Everybody who follows WPIAL wrestling knows Rocco Welsh and Ty Watters are two of the baddest dudes to come out of Western Pennsylvania in recent memory.

Now, after their phenomenal performances as freshmen All-Americans in their NCAA championship debuts, the rest of the country knows it, too.

Welsh and Watters took the college wrestling world by storm last weekend in Kansas City, Mo., putting their talents on full display while announcing their arrival as two of the top first-year wrestlers in the nation. A Waynesburg grad, Welsh reached the 174-pound finals for Ohio State, where he lost a narrow 2-0 decision against Penn State’s Carter Starocci, who became only the sixth wrestler ever to win four NCAA titles. Welsh is the first WPIAL wrestler to reach the national finals as a freshman since Franklin Regional grad Spencer Lee did it at Iowa in 2018.

“It seems like I always find my way to the finals,” Welsh said with a laugh. “I think when you just work hard and believe in yourself and you try to do everything right, good things are probably going to happen to you. … My dream was to win as a true freshman though, so I’m not 100% happy with it, but it’s a pretty amazing feeling.”

As for Watters, the West Allegheny grad finished in fourth place for West Virginia at 149 pounds, with all five of his wins at the tournament coming in the form of bonus-point victories. Watters scored two pins, one technical fall and two major decisions while finishing 5-2 overall on the weekend, including an 8-3 defeat against eventual national champion Caleb Henson of Virginia Tech in the quarterfinal round.

“It was a lot of fun,” Watters said about his first NCAA tournament. “I love just seeing myself improve and getting to that next level and being able to believe in myself. I just think being able to do it with all the teammates I had and coaches I had was the best thing I could ever ask for.”

Both wrestlers go about their business in different ways, but the end goal and the result is usually the same, with their hand getting raised at the end of the match.

A powerful takedown artist who specializes in wrestling on the feet in neutral position, Welsh possesses a lethal combination of strength, speed and explosiveness along with a nearly impenetrable defense. Few opponents can match his forward pressure and intensity for a full seven minutes.

Watters isn’t a brute force like Welsh, but rather a master of finesse and “funk.” An expert mat wrestler who uses his long limbs to his advantage while wrapping up his foes in airtight finishing moves like an anaconda seizing its prey, Watters often baits opponents into attacks that eventually lead them to their own demise.

“I’m just trying to score points and have fun,” Watters said. “I hope people really come at me hard next year so I can just evolve and keep growing.”

Waynesburg grad Rocco Welsh, left, pictured during his NCAA semifinal win over Columbia’s Lennox Wolak, finished as a national runner-up at 174 pounds while posting a record of 26-5 as a freshman at Ohio State. (Courtesy of Ohio State Athletics)

A two-time PIAA champion who compiled a career record of 159-17 while reaching the state finals in all four years of high school, Welsh was one of the most sought-after recruits in the country after finishing his senior season ranked as the No. 8 pound-for-pound wrestler in the nation by FloWrestling. He clearly lived up to his lofty billing and then some in his college debut, posting a record of 26-5 with 13 bonus-point victories — one pin, seven technical falls and five major decisions.

Welsh first opened eyes around the country when he gave Starocci one of his closest matches of the past three years in a 4-2 defeat in a dual meet on Feb. 2. He said that was the first time he could remember going into a match thinking he might not only lose but also that he might get beaten badly.

In the end, he proved to himself and everybody watching that he belonged in the circle with the best of the best.

“I’ve seen what he’s done to other guys. It’s pretty unreal,” Welsh said. “This was before I had really beaten anybody good yet in my college career. I was really nervous, but I just decided to go as hard as I could, and we ended up having a good match. My confidence was up after that, for sure.”

Two of Welsh’s losses this season came to Big Ten champion Edmond Ruth of Illinois, including a 4-1 overtime loss in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament. After falling into the consolation bracket, Welsh then battled back to take third place in the conference and earned a No. 6 seed for the NCAA tournament. And with Starocci nursing a knee injury that saddled him with the No. 9 seed after forfeiting out of the Big Ten tournament, Welsh’s side of the bracket looked ripe for the taking when the seedings came out.

“I was sitting next to my coaches, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is pretty wide open for me to make the finals,'” Welsh said.

On paper, the toughest matchup in Welsh’s path to the finals appeared to be Ruth, the No. 3 seed and younger brother of Penn State legend and three-time NCAA champion Ed Ruth. But first, Welsh had to worry about simply advancing past the first round, which he managed to do with a 4-2 win against No. 27 Danny Wask of Navy. He then went into overtime against No. 11 Austin Murphy of Campbell before scoring a picturesque takedown in sudden-victory to win, 4-1.

That set up the rematch with Ruth, and this time, Welsh got his revenge with another 4-1 overtime victory to advance to the NCAA semifinals. Competing under the bright lights on Friday night on ESPN, Welsh once again came through with a clutch overtime takedown for a 4-1 win against No. 7 Lennox Wolak of Columbia, sending him to the national finals as a freshman to square off against one of the greatest college wrestlers of all time.

“It didn’t surprise me,” said Waynesburg coach Kyle Szewczyk. “I know some kids are coming into college in this day and age so college-ready in wrestling, physically, emotionally, technically and everything. He’s been college-ready since his junior year in high school.”

