Six TN area grapplers focus on Hershey
BOB FORD/TIMES NEWS Palmerton's Josh Evans celebrates after winning the Class AA 138-pound weight class at the Southeast Regionals this past weekend. This will be the second trip to the PIAA Championships for the Blue Bomber senior.
With the District 11 and Southeast Regional tournaments out of the way, the focus can now shift to what wrestlers across the state have been working for all season: The PIAA Championships in Hershey.
Six TIMES NEWS wrestlers will take part in the Class AA tournament, all gunning for what is the pinnacle of high school wrestling in Pennsylvania.
Palmerton's Josh Evans will be making his second appearance in the event after also qualifying as a sophomore.
The senior is coming off a runner-up finish in the district tournament that was followed by a regional championship at 138-pounds and will face Jeannette's Gio Vonne Sanders, who is 31-14 this season, in his opening match.
Riding a wave of momentum from his triumph over the weekend, expectations for the Blue Bomber senior will be high when action begins on Thursday.
"We want to get him in the finals and we want him to win. There's no reason why he shouldn't," said Palmerton coach Dave Lavin. "Winning a tournament like this (regionals) shows that he can get the job done.
"Obviously, there are a lot of really tough guys in the state. But he just has to go out and wrestle his match. We're excited about it."
While Evans will be Palmerton's only representative in Hershey, Panther Valley will send a trio of talented wrestlers in Lenny Ogozalek (113), Richard Nase (195) and Rian Shubeck, who will all be making their first appearances in the tournament.
Ogozalek, who finished third in the regional tournament, will face Jamestown's Faris Messai in the preliminary round.
Nase, who finished fourth, will take on Hyndman's James Bennett while Shubeck, who also finished fourth, will square off against undefeated Jake Temple of Avella.
The fact that Panther Valley sent three to states for the first time in a decade is impressive in its own right. But the fact that the Panthers did it without the services of coach Tim Robb is even more remarkable.
Robb was ejected during a match at the district tournament for unsportsmanlike conduct, which led to a suspension that will carry through the remainder of the postseason, a ban that kicked in this past weekend and cannot be appealed.
With Robb unable to even be in the same gymnasium as his team during competition, assistant coach Rich Bower took the reigns, guiding Ogozalek, Nase and Shubeck through six matches over two days.
Regardless of the situation, Bower made sure his team was ready to compete.
"Coach Robb is a big influence on them and I think it was a little difficult (on them) not having him here," Bower said. "But they just came out and wrestled really tough. They're really tough kids, and they proved it here."
There's no doubt that wrestling more than a handful of matches in two days will have all three ready for what's ahead this weekend.
"I think (what they did at regionals) will help them a lot because they lost early on the first day," Bower said. "They had to battle back and win three out of four matches in order to advance, and all of them did it.
"As long as they keep pushing, we're happy."
Lehighton's Connor Frey, a regional qualifier last season, took the next step this year, finishing fourth at 182 pounds.
The sophomore will face Northwest Regional champion Dylan Reynolds of Saegertown in his preliminary match.
While undoubtedly a supremely talented wrestler, Lehighton coach Dan Williams was most pleased with Frey's desire to improve in the week leading up to the regional tournament.
"During the week, he really got a chance to do a lot of one-on-one work and drill with different people in the wrestling room," the coach said. "We got a chance to work on some things that we saw at the district tournament that he wasn't doing quite the way we wanted him to.
"To his credit, he came out here this weekend and fixed everything in all of his matches. So, it's very rewarding to see him put that time in, improve and move on."
Tamaqua's Colin Mashack, battling a nagging calf injury all weekend, finally succumbed to the pain in his third-place match at 126 pounds, bowing out at the three-minute mark against Boiling Springs' Grant Bond.
Mashack's road to a state title will begin with Southwest Regional champion John Demaske of Jefferson-Morgan, who has a 40-0 record this season.
While the challenge is undeniable, the senior has proven before that he can wrestle with the best of the best, qualifying for states as a sophomore and winning a district title last season.
"He just needs to come in with the same focus and determination that he's had all season," Tamaqua coach Jon Mashack said. "We know it won't be easy, but he's certainly capable of doing well."
HIGHWAY TO HERSHEY...The 77th Annual PIAA Wrestling Championships will kick off this Thursday at 9:00 a.m. with Class AA preliminary matches and conclude with first round consolations at 12:15 p.m. Class 2A Quarterfinals will take place at 9:00 a.m. on Friday, with semifinals taking place at 6:30 p.m. later that evening. The Parade of Champions for the AA wrestlers will take place on Saturday at 1:45 p.m., followed by the finals, third, fifth and seventh-place consolation matches at 2:00 p.m.
FACTS AND FIGURES...The combined record of the six TIMES NEWS wrestlers that qualified for the state tournament is 203-36...There are no returning qualifiers from a year ago, when Northern Lehigh's Ty Herzog, Northwestern's Michael Ortiz, Palmerton's Zachary Graver and Pleasant Valley's Kenny Yanovich all advanced to Hershey. The combined record for those four was 125-19...Palmerton's Josh Evans and Tamaqua's Colin Mashack are the only two with prior state experience when both qualified as sophomores in 2012. Evans competed at 113 pounds, while Mashack wrestled at 106. Mashack finished sixth that year.
PANTHER PRIDE...Panther Valley, which will send three to Hershey this weekend, last had a state qualifier in 2004 when Nick Kropp made the tournament. The last time the Panthers had three qualifiers was 1982, when Martin Maurer, Tom Tessitore and Ron Goides advanced. Panther Valley's highest place winner was Duane Slonaker, who finished fourth in 1979