PIAA wrestling Jalen Stephens

Meyersdale's Jalen Stephens wrestles Nikolas Warnke of Saucon Valley in the PIAA quarterfinals on Friday, March 6, 2020. Stephens won in ultimate tie breaker, 3-2.

When North Star opens the local wrestling calendar at the Greenville Duals on Saturday, it will be the start of a season unlike any other.

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered the schedule – some local teams haven’t been able to hold a single practice yet and many are unsure how many events they can squeeze into a shortened season – and led to confusion about when and where wrestlers must wear masks.

But that’s far from the only thing that has changed since the mats were rolled up in Hershey last March. Four of the 18 local teams have new head coaches. The region tragically lost one of its brightest stars to a car crash. 

Some of the top names at the varsity, junior high and elementary levels – have switched schools, potentially swinging the local balance of power for the next several years. The PIAA reduced the number of varsity weight classes from 14 to 13, and Ligonier Valley, which has produced three Division I wrestlers over the past decade, will now be competing in District 7.

There will be no lack of storylines in 2021. Here are some things to keep an eye on in The Tribune-Democrat’s coverage area:

COVID confusion

The pandemic pushed the start of the season back more than a month and a half for most teams, and virtually eliminated large individual tournaments featuring hundreds of wrestlers from dozens of schools. One local staple – the Panther Holiday Classic – made several concessions in an effort to abide by COVID restrictions, but eventually had to be canceled. Another, the Thomas tournament in Bedford, likely will suffer the same fate.

The Mid-Winter Mayhem event, which was held at Indiana (Pa.) last year, has shifted to the Monroeville Convention Center Jan. 15-16 while the Powerade event will be held in the same location at the end of the month.

In an effort to avoid large brackets with multi-day tournaments, the PIAA came up with a hybrid postseason schedule that will have district tournaments the weekend of Feb. 20, with only two District 5 wrestlers and three District 6 wrestlers advancing to the Southwest Class AA Regional the following weekend. Four wrestlers from that event will advance to the new “Super Regional” event, along with the top four finishers from the Northwest Region. The top four from that event move on to a one-day state tournament in Hershey on March 12, which also features the top four wrestlers in each weight from the eastern half of the state. The AAA tournament will be held the next day.

How many of those wrestlers will be required to wear masks while competing seems to be another of the unknowns. A survey of local coaches found some who said their schools are requiring masks to be worn during competition while others did not expect that to be an issue. Most were unsure exactly how it will play out over the next few months.

The state team tournament is also a question mark. The PIAA announced that while district team tournaments will be held in February, the state event will be pushed back until after the completion of the PIAA individual championships.

Mourning Kai

Kai Burkett, a two-time state medalist from Chestnut Ridge who was ranked as one of the top 50 college recruits from Pennsylvania in the Class of 2021, was killed Aug. 29 when he lost control of the car he was driving just down the road from his Bedford County home.

Chestnut Ridge has grown into a statewide power over the past few years and one aspect that’s often mentioned is how close of a bond the Lions have with one another. Team members likely will lean heavily on one another as they continue to mourn their teammate.

“(Burkett’s death) leaves behind a void in more than just our lineup: we’ll miss him in the room, at the team hotel and on the arena floor; we’ll miss him every day,” Lions assistant Pat Berzonski wrote in the team preview submitted to The Tribune-Democrat.

Transfer news

Cornell recruit Erik Gibson, a junior, and his brother Mason, a freshman, are expected to be two of the top wrestlers in Class AA this season. The Gibsons, along with their younger brother Melvin Miller and their cousins Bo and Keegan Bassett – along with a handful of other accomplished young wrestlers – have left Forest Hills for Bishop McCort Catholic.

The talk for the past several years was that the Rangers were poised to become one of the top AA teams in the state. While they still have three state medalists – led by 2019 champ Jackson Arrington and Lock Haven recruit Ryan Weyandt – the Rangers won’t have the depth that had long been assumed.

Bishop McCort won’t have any depth at all – new coach Anthony Walters only listed the Gibson brothers and senior Ethan Marcozzi on his roster – but the Crimson Crushers could be a force next season and beyond.

Unlucky 13

In any other year, the loss of a weight class would have been the dominant offseason news. The PIAA, in an effort to help schools that struggle to fill weight classes, eliminated one near the top end of the lineup. The weight classes remain the same from 106 to 160 but the current weights will include 172, 189, 215 and 285. It previously had included 170, 182, 195, 220 and 285.

The move was seen as a compromise from the initial proposal, which would have raised the lightest class from 106 to 110 pounds.

Rams go west

Ligonier Valley will compete in the WPIAL this season after leaving the Heritage Conference. The WPIAL, which consists of all of District 7, is one of the largest conferences in the nation. The Rams leave behind one of the smallest conferences – at least for wrestling. With the departure, United, Blairsville and Marion Center have the only wrestling teams in the conference.

During the past decade, Ligonier Valley has featured competitive dual meet teams and standouts in brothers Josh, Justin and Robert Patrick, each of whom has gone on to wrestle at the Division I level.

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