South Park's Greg Bulsak and Derry's George Phillippi became the newest members of an exclusive -- but growing -- club at the WPIAL Class AA tournament last Saturday at Chartiers Valley High School.
Both claimed WPIAL titles as freshmen.
"There are more and more freshmen coming through the ranks," Latrobe coach Tad Harbert said. "And they're a lot different than the freshmen when I wrestled. They are much better prepared for varsity competition."
Bulsak and Phillippi are the 39th and 40th freshmen to win WPIAL titles since 1975. Phillippi etched his name in the record book with a 1-0 win against South Fayette's Seth Carr in the 113-pound final. Bulsak followed with a 4-0 victory against Bentworth's Vince Vahaly in the 126-pound title match. Bulsak did not allow a point in his four matches.
"Clubs have changed wrestling," said Harbert, a 1986 Latrobe graduate. "When I was in high school, we had practice every day after school then went home, and some of us worked out on our own. Now, kids have practice with their club team three times a week. And kids are starting younger and younger."
Eighteen freshmen have won WPIAL Class AAA titles since 1975, while 22 others claimed Class AA crowns.
"When I wrestled in the early '90s, we had a couple freshmen, but they had to pay their dues before they made it to the starting lineup," Southmoreland coach Ryan Shaw said. "It's much different now. I don't even consider them freshmen any more. Clubs have evened the field for freshmen. They are much better prepared to wrestle at the varsity level."
Shaw has a good example of what prior club training can do for an incoming freshman. Jacob Beistel made his varsity debut for the Scotties and advanced to the 285-pound final before losing to Burrell sophomore Alan Beattie.
"Before the title match, I thought about doing a Google search to see if any freshman had won a WPIAL heavyweight title before," Shaw said. "I decided not to do it, because I didn't want to jinx him."
Shaw was not surprised to hear that no heavyweight has ever won a WPIAL title as a freshman.
"It's rare to see freshmen do well in the upper weight classes," Harbert said. "Kiski Area's Tyler Worthing and Norwin's Drew Phipps are exceptions to that rule. Both looked impressive in the section tournament."
Worthing and Phipps stepped into the spotlight at the Class AAA Section 1 tournament by claiming titles at 170 and 182, respectively.
"Worthing wrestled at 182 most of the season," Greensburg Salem coach Randy Parsley said. "He's down at 170 now, and he's a beast. To be doing that well as a freshman in the upper weights is very impressive."
The most impressive freshman in the WPIAL this season, without a doubt, is Latrobe's Luke Pletcher.
"Luke is just unbelievable," Harbert said. "He's a special kid. He's a cut above."
Pletcher is ranked No. 2 in the country at 106 in some polls, and No. 3 in others.
"Luke placed fourth in the high school division at the Super 32 Tournament as an eighth grader," Harbert said. "He also won five Pennsylvania Junior State titles. That's why he's so highly ranked."
Pletcher is seeded No. 1 at the Class AAA WPIAL/Southwest Regional Tournament, which began Thursday at Norwin High School. North Hills freshman Gage Curry is the No. 2 seed. Both won section titles last week.
"I'm a big fan of Luke Pletcher," Hempfield coach Vince DeAugustine said. "Luke and Sam Krivus have been workout partners the past three or four years. I really believe Luke is going to win WPIAL and PIAA titles. And it wouldn't surprise me if he met Curry in both title matches."
Coincidentally, Krivus won a WPIAL title last year as a 113-pound freshman for Hempfield. He is the top seed at 120 this year.
"It's so exciting to see so many talented freshmen flooding into the WPIAL the past few years," Mt. Lebanon coach Bill Lewis said. "It's going to continue for years to come. It's going to make the championships exciting for the next few years."
The number of freshmen making an impact is growing by leaps and bounds. Twenty freshmen won WPIAL titles during a 30-year stretch from 1975-2004. In the nine years since, 20 more freshmen have won titles, including this year's Class AA duo. That's an average of more than two freshmen champs per year.
Bulsack, Phillippi and Beistel are among 17 freshmen from the WPIAL entered in the Class AA Southwest Regional, which begins today at the Cambria County War Memorial in Johnstown.
Pletcher, Curry, Phipps and Worthing are among 40 freshmen entered in the Class AAA WPIAL/Southwest Regional.
The best year for WPIAL freshmen was 2008, as four claimed titles, including Franklin Regional graduate Nico Megaludis, who is now starting at Penn State University. The other three freshmen WPIAL champs that year were Shady Side Academy's Geoff Alexander, Burrell's Travis McKillop and Fort Cherry's Sam Guidi.
Guidi's title came at 160 pounds, which makes him the heaviest freshman to win a WPIAL title.
The only other freshmen to win WPIAL titles in the middle weights are Shady Side Academy's Matthew Cunningham, in 2007 at 145 pounds and South Fayette's Jared Walker last year at 152 pounds.