What a weekend for local wrestling fans.
The folkstyle season came to a close in grand fashion, as the sport was on display for all of the country to see at the NCAA Division I Championships in Pittsburgh, and, closer to home, the top high school wrestlers in the region got to finish their high school careers in style with the Border Brawl Mason-Dixon Wrestling Classic at Pitt-Johnstown.
The college event attracted 109,405 fans to six sessions spread out over three days at PPG Paints Arena, including 18,950 for the finals alone.
Those aren’t the largest figures for wrestling’s marquee event in the United States, but they rank among the best, and it’s hard to imagine that there ever has been more demand for tickets.
As soon as it was announced two years ago that Pittsburgh would host the tournament, questions began about how to get tickets. As a former Pitt wrestler, I had more than a few people ask if I could get them tickets. I couldn’t.
Tickets were in such short supply that Brandon Eggum, head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, took to Twitter to complain that the NCAA had outgrown arenas the size of PPG Paints. Perhaps not coincidentally, Minnesota is hosting the tournament next year at U.S. Bank Stadium, home to the Minnesota Vikings and nearly 70,000 seats.
There weren’t that many people in Pittsburgh for wrestling at one time, but it certainly felt like it. Walking in and around the arena, I saw dozens of wrestling fans from the Johnstown area.
There’s Matt Niebauer, who just completed his first season as head coach of the Central Cambria Red Devils, who had alumnus Max Murin competing for Iowa in the tournament.
Here comes John Strittmatter, a one-time Central Cambria head coach who now helps his brother, Jody, run Young Guns Wrestling Club.
The NCAA brackets were littered with former Young Guns wrestlers, including Spencer Lee of Iowa, who won his second title at 125, and Jason Nolf of Penn State, who won his third crown at 157 pounds.
Familiar faces also dotted the NCAA Fan Fest at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, located about a mile from the arena. Carlton Haselrig, the six-time NCAA champion for Pitt-Johnstown, was there signing copies of “Giant Killer: The Carlton Haselrig Story,” which tells his remarkable life story.
Haselrig and his former coach, Pitt-Johnstown’s Pat Pecora, also were on hand to lead the All-Americans out Saturday night prior to the start of the finals.
Who is that presenting awards at 133 pounds but Ron Schirf, a 1958 national champion for Pitt who splits his time between residences in Somerset County and Florida. Showing him around the arena was none other than Jennifer Tuscano, a standout basketball player at Meyersdale and Pitt-Johnstown who is now the associate athletic director for sport administration at Pitt and helped run the tournament.
While Haselrig was on stage at the convention center for a Q&A with other wrestling legends such as Nate Carr and David Taylor, one of the region’s up-and-coming stars stopped by the book stand. It was none other than Forest Hills’ Jackson Arrington, who won a state title as a freshman earlier this month.
Across the hall, members of the USA Wrestling team were holding a practice open to the public. In addition to familiar faces such as world champions Kyle Snyder and Kyle Dake, eagle-eyed observers might have spotted another one from closer to home in Evan Henderson. The former United High School standout, who was an All-American for North Carolina, is looking to make his mark in the freestyle world. A two-time placewinner in the U.S. Open and World Team Trials, Henderson joined the New York City Regional Training Center in August.
Leaving the arena one night, I ran into former Meyersdale standout Gavin Berkley, who just wrapped up his wrestling career at Army West Point. Before starting his military career, Berkley wanted one more chance to cheer on his Black Knights teammates at the NCAA Tournament.
Fans from Berlin and Cresson streamed into and out of the arena on a daily basis to cheer Penn State on to the program’s eighth NCAA title in nine years.
The Bassett family – which could have two of the next superstars from the area in Forest Hills Elementary School wrestlers Bo and Keegan – was shown on the video board before the start of the finals.
Less than 24 hours later, the Bassetts were front and center at the Border Brawl, as the event recognized local Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling winners. Bo and Keegan were joined by a number of their Ranger Pride Wrestling teammates as well as Greater Johnstown’s Sayona Harris-Haye, the first local girl to win a PJW championship.
The crowd at UPJ wasn’t nearly as big, of course, but the diehards still turned out for one last high school event, and local wrestlers didn’t disappoint. What was supposed to be a close dual meet turned into a rout for Team Pennsylvania, which won 14 of 17 bouts.
It was a fitting end to an amazing week of wrestling for Pennsylvania. Not only did Penn State win the team title and have three champions, but 16 All-Americans came from Pennsylvania high schools, which once again was most in the nation.
After all, Pennsylvania is known far and wide for its passion for and dominance in wrestling. As one popular T-shirt at the arena said, it’s “Our State, Our Sport.”
Eric Knopsnyder covers wrestling for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @KnopsKnotes. Read his blog at papowerwrestling.com.