-round match to make it 24 in a row. Some began to wonder if Lawrence would pin his way through the entire postseason, but he had to dig deep to eke out a 1-0 decision over Saucon Valley’s Jake Jones in the quarterfinal round.
Lawrence limped off the mat with an apparent ankle injury after winning the rematch of last year’s state finals against Jones, and he already came into the tournament battling a thumb injury. But he returned to top form with a 55-second pin in the 189-pound semifinals, then he flattened Brookville’s Jackson Zimmerman in 2:42 to capture his third PIAA title.
“Because his ankle was hurting, the goal was to stay off of it as much as possible, so get on top. And the quickest way to get on top is to score a takedown,” Frazier coach Buck Watkins said. “He came up with that.”
Now the quest for a fourth state title can officially begin for Lawrence, as he seeks to achieve what only six WPIAL wrestlers have done before. None have done so at the upper weight classes like Lawrence is attempting to, and few have done it with the all-out dominance he has displayed thus far in his career. He will enter his senior season with a career record of 112-7 — with two losses by injury default — and a whopping 73 pins. But for his final season, Lawrence won’t be satisfied with anything less than perfection.
“If you ever listen to him talk, those seven losses that he has, that bothers him,” Watkins said. “Those guys are competitive guys. But at the same time, he wants all of them back. He wants another crack.”
Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at email@example.com.