Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Deputy is the right choice to lead Lions

   When Greg Lazor stepped down as Chestnut Ridge's head wrestling coach two months ago, it created an opening that surprised many and left one of the state's best Class AA programs in recent years searching for a new leader.
   The school's administration didn't have to look very far to find him, as Josh Deputy, one of Lazor's longtime assistants, was named to the position on Tuesday night.
   With all due respect to those that applied or showed interest in the job, Chestnut Ridge made the right choice.
   It's really that simple to me.
   After Lazor's first few years in Fishertown, the Lions turned the corner by winning their first District 5 Duals championship in 2013, and went on to finish fourth in the state team tournament. Since then, they've captured six more D5 Duals crowns, eight straight District 5 Tournament team titles, and placed three more times in the top four of the Class AA state duals.
   During that time span, Chestnut Ridge also has 11 different individual state medalists.
   Deputy has been a big part of that success — Lazor will tell you that himself.
   His hiring, if nothing else, does this: It keeps continuity in the program.
   One of the first things Deputy told me when I reached him for comments last night for my story for the Bedford Gazette (see today's edition for that story) was about the closeness between the coaches and the coaching staff to the wrestlers.
   Deputy also told me that the remainder of the coaching staff from last season — Pat Berzonski, Scott McGill, Brian Gibbons, Tyler Dibert, and Dan Albright — is expected to return. That's a huge plus in itself. American Flag fanny packs anyone? Expect Gibbons, Dibert, and Albright to once again be sporting them on the Lions' bench.
   I know keeping that kind of continuity together is something Lazor wished for the program upon his departure.
   Hire someone from the outside and perhaps that doesn't happen. Or some return and some don't, which can cause friction. Remember what happened at Bethlehem Catholic. The Golden Hawks still won a state team title in February but it wasn't smooth for a good bit of the regular season.
   Chestnut Ridge wrestles a very strong schedule, something that Lazor really got the ball rolling with. That won't change under Deputy.
   And while the Lions will be without either Justin McCoy or Jared McGill, who basically have rewritten the school's record books, for the first time in five years, don't expect a sharp dropoff in the overall strength of the team.
   Deputy's appointment to the head chair only helps to ensure that.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Lazor leaves a legacy of excellence with Lions

   Greg Lazor's tenure as Chestnut Ridge's wrestling coach will be remembered for many things — from him tearing a towel to shreds at times during matches, to leading pre and post-match huddles that ended in a unison chant with the team's ultimate goal of a state championship, to his always colorful and witty comments to myself and other media members.
   His 11-year run will also be remembered for winning, a lot of it on the statewide level which hadn't been done by any other area program.
   Lazor recently decided now is the time to step away, resigning from the position in what he told me was a difficult decision but the right one. I had a story on this for today's edition of the Bedford Gazette.
   He and his wife Sandra have three children age 13 or younger, who are all involved in their own sports. Lazor was simply missing too much time with them to continue giving as much to wrestling.
   I wasn't surprised that Greg stepped down. I had heard rumblings of it since late last summer, along with the fact he was probably going to take the head softball position, and I figured this could be his final wrestling go-around.
   It was quite the way to go out, too. The Lions again dominated the regular season, won their seventh consecutive District 5 Duals championship, then finished third at the Class AA state duals for their fourth team medal in Hershey in their seven appearances.
   Lazor won over 200 matches at Chestnut Ridge, led the Lions to those seven district duals crowns, eight straight District 5 Tournament team titles and two Southwest Regional team championships, and coached 11 different state medalists. Those four medals (4th in 2013, 2nd in 2015, 3rd in 2018 and 2019) from the state team event put Chestnut Ridge second to only Reynolds (7 medals) in the last seven years of the Class AA Duals.
   Never one to take all, or any of the credit, Lazor will always say he couldn't have done what he did without the foundation of Chestnut Ridge wrestling, which included year-in and year-out success at the elementary and junior high levels. Two of the products of that — Justin McCoy and Jared McGill — became the two winningest wrestlers in Bedford County history and each won a state championship with Lazor in the corner. McCoy, now at the University of Virginia, won 167 bouts in his career, while McGill, who will be heading to the University of Pittsburgh, just wrapped up a 161-win total. I find it fitting that McGill's 170-pound state final was Lazor's last coaching bout with the Lions.
   In hindsight, maybe none of us should be surprised what Lazor's final numbers at Chestnut Ridge say. Before moving back to his native Bedford County, he built a successful program from the ground up at West Stokes High School in North Carolina.
   At Chestnut Ridge, he came to what was already a strong local program and built on what Jim Clark had done in his 30-plus years that featured 342 wins and spots in both the Bedford County Sports Hall of Fame and the Pennsylvania Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame.
   As for the towel ripping, it was what Lazor usually described as "nervous energy." On numerous occasions, there would be mere pieces of it remaining by the end of the match.
   His Lion teams coined the phrase "One, two, three, state champs!" when breaking a huddle. They never quite got there, but it became a vocal, motivational goal to strive for.
   His commentary to me and others after matches was positive and often quite humorous. Even for the Gazette story I wrote for today, he said on the question of being as successful as the Lions were: "I was dumb enough to think we could do it, I just needed some boys naive enough to believe in me."
   Last summer, I went to the Snake Spring fields between Bedford and Everett on a midweek night to snap a couple of youth ball photos for the Gazette. I didn't know beforehand, but Lazor's daughter Grace was on one of the teams that was there. Between innings, I saw Greg coming through the dugout and jokingly said "Hey, I came here to see if you were a better softball coach than a wrestling coach."
   His response, in his usual self-depricating style: "Neither."
   Now in charge of the varsity softball program, we may find the answer.
   But this I know — Lazor is already a winner, and has been for a long time.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

