The Baldwin High School wrestling team will once again be without coach George McCormack, a 20-year coaching veteran who is wrestling with his toughest opponent, cancer.
"George is in the ICU right now with aspirated pneumonia," said Mike Bilbie, who has served as an assistant on the staff since McCormack took over as head coach. "The doctors are trying to get the fluid out of his lungs. They are hoping for the best, but it's very scary."
McCormack has been battling esophageal cancer for a year and the cancer has moved to his stomach. Assistant coach Blake Toki took over the head coaching duties for most of last season. Bilbie, who coached Baldwin's middle school team last year, will be the acting Highlanders head coach this season, and Toki is his assistant.
"George and I are from the York area," said Bilbie, a science teacher at the middle school. "We knew each other growing up and wrestled at Pitt together. When he got the Baldwin job, he asked me to be his assistant. We've been together ever since. In fact, I don't know of any coaches in the WPIAL who have been together as long as George and I."
Bilbie and Toki have 18 student-athletes out for this year's squad.
"It's been tough on the kids and the whole program," Bilbie said. "We are a tight knit program from the middle school to the varsity and the boosters club. We've all been praying for George."
Baldwin's top returnees are D'Adrian Carter (17-8 at 106 pounds) and Devontae Evans (28-12 at 220).
"Devontae is ineligible now until he gets his grades up," Bilbie said. "So I'm not sure if he can wrestle."
Two new coaches
Canon-McMillan and Belle Vernon Area also have new coaches.
Jason Cardillo has taken over at Canon-McMillan, while Tyler Nauman is the new coach at Belle Vernon.
Cardillo replaced Chris Mary, who led the Big Macs to four consecutive WPIAL Class AAA team titles. Mary stepped down in May after compiling an impressive 213-44 record in 13 seasons at Canon-McMillan. He ranks 27th on the WPIAL's all-time win list and is one of only 34 coaches with 200 or more wins.
"I have some big shoes to fill," said Cardillo, a 2001 South Fayette graduate. "It's amazing what Chris was able to accomplish in only 13 years. My goal is to continue the winning tradition we have here at Canon-McMillan, but I realize it will not be easy."
Canon-McMillan must replace seven starters who graduated, but the Big Macs do have three PIAA qualifiers returning in Brendan Price (38-9 at 106), Dalton Macri (45-7 at 120) and Solomon Chishko (11-0 at 145). Chishko won a PIAA title after missing most of the season with an injury, while Macri placed second in the state.
Nauman replaced Jack Jolley, a 20-year coaching veteran who retired after Belle Vernon's school board decided to open his position. Nauman takes over a squad that posted a 16-4 record last season under Jolley.
"We have a good group of kids returning," said Nauman, a 2007 Middletown High School graduate and a 2012 Pitt grad. "I'm looking forward to the challenge."
Belle Vernon's top returnees are Brendan Hasson (34-6 at 120), Derek Verkleeren (26-8 at 145) and Austin Belle (35-9 at 160).
Colts must replenish
Chartiers Valley enters the season with hopes of returning to the WPIAL Class AAA Team Tournament after a one-year absence, but graduation losses are a concern for coach Bill Evans.
"We lost five starters to graduation," Evans said. "We have a nice group of returning lettermen, but many of them are still young. Our lineup will have good balance -- a couple freshmen, a few sophomores, some juniors and some seniors. We're not heavy in any one class."
Noah Wilps (32-11 at 170) is Chartiers Valley's top returnee. He lost to Canon-McMillan's Cody Wiercioch in last year's WPIAL title match at 170 pounds, then placed sixth in the state.
Also back for Chartiers Valley are Justin Sullivan (17-16 at 106) and Mike Roper (13-8 at 195).
"One goal we've set is to make it back to the WPIAL Team Tournament," Evans said.
Returning PIAA place-winners
Wilps, Price, Macri and Chishko are four of five Class AAA wrestlers from the South Xtra area who qualified for the PIAA Tournament last season. The other is Mt. Lebanon's Kellan Stout (36-6 at 170). Stout placed third in the WPIAL last season.