The Franklin Regional wrestling team has progressed rapidly each of the past three seasons.
In 2011-12, the Panthers lost in the WPIAL Class AAA round of 16 to Butler Area. Then last year, the Panthers were the WPIAL runner-up and placed fourth in the PIAA team tournament.
Franklin Regional's state tournament hopes will be decided this week, but last Saturday, the Panthers (19-1) outdid the 2012-13 team by earning the school's first WPIAL wrestling championship, winning the Class AAA final against Greater Latrobe, 42-19.
"It's awesome as a team because we've seen ourselves progress from year to year," senior Tyler Smith said. "We could feel ourselves getting better each year."
The past few years, Smith has been part of a foursome that could rival almost any team in the state along with Michael Kemerer, Josh Maruca and Josh Shields. All four wrestlers finished in the top five in the PIAA Class AAA individual tournament last season, with Smith winning the 132-pound title.
All four returned this season, with Smith as a senior and the other three as juniors. And with four-time WPIAL champion Canon-McMillan graduating a lot of talent, the Panthers would have likely been the prohibitive favorite even if they didn't add any major pieces to the team.
But the Panthers added two wrestlers who both have the ability to win PIAA individual titles next month in Devin Brown and Spencer Lee.
"They've been a nice fit with the team," Franklin Regional coach Eric Mausser said. "They're doing a great job, jelling well with the guys and it doesn't hurt when you get there.
"They work hard in the [wrestling] room and are good additions to have. They've helped us out."
Brown, a junior, wrestled last season at Saegertown and won the 2013 PIAA Class AA 106-pound champion. Lee, who also moved from Saegertown, is just a freshman, but is the country's top-ranked wrestler at 113 pounds.
In addition to already knowing Lee, with whom he wrestled on Team USA at the 2013 FILA Cadet World Championships, Brown said he knew many of the other Panthers wrestlers from Young Guns Wrestling Club, which made the transition smoother.
"We've always been pretty good friends so it was pretty easy," Brown said.
With Brown and Lee at the lowest weights and Smith (132), Kemerer (138), Maruca (145) and Shields (152) in the middle, the Panthers can go on quite a run on an opponent, as Latrobe found out in the team's first meeting in the Class AAA Section 1 championships Jan. 22.
With the match starting at 106 pounds, the Panthers won nine of the first 10 matches, leading 46-5, on their way to handing Latrobe its first loss of the season, 46-28.
"I think they're a fantastic six, their whole group has like eight losses the whole year," Latrobe coach Tad Harbert said.
"... They're capable of going on that complete run like they did against us in the dual meet."
The six wrestlers are a combined 165-7 this season, with Brown, Lee and Smith having yet to suffer a loss.
But the Panthers are more than just those six. Every wrestler Franklin Regional sent to the mat Saturday in the WPIAL championship had a winning record. In addition to the six wrestlers already mentioned, seniors Brandon Yant (160) and John Wohlin (182) have more than 20 wins, and junior Dom Giannangeli (126) and sophomores Jake Pickup (195) and Charlie Mazon (285) all have at least 17 wins.
The Panthers have also gotten a big contribution at 220 pounds from Brett Zanotto, an all-conference linebacker on the Panthers football squad, who scored a major decision against previously unbeaten Logan Carns of Latrobe Saturday.
The combination of star power and depth has Franklin Regional ranked as the No. 1 team in the state heading into the PIAA Class AAA tournament. The Panthers first match will be Thursday against Wilson, which got past Council Rock South, 30-26, Tuesday.
"One match at a time," Mausser said. "That's all we're going to do is take it one match at a time and just go from there."
But looking ahead, Central Dauphin, which lost the majority of its starters from the team that eliminated the Panthers in the PIAA semifinals last season, is a possible quarterfinal opponent, and Nazareth could be a difficult semifinal matchup if both teams advance.
At the top of the bracket, District 3 champion Cumberland Valley has beaten both Central Dauphin and Nazareth this season.
But Brown doesn't think any team can beat the Panthers if they are at their best.
"As long as everyone stays healthy and keeps their head on straight, we should win," Brown said.