If you didn’t get the chance to witness Rune Lawrence’s run to a historic fourth state title last weekend in Hershey, Pa., you still have a chance to see “Cool Hand Rune” in action one last time before the West Virginia recruit packs his bags for Morgantown.

After dethroning defending PIAA Class 2A 215-pound champion Austin Johnson of Muncy to join one of the most exclusive clubs in all of high school sports, many might be wondering what Lawrence has in store for an encore. That question will be answered on March 30 at Peters Township High School, when Lawrence goes head-to-head with Iowa State recruit Sawyer Bartelt of South Dade, Fla., in what will almost certainly be featured as the main event of the 50th annual Pittsburgh Wrestling Classic.

Known as “The Rose Bowl of Wrestling,” the PWC is considered the premier postseason all-star event in the country, pitting a team of WPIAL All-Stars against a team of all-stars from another state — this year from New Jersey — before a team of Pennsylvania All-Stars squares off against the USA All-Stars. This year’s event will also feature a girls matchup of Pennsylvania All-Stars against Ohio All-Stars at 3 p.m., followed by the WPIAL-New Jersey matchup at 4 p.m. and the Pennsylvania-USA dual at 6 p.m.

The rest of the WPIAL and Pennsylvania lineups have yet to be announced, but no matchup will carry more significance this year than Lawrence’s clash with Bartelt, a four-time Florida state champion with a career record of 139-0. Bartelt never surrendered a takedown in his high school career until his final match, which he then went on to win by pin in the second period for his fourth state title. FloWrestling has Bartelt ranked No. 1 in the country at 215 pounds, while Lawrence is ranked No. 3.

Even for an event as prestigious as the PWC, showdowns of this caliber don’t come around too often.

“I know what’s coming,” said Frazier coach Buck Watkins, speaking about an hour after a welcome-back parade for Lawrence in Perryopolis. “The reason I know that is because I have some coaching friends down in Florida. They saw what was coming. Sometimes you’ve got a little friendly trash talk, right? I’m excited for it.”

Frazier’s Rune Lawrence (top) etched his name in history with a 6-3 win over defending 215-pound champion Austin Johnson of Muncy to become the 14th four-time champion in the 87-year history of the PIAA tournament. (Lloyd McCully)

Some might consider Lawrence a slight underdog going into the matchup of future Big 12 competitors, but don’t count Watkins among them. After watching Lawrence develop from a wiry 172-pound freshman into the overpowering force he has become today, Watkins believes Lawrence is capable of beating anybody in the country — and not just winning, but dominating.

One thing Lawrence has proven time and time again is that he always rises to the occasion in big matches, so don’t be surprised if he adds one last fall to his collection against Bartelt.

“Rune can pin anybody he wants to,” Watkins said. “I’m biased, obviously. I’m his coach, but right now, I think he’s the best in the country. I think he can wrestle with anybody. I think he can beat anybody. And I think he gets better every time he steps out on the mat.

“[Bartelt] ain’t no slouch. We’re getting a Big 12 matchup here. We’ll see what happens.”

Numbers game

With his high school career in the rearview, now is a good time to take one look back on some of the most mind-boggling stats and records of Lawrence’s remarkable career.

• In 15 matches at the WPIAL tournament, Lawrence went 15-0 with 15 pins in a combined total of 14:38.

• In 15 matches at the PIAA tournament, Lawrence went 15-0 with 10 pins.

• In the final 59 matches of his career (not including forfeits), Lawrence went 59-0 with 55 pins.

• Lawrence is one of only five wrestlers to win four WPIAL titles and four PIAA titles, and the only one to do so at the upper weight classes.

Frazier’s Rune Lawrence landed a celebratory backflip at the center of the mat after defeating Muncy’s Austin Johnson, 6-3, to become a four-time PIAA champion. (Terry McCaulley Jr.)

Not only are Lawrence and his older brother, Thayne, the only set of brothers to win four WPIAL titles — they did so in a span of eight consecutive years while reaching seven consecutive state finals and winning six. Good luck finding another set of brothers in any sport that can say the same.

