Gateway wrestlers A.J. Wilkins and Jaymar Parrish could have taken the easy way out after each sustained a broken foot, but neither wanted their senior season to end that way.
"A.J. and Jaymar are an inspiration to their teammates for the way both battled back from a broken foot," Gateway coach R.J. Santilli said. "Our team lacked leadership when they were out of the lineup. We got that leadership back when they returned to the lineup. We won our last three matches and I attribute that late success to A.J. and Jaymar."
Wilkins (11-2) earned his third consecutive trip to the WPIAL/Southwest Region Class AAA tournament by placing second in Section 1 Saturday at Gateway. Parrish (7-2) earned his third WPIAL berth by placing third in the section at 285 pounds.
"Jaymar broke his foot during the first round of the WPIAL football playoffs and missed most of the wrestling season," said Santilli, who pointed out that Parrish accepted a full football scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh. "Jaymar could have packed it up and moved on to Pitt, but he wanted to finish his senior year of wrestling.
"The same is true for A.J. His broken foot came during a practice just before Christmas. Both worked very hard to get back into the lineup. I'm very proud of them."
Santilli is also impressed with Franklin Regional heavyweight Luke Fleck, who missed most of the season recovering from knee surgery. Fleck (17-2) placed second in the Section 1 tournament to earn a third consecutive WPIAL berth at 285.
"It's obvious that Fleck has not completely recovered from his injury," Santilli said. "He's not moving as well as he normally does, but he's doing a great job of not giving up any points. Considering what they've gone through, it would be appropriate if Jaymar and Fleck met this weekend. If so, a PIAA berth could be on the line."
A tough neighborhood
The most entertaining weight class at the Class AAA Section 1 tournament was 152. The weight class featured four entries who were ranked among the top five in the WPIAL in Class AAA.
Norwin's Heath Coles, a WPIAL champion at 145 last season, came in as the favorite, but lost 2-1 in overtime in the title match to Greensburg Salem's Tyler Reinhart (34-5).
"Tyler and Heath have wrestled four times this year and each has won twice," Greensburg Salem coach Randy Parsley said. "I hope they meet two more times, in the WPIAL and PIAA finals."
Penn-Trafford's Devin Austin (32-7) claimed the bronze medal at 152 with a 2-1 overtime decision of Kiski Area's Kyle Skelly (24-6). Skelly also dropped a 1-0 decision to Coles in the semifinals.
"Section 1 has the top four 152-pounders in the WPIAL," Parsley said. "I don't see anybody else in the WPIAL beating them. And I think all four would do well at Hershey, but only three can qualify."
Nine wrestlers enter the WPIAL/Southwest Regional with at least one WPIAL title to their credit. Five are from Section 1. Coles is joined by Franklin Regional's Michael Kemerer (31-5), Hempfield's Sam Krivus (32-3), Latrobe's Zack Zavatsky (34-1) and Kiski Area's Matt McCutcheon (31-0).
Kemerer and Krivus made their varsity debut last season as freshmen and won titles at 103 and 112. Both were also top-three finishers at the PIAA tournament.
"After placing third at Hershey last year, we're expecting Sam to contend for the state title," Hempfield coach Vince DeAugustine said. "But the first step is to win another WPIAL title."
Zavatsky is a two-time WPIAL finalist and the defending champ at 160 pounds. Greensburg Salem's Zach Voytek (37-2), WPIAL runner-up at 152 last season, is also entered at 160. Voytek's only losses this season are to Zavatsky.
"The top two kids in the WPIAL at 160 are from Section 1," Kiski Area coach Chuck Tursky said. "I expect to see [Zavatsky and Voytek] facing off in the WPIAL final."
McCutcheon is a two-time WPIAL finalist who won WPIAL and PIAA titles at 182 last season. He's since moved to 195 and accepted a scholarship to Penn State University.
"I was surprised to hear that we have the only two remaining unbeaten wrestlers in the WPIAL [in Class AAA]," said Tursky, also referring to Shane Kuhn (34-0), a 285-pound junior who placed second in the WPIAL last year. "We'd like to see both take an unbeaten record to Hershey."
Voytek is one of four area wrestlers who were silver medalists at last year's WPIAL tournament. The others are Central Catholic's Vincenzo Joseph (19-7), and Franklin Regional's duo of Tyler Smith (38-3) and Josh Shields (37-4).
Joseph has moved to 120 after placing second at 106. Smith is a two-time WPIAL runner-up who is now competing at 132. Shields was a runner-up at 132 and is now at 145.