If you haven’t seen Rune Lawrence wrestle in person, you might want to try to get a glimpse of him before he’s gone, because you’ll never see anybody else like him.
A transcendent talent and unparalleled finisher with a knack for making some of the nation’s most heralded wrestlers look helplessly overmatched, Lawrence is a three-time PIAA champion and West Virginia recruit with a career record of 129-8, including 110 bonus-point victories and 88 pins. Now, with his final PIAA tournament less than a month away, this larger-than-life figure from tiny Frazier High School in Perryopolis, Pa., is on the cusp of joining one of the most exclusive clubs in all of high school sports.
And with all eyes on him and all the pressure in the world seemingly on his shoulders, “Cool Hand Rune” is ready for the spotlight.
“There were a lot of days when I was little, coming to practice, that I wanted to quit,” Lawrence said. “I remember hoping the tire would pop in the car so that we wouldn’t make it. … I took my [beatings]. Now I’m happy to give them out.”
In the 86-year history of the PIAA tournament, only 13 entrants have reached the top of the podium four times. Six hail from the WPIAL — James Conklin (Waynesburg, 1940-43), Ty Moore (North Allegheny, 1987-90), Cary Kolat (Jefferson-Morgan, 1989-92), Jeremy Hunter (McGuffey, 1993-96), Jimmy Gulibon (Derry, 2009-12) and Gavin Teasdale (Jefferson-Morgan, 2015-18). Lawrence has a chance to become No. 7 in just a few short weeks, and he would be the first to do so in the upper weight classes.
Competing for one of the WPIAL’s smallest schools while practicing in a makeshift “wrestling room” inside the school cafeteria, Lawrence’s resources at Frazier are extremely limited compared to many of his contemporaries around the state. But that never stopped his older brother, Thayne, from putting the Commodores on the map in the wrestling world, and Lawrence has since carried on the family legacy while lifting the program to new heights.
“It’s a big rivalry between us,” said Lawrence, who recently eclipsed Thayne’s school-record 120 career wins. “Honestly, I just wanted to be better than him. … We’re as competitive as can be, but we just want to see the other one do as well as they can.”
When Thayne arrived at Frazier as a freshman, the Commodores were just beginning their inaugural season in 2016-17 with only three wrestlers on the roster — Thayne and a pair of heavyweights. He went on to finish 37-6 as a 138-pound freshman and placed third in the state, then won a pair of PIAA Class 2A titles as a sophomore and junior while becoming the school’s first individual state champion in any sport.
“Obviously at that time, it was pretty much just Thayne, so there was a lot of extra time given to him,” said Frazier coach Buck Watkins, now in his seventh year at the helm. “There were car rides. There were long talks. And the same thing with [Rune] and each of the guys who have walked through this door. I’ve given them 100%. I always have and I always will. I don’t know any other way to coach.”
Under Watkins’ watchful eye, the Commodores have grown into a respectable program with legitimate championship aspirations, finishing top-four in the WPIAL team tournament last year and qualifying for the postseason again this season.
“I knew that it could happen, I just didn’t know how,” Watkins said. “Thayne opened those doors for those individuals, and for his brother, and it’s carried on. … It’s been quite the journey.”
In his final high school match, Thayne came up just short in his bid for a third state title after a highly controversial call near the end of his champ-vs.-champ matchup in the 2020 PIAA Class 2A 160-pound final against Notre Dame-Green Pond’s Andrew Cerniglia. He finished his career as a four-time WPIAL champion, three-time PIAA finalist and two-time PIAA champion with a record of 120-15.
“Me and Rune used to go at it a lot. Every day we’d be fighting each other,” Thayne said. “Not even wrestling wise, just brotherly fighting. … I try to go down to the [wrestling] room with him as much as I can when I get home. It’s crazy to feel the jumps that he’s making.”
Now a redshirt sophomore in his fourth year at Lehigh, Thayne has dealt with several injury-related setbacks during his college career, most recently a torn hamstring. He hasn’t given up on his own goals on the mat, but he is also keeping a close eye on his younger brother’s pursuit of history as his final PIAA tournament approaches.
“I’ve always loved to watch him and support him,” Thayne said. “A lot of people used to ask me and get on me about, ‘How does it feel that your brother is better than you?’ But I don’t care. I did what I did when it was my time back then. And I always love to see my brother wrestle, even if he’s breaking my records.
“There are always records to be broken. I’d rather it be mine than somebody else’s.”
Speaking of injuries, Lawrence is no stranger to those either. He dealt with a nagging thumb injury for much of his junior season, and he missed more than a month of action earlier this season after injuring his knee at the prestigious Walsh Jesuit Ironman tournament in early December.
Lawrence tore through a slew of top-notch opponents with shocking ease on his first day of competition at Ironman, dispatching his first four foes by first-period fall to reach the 215-pound semifinals. There, he collided with reigning OHSAA Division-II state champion Max Shulaw of St. Frances De Sales, Ohio, a Virginia recruit who posted a record of 51-0 as a junior. Lawrence is ranked No. 3 in the country at 215 pounds by FloWrestling, and Shulaw is ranked No. 5.
After scoring an early takedown, Lawrence got his leg twisted up in a scramble and injured his knee late in the first period. He still went on to dominate the match, lifting Shulaw off his feet several times and nearly scoring a pin on his way to a decisive 10-5 victory. The win was bittersweet, though, as Lawrence had to forfeit out of the championship match and settle for second place in the tournament due to his injury.
That “loss” via injury default is the only blemish on Lawrence’s 17-1 record this season, and you’d better believe that bothers him. Lawrence also had two “losses” by injury default last season after aggravating a thumb injury at the Powerade tournament. Medical forfeits account for three of the eight losses in his career, and he hasn’t lost an actual match since a 6-4 decision in the Ironman semifinals against Camden McDanel of Teays Valley, Ohio, on Dec. 10, 2022.