“It’s been absolutely incredible,” Watkins said. “If somebody would have told me years ago, ‘You’re going to be put in position to witness greatness and watch an ordinary boy become a legend,’ I probably would have laughed and said, ‘Not in my deck of cards.’

“I’m grateful I got the opportunity to do it, not just with one but with his brother as well.”

Changing with the times

With a brand-new format featuring three separate tournaments for Class 3A, Class 2A and girls, this weekend’s PIAA championships presented plenty of new challenges to the staff at the PIAA and Giant Center.

According to PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi, things seemed to go smoothly for the most part — other than a 15-minute delay for the start of Friday night’s semifinal round, due to a large crowd of spectators waiting in line to get inside the arena. Lombardi said the PIAA did their best to accommodate numerous requests they had received over the years concerning the scheduling of events, notably having all of the finals contested at once rather than in two separate sessions.

“I think all of us anticipated a lot of changes, and we worked very, very hard to try to make it as accommodating as we can for everybody, but most importantly, the athletes,” Lombardi said before Saturday’s championship finals. “I thought the energy in the building [Friday night] was better than it has been for a number of years. I think the crowd last night showed that there is a real interest.

“For years, people have said, ‘We’d like to see finals only,’ so we’re going to give it to you.”

Showcasing the girls on the center mat during Saturday’s championship finals was a nice touch for the inaugural girls tournament, but it was still difficult for spectators to keep up with three separate finals matches happening at once. The ideal scenario would be to have only one mat for the finals, but Lombardi said time constraints would make such a format next to impossible — especially with 39 champions being crowned now instead of 26.

Still, Lombardi acknowledged that changes could be coming to next year’s schedule — specifically for Friday’s portion of the tournament.

“[Friday] was an awful long day,” Lombardi said. “I think we’re going to take a good look at that. I think there are some things we can do to pick up some time in a couple of places, to make it not such an early morning and not such a late night.”

For the weekend, the five sessions drew a combined total of 39,329 spectators, with at least 7,000 tickets sold for each session.

Final thoughts

Having covered the PIAA tournament five times now, I can safely say that this year’s event had a completely different feel to it than ever before. Some of the luster will surely wear off next year, with this being the first year having the girls wrestling alongside the boys and all the history that came along with it. But there’s no question that the inclusion of the girls’ championships infused new life into the tournament, bringing in tons of new fans and adding more energy to the crowd than ever before.

As somebody who attended the first-ever unofficial dual meet between WPIAL girls teams when Canon-McMillan scrimmaged North Allegheny in December 2021, it truly is astonishing to see how far the sport has come in such a short time. Nobody knew back then if or when girls wrestling would be officially sanctioned by the PIAA, so witnessing two girls from that dual meet (North Allegheny’s Leyna Rumpler and Canon-McMillan’s Natalie Rush) compete in the championship finals on Saturday was a surreal experience.

Even though they each had to settle for silver medals, both Rumpler and Rush will always be remembered as two true ambassadors of the sport.

Here are a few more stray thoughts that left my notepad this weekend:

• The atmosphere for Friday’s semifinals was even more electric than the finals this year. Perhaps it had something to do with the productions team changing the song for the “Parade of Champions” montage preceding Saturday’s championship finals. “Unstoppable” by The Score was the perfect choice. This year’s theme song was a knock-off version of “We Will Rock You” instead. I made sure to air my grievance with Lombardi personally. Why fix it if it ain’t broke?

• Bringing out former four-time PIAA champion Chance Marsteller to present the PIAA Class 2A Outstanding Wrestler award to Lawrence was a nice bit of thinking on the fly by Norm Palovcsik, a PIAA wrestling historian and member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame who oversees the presentation of the awards. Palovcsik noticed Marsteller in the crowd and asked him to do the honors moments before the ceremony. A 2014 Kennard-Dale grad, Marsteller is one of only two undefeated four-time PIAA champions along with Jefferson-Morgan’s Cary Kolat.

• Trying to pay attention to three championship matches all at once while chasing down video interviews in between is both hectic and exhausting, but there’s nothing more enjoyable in this profession than those three hours of chaos on Championship Saturday. The entire weekend always feels like a blur, but especially so this year. There’s simply no other sporting event like it.

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.

Steve Rotstein

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.