Six wrestlers enter Saturday's Class AAA Section 3 tournament at Fox Chapel Area High School as returning section champions, but at least one will have to settle for second best.
Pine-Richland junior Brendan Burnham (25-2) and North Hills senior Jonathan Avon (27-3) are entered in the 160-pound weight class. Burnham won the 152-pound title last year and Avon is the defending champ at 160.
"This could be the feature match of the Section 3 finals," North Hills coach Jose Martinez said. "Both are returning section champs. Burnham is a PIAA place-winner and Avon came within two wins of a PIAA berth.
"I don't see any other 160-pounders in the section who can match them."
Burnham and Avon haven't met this season, despite the fact that both advanced to the finals of the Chartiers-Houston Invitational Tournament the opening week of the season.
"Brendan was coming back from a football injury," Pine-Richland coach Stephen Joseph said. "He wasn't feeling good after the semifinals, so I didn't want to take a chance. I decided not to let him wrestle in the finals as a precautionary measure."
Six weeks later, Burnham and Avon competed in the Allegheny County Championships, but didn't meet during the two-day tournament. Burnham, the top seed, finished a disappointing fourth after losing, 5-3, in the semifinals to Penn Hills senior Te'Shan Campbell, and, 4-3, to South Fayette's Jared Walker in the consolation for third place.
Avon made it to the finals, but dropped a 7-1 decision to Campbell, the surprise winner of the weight class.
"Those losses actually helped Brendan," Joseph said. "It showed him that he can't rely on what he did last year. It lit a fire under him. Brendan has been working much harder and putting in extra training sessions since those losses. He's become our leader in the practice room, pushing everybody to put in extra practice time."
The other returning champs
The other four returning champs in Section 3 are North Allegheny senior Dom Forys, North Hills sophomore Gage Curry, Central Catholic junior Vincenzo Joseph and Butler Area senior Ryan Hannon.
Forys (36-3 at 126) is a three-time section champ who has also qualified for the PIAA tourament three times and placed twice. Forys is a strong favorite to claim his fourth section title, but finds himself in the WPIAL's toughest weight class.
"Dom is one of four returning PIAA place-winners entered at 126 in the WPIAL," North Allegheny coach Jamie Kyriazis said.
Hempfield Area's Sam Krivus, Canon-McMillan's Dalton Macri and Waynesburg Central's A.C. Headlee are the other three.
"All four deserve to be at Hershey, but one will have to stay home," Kyriazis said.
Curry (29-0) is the defending section champ at 106. He is a WPIAL runner-up and placed fourth in the PIAA as a freshman.
"Curry has pinned 23 of his 29 opponents this year," Martinez said. "He hasn't been seriously challenged this year."
Joseph (29-3 at 138) is a two-time section finalist and one-time champ. He's also a two-time WPIAL runner-up and two-time PIAA place-winner. Hannon (29-3 at 170) is a two-time section finalist and one-time champ.
"The section isn't as loaded as it's been in the past, but there's still quite a few talented wrestlers," Martinez said.
Six other entries were section runners-up in last year's Section 3 tournament, including two each from Butler and North Allegheny.
Butler's Connor Foust (18-15 at 126) was the runner-up at 113, while teammate Cody Houston (25-8 at 138) finished second at 132. Foust has struggled after moving up two weight classes this season. Houston is now in the same weight class with Joseph.
North Allegheny's Scott Stossel (27-7 at 120) was the runner-up at 106 and Tigers teammate Clay Byerly (28-7 at 182) was second at 170.
The other two returning silver medalists are Central Catholic's Kyle Coniker (20-3 at 170) and Hampton's Justin Aippersbach (12-11 at 182). Coniker competed at 152 last season, while Aippersbach returns at 182. Byerly and Aippersbach are now in the same weight class.
NA's Rodgers out
North Allegheny's Jesse Rodgers, a two-time section finalist and one-time champion, has been scratched from the Tigers starting lineup due to a knee injury that kept him out most of the season. Rodgers (5-2 at 138) placed second in the WPIAL and fourth in the PIAA last season at 138 pounds.
"Jesse got hurt the second weekend of the season at the [Walsh Jesuit] Ironman Tournament," Kyriazis said. "We had hoped he could come back, but there's too much discomfort. It's a shame. I thought I would be taking Jesse to Hershey again."
North Allegheny may also be without Lane Skundrich, a 220-pound junior who is battling a case of mono.
"We're hoping Lane can wrestle," Kyriazis said. "We'll just have to wait and see if he gets cleared. It would be a shame if he can't wrestle. In that weight class, he could easily be a state qualifier."
Other area wrestlers who will miss the section tournament are Fox Chapel Area's Ian Moritz (20-4 at 120), Hampton's Garrett Kurneck (17-6 at 220), and Shaler's trio of Benji Kane (10-0 at 285), Jake Mikovitz (17-5 at 152) and Logan Heinl (1-1 at 126).