High School Wrestling needs the ultimate reversal

   It's certainly no secret that high school wrestling in Pennsylvania has been in a decline over the past several years.
   Are there still great individuals and teams that rival anywhere in the country?
   Yes and Yes.
   But from a big picture perspective, some things need to be addressed.
   A lack of numbers seems to keep rising and attendance at the big events keeps falling.
   So what needs done?
   If you've spoken to me or read my past blog posts, you know that I haven't been in favor of many of the changes the PIAA has made in recent years. Let's examine those first.
   It wasn't all that long ago that the individual state tournament weekend drew an overall crowd of over 60,000 people to Hershey. That number has been in a steady decline of late. I wasn't at this year's state tournament last week, but the crowds were thin from what I saw and it was reportedly just around 41,000 total for the Class AA and AAA sessions. That's a dramatic dip.
   I think two changes that I have been critical of haven't helped this situation — running the finals with the other medal bouts, and 20-man brackets.
   I haven't come across many people that like the four-mat scenario for the last session in each class. Pennsylvania used to showcase those 28 championship bouts, on one mat for everyone to see. Why fix something that isn't broken? (at least to me)
   In 2016, Brian Courtney made history in beating three returning state champions to win his first title at 126 pounds in Class AA. While most in the Giant Center had their eyes on his 3-2 win over Max Murin for the championship, it still had to share the floor with bouts for third, fifth, and seventh places. That, or a fourth title from Gavin Teasdale last year shouldn't have to share the focus.
   Four years ago, the state brackets were expanded by four wrestlers each, going from 16 to 20. Again, I was outspokenly critical of this move. Here's a link to my posting from March 28, 2014:
   Looking back, this hasn't worked. PIAA executive director Robert Lombardi now is quoted as saying the change was "awful."
   Sure, are there occasions where a sixth-placer from the Southeast or Southwest Region, or fourth-placers from the Northeast or Northwest become state medalists? Yes, but that's far more the exception than the rule, which was my argument five years ago.
   This year, the PIAA signed a four-year deal with FloWrestling to stream both the state team duals and the individual tournament. In the past, finals in both events had been broadcast on television by the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN).
   Many have been critical of that deal. Personally, I think it was a lot of good and a little bad at the same time. FloWrestling does a great job of promoting the sport and streaming wrestling competitions from around the world at all levels. So to have every session on Flo I don't believe was a bad thing last weekend. But I would have liked to see PCN still show the finals to the casual wrestling fans, people who don't want to shell out extra money for a subscription, or those that can't make the trip to the Giant Center but still have a rooting interest. Reportedly, the two media outlets did have some discussion about a joint broadcast, but talks broke down.
   Just because it's new doesn't mean it's better. Let's revert to one-mat finals and 16-man brackets.
   And while we're at it, seed the entire tournament, 1-16 at each weight.
   Seeding the regional champions has helped, along with making the brackets a secret until after the regional tournaments are completed. But let's go further. (Seed the team tournament too, but that's another story)
   There are too many situations where semifinals look like finals. I'm not naive enough to say it will be perfect, but you can't convince me that a total seeding of every weight class will hurt anyone.
   From a team perspective, wrestling has taken a downward turn when we look at overall rosters. I can't tell you the amount of matches I typed in for a newspaper report that had four or many more forfeits. Gone are the days where practice rooms were filled with full varsity teams, junior varsity teams, and still some others who were vying for spots.
   Years ago, the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) changed the weight structure, which now is 14, up from 13 and features more upperweight classes than before. When I was in school, the final four weights were 160, 171, 189, and 275 (285) with more condensed in the middle. Currently up top from that point, we have 160, 170, 182, 195, 220, and 285.
   With forfeits more of the talk than actual wrestling these days, the total of 14 needs to be reduced. Lombardi says he'd like to see it at 12, as he doesn't think 13 would solve the issue.
   College has 10 and seems to be just fine. Is that the number? I'm not sure, but 12 or 13 seems like a move in the right direction.
Final Word
   Wrestling is still a great sport, and it always will be. But it can improve again in Pennsylvania, and my hope is that the powers that be can hit that standing switch to get the reversal it needs.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Class AA Tournament Preview

