A new team champion will be crowned at the Powerade Christmas Tournament, which begins today at Canon-McMillan High School, as two-time defending champion Blair Academy is not entered in this year's 46-team field.
Blair Academy, a private school located in Blairstown, N.J., recognized as the top high school wrestling program in the country, dominated the team standings the past two years. Blair Academy wrestlers won eight titles during that stretch, while five placed second.
"It's a wide-open field for the team title with Blair Academy out of the picture," Franklin Regional coach Eric Mausser said. "We finished fourth in the team standings last year and most of our team is back, so we have to be considered one of the favorites.
"Winning the team title at a tournament as prestigious as Powerade would be a great accomplishment. We're looking forward to the challenge."
Franklin Regional's lineup includes two Powerade champions -- Michael Kemerer and Josh Shields -- and two others who placed second last year. Kemerer won the 113-pound title in 2011, then placed second at 126 last year. Josh Shields captured the title at 145 last year.
Panthers Devan Brown and Tyler Smith were runners-up last year. Brown, a transfer, placed second at 106 while attending Saegertown High School. Smith was the runner-up at 132. Brown's transfer was ruled ineligible by the WPIAL prior to the season, but the PIAA overruled the decision Dec. 17.
Brown won a PIAA Class AA title last year as a sophomore at Saegertown.
"I'm happy for Devan," said Mausse. "He's a good kid who loves to wrestle."
Brown steps in at 106 pounds for the Panthers and is joined by another Saegertown transfer, Spencer Lee, who is considered to be one of the top freshmen in the country. Lee has been starting at 113 pounds for the Panthers and is unbeaten at 10-0 after winning a title at Walsh Jesuit's Ironman Classic.
"Spencer is off to a great start," Mausser said. "It will be nice having Devan and Spencer at the start of our lineup."
Latrobe is another team to watch, as the Wildcats feature two returning Powerade champs. Luke Pletcher claimed the 106-pound title last year as a freshman, while Zack Zavatsky captured the 160-pound crown.
"Blair Academy may not be back, but the tournament is as strong as it's been in a long time," Latrobe coach Tad Harbert said. "Just look at the returning champions and you see some of the best wrestlers in the country."
Kemerer, Shields, Pletcher, and Zavatsky are among nine returning champions entered in this year's tournament. The other five are Kennard Dale's Chance Marsteller, Parkland's Ethan Lizak, Kittanning's Jason Nolf, Solanco's Thomas Haines, and Central Catholic's Vincenzo Joseph.
Marsteller, a three-time Powerade and PIAA champion, is considered by many to be the best senior in the country. He has a chance to become the fifth four-time champion in the 46-year history of the tournament, which was originally known as the California University Christmas Tournament. He returns at 170 pounds.
The other four-time Powerade champions are North Allegheny's Ty Moore (1986-89), Central Dauphin's Marshall Peppelman (2006-09), Franklin Regional's Nico Megaludis (2007-10) and Derry Area's Jimmy Gulibon (2008-11).
Nolf won at 132 last year and is now at 145. Lizak has moved to 120 after winning at 113 last year. Joseph won at 106 in 2011, placed fifth at 120 last year, and is now at 145.
"The 120-pound weight class is unbelievable," Harbert said. "We have Pletcher, Lizak and Derry's George Phillippi, all PIAA champions, and Georgia state champion Sean Russell. We also have Hempfield's Ricky Cavallo and Erie Prep's Jake Gromacki. And the list goes on."
Haines is a two-time Powerade finalist at 220 who is now competing at 285. He won in 2011, then lost in last year's title match to Kyle Snyder of Maryland's Good Counsel. Snyder would have been a returning Powerade champion, but he decided to forgo his senior year to begin training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado.
Canon-McMillan's Solomon Chishko is also a returning Powerade champion, but the Big Macs senior has been scratched from the tournament after suffering a knee injury at the Walsh Jesuit Ironman Tournament. Chishko won a Powerade title at 145 in 2011, then missed last year's tournament with an elbow injury.
Other holiday tournaments
Twelve other East Xtra teams are entered in holiday tournaments.
* McKeesport, Obama Academy, Penn Hills, Plum, Westinghouse, Woodland Hills, and Yough are entered in the Steve DeAugustino Holiday Classic, at West Mifflin Area High School.
* Gateway, Jeannette, Mount Pleasant and Valley are entered in the 33-team Southmoreland Holiday Classic
* Kiski Area returns to the 12-team Manheim Central Christmas Tournament.