Despite competing at less than 100%, Starocci tore through the top half of the bracket while picking up back-to-back wins over former NCAA champions Mekhi Lewis of Virginia Tech and Shane Griffith of Michigan to reach the finals. Few gave Welsh much of a chance going into the championship bout, but he once again gave Starocci all he could handle, holding his own for the duration of the seven-minute match before dropping a hard-fought 2-0 decision.

A pair of first-period stalling calls against Welsh proved to be the difference in the match — and although the calls seemed questionable at best, Welsh chose not to make any excuses for the defeat. And while he’s clearly disappointed by the outcome, he knows this is only the beginning of what is shaping up to be an extraordinary college career.

“[Starocci] is unbelievable. One of the best ever,” Welsh said. “It really was a good ending to my season. I feel great about my whole season and confident about next season, too. … When you know what you’re capable of, it sucks when not everyone can see it yet. But it feels great when you finally get it done and let everyone know.”

West Allegheny grad Ty Watters, left, won a Big 12 title and finished fourth in the nation at 149 pounds, posting a record of 30-6 as a freshman All-American at West Virginia. (Courtesy of WVU Athletics Communications)

Like Welsh, Watters was a two-time PIAA Class 3A champion in high school, posting a career record of 98-8 at West Allegheny. After beginning his career as a scrawny 106-pound freshman, Watters missed almost his entire sophomore season with an injury, then won a state title as a 145-pound junior while developing a reputation for racking up points in bunches. He capped his career with an undefeated senior season that included a Powerade title and a second consecutive PIAA crown, finishing the season ranked No. 3 in the country at 152 pounds.

His penchant for lighting up the scoreboard carried over instantly to his college career, as Watters earned a starting spot to begin the season for the Mountaineers and quickly hit the ground running. After finishing 21-4 in the regular season, Watters received a No. 3 seed for the Big 12 tournament, where he cruised into the finals with a pair of technical falls and a major decision. He then won by injury default against Oklahoma State’s Jordan Williams to capture his first Big 12 title, which earned him a No. 5 seed for the NCAA tournament.

“At the beginning of the year, I had some goals that weren’t that hard to achieve,” Watters said. “I had a goal to get ranked at least in the top 25, and I feel like that’s a very easy, achievable goal. I feel like I was kind of holding out on myself or having a safety net, so I felt like I needed to add more goals that sounded a little bit crazy to myself or people around me. So then I said I wanted to win a Big 12 title and be a true freshman All-American.

“It made me nervous. I was like, ‘I don’t even know if these are achievable.'”

In Kansas City last weekend, Watters picked up a 19-4 technical fall against No. 28 Logan Gioffre of Missouri in his first-round matchup, then he shut out No. 12 Willie McDougald of Oklahoma via a 9-0 major decision to advance to Friday’s quarterfinals. There, he ran into Henson, the No. 4 seed and eventual NCAA champion who beat Watters for the second time this season to knock him into the consolation bracket.

After missing out on a chance to become a national champion, there was still work to be done for Watters, who still needed one more win to become a true freshman All-American.

Facing off with No. 26 Jaden Abas of Stanford in the “blood round” later that night, Watters pinned the former All-American in 3:29 to clinch a spot on the podium — but Abas wasn’t the last of his victims. The next morning, Watters scored a 10-2 major decision against No. 8 Casey Swiderski of Iowa State, then he added one more pin against four-time All-American Kyle Parco of Arizona State, who entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed.

“Sometimes, I would think bad things about myself. It would be those little thoughts in my head, and I would kind of have to prove to myself that I’m able to do things,” Watters said. “Then I wrestled Jaden Abas in my [blood-round] match, and I pinned him, and that made me feel a lot better. … I just hope it shows the guys coming up that they can do it their freshman year. They can do it early, and they’re on that level with everyone else.”

West Allegheny grad Ty Watters racked up five bonus-point victories in his first trip to the NCAA tournament, finishing in fourth place as a freshman All-American under coach Tim Flynn at West Virginia. (Courtesy of NCAA Wrestling)

Although he lost a slim 3-2 decision in the third-place bout against another freshman, Tyler Kasak of Penn State, Watters had already cemented his place as a title contender for years to come. He finished his debut season with a record of 30-6, including a whopping 25 bonus-point victories — 12 pins, five technical falls, seven major decisions and one injury default.

“I just think iron sharpens iron,” Watters said. “Me and my teammates are getting better, and I definitely couldn’t have done it without my practice partners and my coaches. I think I wrestled with two guys specifically in the room, Peyton Hall and Jordan Titus — they really helped me a lot.”

As the only two WPIAL wrestlers to earn All-American status in 2024, Welsh and Watters proved that it’s never too soon to make an impact at the next level, as long as you’re willing to put in the work. Of course, that doesn’t mean everybody can do it. It takes a certain blend of physical gifts, mental fortitude and a little bit of good fortune to pull off what Welsh and Watters just accomplished.

And the best part is, they’re only getting started.

“This offseason, I’m ready to just get better and jump levels,” Welsh said. “I definitely want another shot.”

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.