   Here's my synopsis and picks for the Class AA Tournament in Hershey this weekend.

   106 - There's some pretty good depth and a lot of youth here as usual, but I like the four regional champions to probably meet in the semifinals. The top half of the bracket has a very intriguing semifinal if it comes off between Reynolds' Gary Steen, the defending state champion, and Biglerville freshman Levi Haines. On the bottom, look for a battle of unbeatens between Troy's Sheldon Seymour and South Park's Joey Fischer for a right to be in the finals. Steen and Haines are getting most of the publicity here, but Seymour is actually ahead of them in Intermat's latest national rankings. Seymour is third, Steen seventh, Haines 11th, and Fischer 14th.
   Spring's championship pick - Haines over Seymour.

113 - This is pretty wide open in my book, but I think Elizabeth Forward's Ryan Michaels is probably the favorite. I got a good look at him in the Southwest Regional and he impressed. The bottom half where Michaels is though is no picnic, with Eisenhower's Logan Jaquay and Southern Columbia's Kole Biscoe among potential challengers. Up top, I'd say flip a coin.
   Spring's championship pick - Michaels over East Pennsboro's Adam Jacob.

120 - A really top-heavy bracket here with three wrestlers above the rest in my opinion. Of those three, I'd give Notre Dame's Ryan Crookham the favorite's nod over Burrell's Ian Oswalt and Reynolds' Beau Bayless. A potential Crookham-Oswalt semifinal would have a lot of eyes on it. I've seen Oswalt a bunch this year and I really like his style, but hard to go against the freshman phenom.
   Spring's championship pick - Crookham over Bayless.

126 - The top half of this draw is very interesting, with Glendale's Brock McMillen, Brockway's Anthony Glasl, Upper Dauphin's Bronson Garber, and Muncy's Bryce Vollman all contenders. Down below, I think Bishop McDevitt's Chase Shields is a cut above.
   Spring's championship pick - Shields over Garber.

132 - What a weight class we have here with nine former state medalists. Up top, everyone seems to be eyeing a Josh Jones vs. Kaden Cassidy semifinal. Cassidy likely will have to beat Quaker Valley's Conner Redinger tomorrow, as Redinger was sixth in a brutal SW Regional bracket. Remember that Saucon Valley's Jones and Bedford's Cassidy are set to be future collegiate teammates at new MAC member George Mason. Down below, the smart money is on Cambridge Springs' Tye Varndell, but don't sleep on whoever also reaches the semifinal there, likely either Sullivan County's Nate Higley, Everett's Garret Cornell, or St. Joseph's Academy's Zack Witmer.
   Spring's championship pick - Jones over Varndell.

138 - The Southwest Regional gave me the chance to see Hopewell's Jacob Ealy for the first time, and I was impressed. I had picked him to beat Forest Hills' freshman Erik Gibson in the regional final, but thought it would be a closer bout. I don't see a real challenge for Ealy up top. In the bottom of the draw, look for Gibson, Wilson's Marckis Branford, and Saegertown's Kenny Kiser to be the main players.
   Spring's championship pick - Ealy over Kiser.

145 - How about a returning state champion against a returning state runner-up? But not in the finals. That would take place on Friday morning in a quarterfinal with Palisades' Nathan Haubert, last year's winner at this weight, against St. Joseph's Academy's Caleb Dowling, who was second last March at 138. Even with that potential showdown taking the top headline here, there's a lot of firepower that includes Notre Dame's Andrew Cerniglia and Southern Columbia's Gavin Garcia in the same half as Haubert and Dowling, and Pequea Valley's Gabe Miller the top dog on the bottom.
   Spring's championship pick - Miller over Dowling.