That’s a streak of 58 consecutive wins and counting, including 53 bonus-point victories and 46 pins — all while facing the toughest competition the nation has to offer.
“As good as he is, I don’t think he has even come close to reaching his potential yet,” Watkins said. “I don’t know what he’s capable of, to be quite honest with you. … He’s what you want in every athlete. He does well in school. He does extra. He shows up to practice. He’s very respectful.
“You can’t sit there and be like, ‘I don’t want my kid to be like that.'”
After a five-week hiatus, Lawrence returned to action on Jan. 17 with — you guessed it — a first-period fall against Albert Gallatin’s James Standish. He then racked up four more pins in a row before squaring off with Somerset’s Rowan Holmes, who entered their matchup in the finals of the Thomas Automotive tournament on Jan. 27 with a record of 29-0 and bonus-point victories in all 29 of his matches, including 23 pins.
Only a few seconds into the match, Lawrence secured a body lock and launched Holmes into orbit for a gravity-defying throw that would have counted for five points in the Olympics, but the referee deemed it an illegal slam and instead awarded a penalty point to Holmes. That would be the only point Lawrence surrendered in the match, as he coasted to an easy 4-1 decision to hand Holmes his first loss of the season.
“I like throwing people. It’s pretty cool,” said Lawrence, who didn’t exactly agree with the borderline call. “[Holmes] was trying to chin-whip me the entire time, so I really just bear-hugged him and took him to his back. … I don’t think he ever picked his head up off the mat, so I had like six minutes of riding time.
“It was just another day at the office, I guess.”
Lawrence is revered in wrestling circles for his suffocating top control and remarkable pinning prowess — not just around Western Pa., but everywhere he goes. Last year, he put together a streak of 24 consecutive pins that carried all the way into the state quarterfinals. Holmes and Shulaw are the only foes to go the distance against Lawrence so far this season, with the rest of his wins coming via fall in three minutes or less.
In October, Lawrence made his first finals appearance at the Super 32 Challenge, the premier preseason all-star tournament in the country. Going into the third period of his 190-pound championship match against No. 1-ranked Aeoden Sinclair of Milton, Wis., Lawrence found himself clinging to a 1-0 lead against the coveted Missouri recruit.
Despite needing only a one-point escape to tie the match, Sinclair refused to go underneath Lawrence to start the period, instead choosing neutral — a befuddling decision against anybody else, but a no-brainer against Lawrence. Sinclair eventually scored a late takedown to win the match, 3-2, a result that still eats at Lawrence to this day.
“There are so many kids I’ve wrestled and beat or lost to by one point or so, that are out there right now beating top-ranked kids [in college],” Lawrence said. “I don’t see why I can’t be doing that myself.”
Along with his second-place finish this year, Lawrence finished third at Super 32 as a junior and fourth as a sophomore. He finished third in his first trip to Ironman as a junior, then took second this year after defaulting out of the finals due to his knee injury. The injury also forced him to miss the Powerade tournament, where he had a chance to become a four-time medalist after finishing second as a freshman, fourth as a sophomore and sixth as a junior.
Although he never won one of the major national tournaments in high school, he made it onto the podium at every single tournament he entered, and the only time he finished outside the top four was due to the thumb injury he aggravated at Powerade last year.
If Lawrence wanted a pristine record without any losses, he could have simply skipped those tournaments and stayed close to home, but that’s just not his style. Lawrence and Watkins both understand the importance of facing top competition, and those grueling battles against elite opponents from around the country are directly responsible for his rapid ascension into the upper echelon of the sport.
Of course, as much as Lawrence wishes he could have won the Super 32, Ironman or Powerade at least once, the only tournament that truly matters is the one in Hershey next month.
“He told me his name was going to go up there four times. And I believed it,” Watkins said. “I want him to finish it. … Just get to the top of the podium, and we’ll go home.”
Lawrence captivated the Giant Center crowd as a 172-pound freshman in 2021, when he defeated Penns Valley senior Malachi Duvall, 9-7, with a last-second two-point near fall to capture his first state title. He hasn’t faced much resistance in his past two trips to Hershey, winning by fall in the state finals as both a sophomore and junior. But just like his older brother, the final match of Lawrence’s high school career is shaping up to be his toughest.
Nothing is set in stone yet, but all signs point toward a titanic showdown looming between Lawrence and Muncy’s Austin Johnson in this year’s 215-pound finals. A nationally ranked junior with a career record of 100-3, Johnson is the reigning PIAA Class 2A champ at 215 pounds and a two-time state finalist. He nearly became the first freshman to win a state title at heavyweight in 2022, but lost in the 285-pound finals in overtime.
Last year, Johnson dropped to 215 and went 39-0, and he is 20-1 so far this year, with his only loss coming against No. 2-ranked Jude Correa of Wyoming Seminary in the Powerade finals, 4-3. Correa also defeated Lawrence in the semifinals at Super 32 last year, and the two were set to rematch in this year’s Ironman finals if not for Lawrence’s knee injury.
No matter what happens in Hershey, Lawrence’s place in WPIAL wrestling lore is already secured. Dethroning Johnson to capture his fourth state crown, though, would be the ultimate capstone on his extraordinary career.
“I never really looked ahead too far,” Lawrence said. “It would probably be a good match [against Johnson], but at the same time, the last two times I was in the state finals, I won by pin, so I’m trying to make it three in a row.
“I’m not changing anything about my training. It’s all going to be the same. I’m just going to go out there and wrestle how I wrestle.”