WPIAL wrestlers, coaches and fans received an early Christmas present when the PIAA Wrestling Steering Committee adopted an expanded bracket for its 2015 state individual tournaments.
The PIAA brackets, in both Class AAA and AA, have been expanded from 16 to 20 wrestlers in each weight class.
That means the WPIAL Class AAA tournament, also designated as the Southwest Region tournament, will get back to having a fourth qualifier, which it lost in 2003.
The Class AA Southwest Region, which includes Districts 5 and 6 as well as the WPIAL (District 7), also picked up an additional berth. That means the top six finishers in the region qualify for the state tournament.
"We've been pushing for an expanded PIAA bracket for the past several years," said Fox Chapel coach Ron Frank, who also serves as president of the WPIAL Wrestling Coaches Association. "We talked about a 24-man bracket, but that would have required a fourth day of competition or adding two mats in the Giant Center. Neither of those options was feasible."
Frank Vulcano, chairman of the WPIAL Wrestling Steering Committee, came to the rescue with a 20-wrestler bracket proposal.
"WPIAL coaches and fans have Frank Vulcano to thank," Frank said. "He put together a proposal that received enough support from around the state."
The proposal adds four wrestlers to each weight class, thus increasing the bracket from 16 to 20 participants. That translates to 112 extra wrestlers [56 in each classification], and a total of 224 extra bouts [112 in each class].
The tournament will now have 560 participants [280 in each class] and require 1,064 bouts [532 in each class] to complete.
"The tournament will remain double-elimination format throughout," Vulcano said. "We're adding 56 extra bouts in each class on Thursday and Friday. That will add approximately 90 minutes to each session. Saturday's schedule does not change."
It's been 12 years since the WPIAL had four berths in the PIAA Class AAA tournament.
"It's long overdue," Greater Latrobe coach Tad Harbert said. "The WPIAL deserves to have four berths. We have more depth in the WPIAL than any other region in the state. It's a shame we had to wait this long."
The WPIAL had four PIAA berths in Class AAA during a 28-year stretch, from 1975 until 2002, and a total of 45 WPIAL fourth-place finishers earned PIAA place-winner status.
From 1975-1980, the PIAA recognized the top four place-winners in each weight class. Six WPIAL fourth-place finishers were PIAA place-winners during that six year-stretch.
In 1981, the PIAA switched to the top six in each class as place-winners and used that format for 18 years. Fourth-place finishers from the WPIAL earned PIAA place-winner status 26 times during that stretch.
In 1999, the PIAA adopted a format that recognized the top eight finishers. In just four years, the WPIAL had 13 fourth-place finishers place at the state tournament.
The most successful seasons for WPIAL fourth-place finishers were in 2002 and 1996. In 2002, the WPIAL had six wrestlers earn PIAA place-winner status. In 1996, the WPIAL had five place-winners.
Two fourth-place finishers won a PIAA title -- Mt. Lebanon's Shawn Griffith (1975 at 126 pounds) and Peters Township's Drew Spencer (1993 at 135 pounds) -- while two others were silver medalists, Canon-McMillan's Bob Semple (1976 at 145 pounds) and Gateway's Robert McKinley (1986 at 185 pounds).
"I think I speak for all the Class AAA coaches in the WPIAL in saying that we're excited to get back our fourth berth," Mt. Lebanon coach Bill Lewis said. "This gives 14 more kids from the WPIAL a chance to wrestle in Hershey, and some of them will come home with a medal."
The WPIAL lost its fourth PIAA Class AAA berth in 2003 and immediately felt the repercussions, as a returning PIAA champion fell short of a return trip to Hershey after placing fourth in a loaded 119-pound weight class.
Waynesburg's Drew Headlee, a 2002 PIAA champion, lost in the 2003 WPIAL semifinals to Connellsville freshman Ashtin Primus, then lost to Chartiers Valley's Mark McKnight in the consolation for third place. Plum's Sean Clair claimed the WPIAL title. All three qualifiers placed at Hershey, with McKnight walking away with the gold medal.
"We had a state champion not qualify that first year," Kiski Area coach Chuck Tursky said. "Drew Headlee was in a weight class that had four studs, and he was the unfortunate one to stay home. I really felt bad for him. The same thing happened this year with [North Allegheny's] Dom Forys."
On March 1, Forys was the odd man out in a 126-pound weight class that featured four PIAA place-winners. Forys, a three-time PIAA place-winner lost in the semifinals to eventual champion Dalton Macri of Canon-McMillan, then lost to Waynesburg Central's A.C. Headlee in the consolation for third place.
Ironically, A.C. Headlee was the odd man out in his freshman year, as he placed fourth at 106 pounds.
"It's the Dom Forys Rule," said Central Catholic wrestler Vincenzo Joseph, when asked for his thoughts about the expanded PIAA brackets. "Dom should have been at Hershey last year. It's a shame the change came a year late for him."
Forys, who graduated last month, welcomes the change, but wishes it could have come sooner.
"It's better late than never," said Forys, a Pitt recruit. "I'm happy they finally made the change. It opens the door for a fourth qualifier to represent the WPIAL."
Forys wasn't the only North Allegheny wrestler to fall one win short of qualifying for a PIAA berth last season, as teammate Scott Stossel placed fourth at 120.
"There are so many good wrestlers who have stayed home since we lost the fourth qualifier," North Allegheny coach Jamie Kyriazis said. "I'm glad they made the change. I just wish they would have made it prior to last season."
In the 12 years that have passed since the WPIAL was cut back to three PIAA berths per weight class, Latrobe has had the most wrestlers miss out on a trip to Hershey with 15 falling short of a PIAA berth after placing fourth in the WPIAL.
North Allegheny ranks second with 10 fourth-place finishers. Canon-McMillan, Greensburg Salem and Hempfield Area are tied for third, as each had nine wrestlers place fourth.
During the 12-year stretch, three teams recorded a negative "trifecta," as three teammates placed fourth in the same season. Greensburg Salem had it happen in 2006, Latrobe in 2011 and Hampton in 2012.
Other teams that had five or more wrestlers place fourth in the past 12 years are Kiski Area (8), Connellsville (8), Hampton (7), Trinity (7), Shaler Area (6), Butler Area (6), Albert Gallatin (6), Penn-Trafford (5), McGuffey (5) and Central Catholic (5).
Harbert is thrilled with the change, but also pointed out that the third-place match has lost some of its luster.
"It takes a little romance out of the third-place match, because both participants already know they are going to Hershey," Harbert said. "I will miss the intensity of those matches, but I'd rather have a fourth-place finisher qualify."
Class AA coaches also benefit, as the Southwest Region now has six qualifiers.
Similar to Class AAA, there was a de facto "elimination match" in AA, only for fifth place instead of third.
The change came one year too late for Freedom Area's Cody Komara, who placed sixth in the region as a 120-pound freshman.
"I have mixed feelings on the change," Freedom coach Jim Covert said. "At first I didn't like it. I enjoyed watching the matches for fifth place and seeing the wrestler who gets to go to states. Then I realized that Cody Komara was in one of those matches last year and didn't get to go to Hershey.
"The experience he could have picked up last year, in his freshman year, would have been invaluable."