152 - This bracket is kind of like 113 in my opinion, with a lot of good talent but perhaps a bit below some of the other weights. That said, Pope John's Ryan Vulakh might be one of the best wrestlers that most might not know much about. That includes me, though I've read a lot of good stuff about him.
   Spring's championship pick - Vulakh over Freedom's Trent Schulteis.

160 - Like the previous weight, one name stands out to me and that is defending champion Thayne Lawrence. The Frazier junior should get to the finals up top, while down below, I think St. Joseph's Academy's Tyler Stoltzfus is the favorite, but keep an eye on Saucon Valley's Matt Arcioulo, Kane's Alec English, and Southern Columbia's Cade Linn.
   Spring's championship pick - Lawrence over Stoltzfus.

170 - About the only thing Jared McGill hasn't done is win a state title. It's hard not to like the unbeaten Chestnut Ridge senior this weekend. He already has beaten five of the wrestlers in the other half of the draw at some point this season.
   Spring's championship pick - McGill over McGuffey's Christian Clutter.

182 - One of the themes of the Class AA upperweights in my opinion is the top-notch freshmen, and that begins with Mount Pleasant's Dayton Pitzer. I can't seen anyone making a serious challenge to him in the bottom of this bracket. Up top, I could see a number of scenarios, with names to watch including Jersey Shore's Hunter O'Connor, Ellwood City's Austin Walley, Brockway's Garrett McClintick, and Freedom's Bryson Miller.
   Spring's championship pick - Pitzer over McClintick.

195 - A good group here, led by regional champions Gaige Garcia, Colin Fegley, Kolby Franklin, and Cael Black. Up top, Southern Columbia's Garcia would be favored, but keep an eye on Eisenhower's Black, North Star's Hunter Tremain and Bentworth's John Vargo. Down below, St. Joseph's Academy's Franklin and Mahanoy's Fegley appear headed for a semifinal battle. While freshmen Franklin and Black should have stellar careers when it's all said and done, a state title will have to wait for either of them this time around.
   Spring's championship pick - Garcia over Franklin.

220 - Derry's Dom DeLuca and Greenville's Jacob McMaster are likely to meet in the finals here, but there are other names to watch. Reynolds' Wyatt Owen, Montoursville's Cameron Wood, and Lewisburg's Dakotah Snyder are a few of them.
   Spring's championship pick - McMaster over DeLuca.

285 - There's a lot of intrigue with the big boys, where athleticism among the top contenders has replaced the usual push back and forth we see a lot of times at this weight. The top names include Mount Union's Jake Ryan in the upper half of the draw, and Brookville's Colby Whitehill, Meyersdale's Jalen Stephens, and Southern Huntingdon's Kole Winfield down below.
   Spring's championship pick - Whitehill over Ryan.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Lions showing strong again in Hershey

    Prior to tonight's state semifinal against Southern Columbia, I posted a warmup photo of Chestnut Ridge on social media along with writing that the Lions would need their best effort of the season (to pull off the upset).
   And did the Lions ever come close. In the end, the second-ranked Tigers had a couple more guns than the sixth-ranked Lions did and were able to escape with a 34-31 victory. On paper, I had Southern as probably a 10-12 point favorite at worst.
   That said, what Chestnut Ridge is doing this weekend is impressive.
   But in reality, maybe we shouldn't be so surprised. After all, this is what the Lions do when they come to Hershey. Now in their seventh appearance in the Class AA state duals, Chestnut Ridge has an overall record of 20-11. And they have three medals - fourth in 2013, second in 2015, and third last year.
   The impressive part to me is what we're seeing out of the newcomers and younger wrestlers on the team. While they've had almost a full season of hard competition, this tournament is still a different animal sometimes. I wouldn't have said it was a rebuilding year for Chestnut Ridge, but I viewed it as perhaps a transition year, with four freshmen starters and having to replace a state champion (Justin McCoy) and several other key contributors.
   And you could have understood if the pressure of a state semifinal got to them. But it didn't. The Lions were right there, and they had the Tigers on their heels for awhile.
   That's a testament to Jared McGill and the other leaders on the team, as well as Greg Lazor and the rest of his coaching staff for staying focused and wrestling well inside the circle. I'm not sure I've seen Lazor as animated, all in a positive way, as much as he has been this weekend in quite some time.
   So on we go to tomorrow, where Chestnut Ridge can win a team medal for the second straight season, which would be another first for the program.
   And it should be no surprise if the Lions finish that job again.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Lions roll into state quarterfinals

   For all that Chestnut Ridge has accomplished over the last six-plus years, the Lions haven't been able to win a state team medal two years in a row.
   That could change this weekend, and they got past the first hurdle earlier today with a 51-21 domination of Freedom in the Class AA first round.
   The second half of the dual was right in Chestnut Ridge's wheelhouse with its run of strong upperweights. And the Lions got pins in five of six weights, from Seth Holderbaum, Jared McGill, Austin Crouse, Duane Knisely, and Dalton Seace, respectively, to pull away from the Bulldogs.
   While that was impressive, even more so in my opinion were the efforts of Gryphon Callihan at 126, Luke Moore at 138, and Baltzer Bollman at 145.
   Callihan drew Z.J. Ward, a two-time state qualifier. We didn't see Ward at the Thomas Chevrolet Tournament two weeks ago, but he was in the lineup today. And the Freedom wrestler took a 5-1 lead in the second period. Callihan fought back to 5-4 and had a chance at a takedown in the third period, losing just 7-5.
   After Trevor Weyandt won by fall, Moore took the mat and promptly countered Kenny Duschek's shot for his own takedown. Duschek, also a prior state qualifier, never trailed again but had to fight off Moore's aggressiveness. Moore had a slow start to his freshman season, but he's quietly coming along as crunch time is here.
   Then at 145, Bollman gave up four takedowns to Jake Pail, but didn't give up any more than that. The Lions gave up just 15 points to that trio plus Freedom's Trent Schulteis (152), a returning state medalist.
   While I believe Chestnut Ridge would have had enough to win the match anyway, the start of it couldn't really have gone much better for Greg Lazor's group.
   As for a quarterfinal with Hamburg tomorrow, it should be interesting. Shameless plug, but I was eight for eight today with my first round picks, which you can see in my last blog post. I also said the Hamburg/Greenville match was close to call, and it was with the Hawks winning 36-34 on a technical fall from one of the Gimbor twins, both returning state qualifiers who transferred in this year from Brandywine Heights.
   Also of note is Hamburg had the largest and loudest crowd of any Class AA school by far at the Giant Center. I would imagine a similar showing of fans of the District 3 champions on Friday.

- Make sure you see my match coverage from today's match in the Friday edition of the Bedford Gazette. Pick up a copy or go online. And if you're here in Hershey, the online version is free access, so make it a great read over the breakfast table before you head to the Giant Center for the quarterfinals.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Breaking Down the Class AA State Duals

   The state team tournaments have begun with play-in matches having been wrestled last night, and we're down to 16 teams in each class.
    Here's my quick thoughts on Class AA, and my completed bracket is below that. (I'm no Tony Romo, so don't take this as anything more than a guessing game)

Class AA First Round
   — I think the Hamburg-Greenville match is really close to call and will probably be one of the two closer first round duals along with Saucon Valley-Muncy. I went with Hamburg here, but wouldn't be surprised at all to see Greenville in the quarterfinals.
   — I went with Saucon Valley in the killer #3 vs. #4 (rankings according to PA Power Wrestling) first-round match. Outside of a trip to the finals in 2016 (loss to Brookville), I've thought that Saucon has largely underachieved at the state duals over the years. The Panthers wrestle a strong schedule and are well-coached. This year may be an exception, I look for the D11 champs to be a factor in Hershey.

Class AA Quarterfinals
   — I went again with Saucon Valley in what should be another barnburner for them against Burrell in the Friday afternoon quarters. See my above comments on Saucon Valley.

Finals Rematch?
   — On paper, I think Southern Columbia and Reynolds look to be the most complete teams in the field, so yes, I believe a rematch of last year's championship match will happen. Reynolds usually gets it done on the big stage, but I like Southern Columbia, especially with Gavin Garcia and Cade Linn back in the lineup.

Darkhorse Candidate
   — Notre Dame-Green Pond. The Crusaders came close to beating Saucon Valley for the District 11 title last weekend, then beat Boiling Springs in a Monday play-in to advance into the main bracket. They draw Reynolds on Thursday, which is no easy task. But this is a program on the rise and it has enough firepower to make things interesting with anyone. Of course, that idea brings up the public/private battle with PIAA member schools, as Notre Dame has more than half its lineup from nearby districts. Boiling Springs' coach Rod Wright called Notre Dame GP "Beca Jr." after the play-in match last night, in reference to Bethlehem Catholic.

Local Angle
   — I think Chestnut Ridge got a favorable spot in the bracket. That doesn't mean I think a medal, which would be its fourth in seven years, is a sure thing. But I like the way the Lions' younger kids have wrestled in recent weeks. And getting Mason McVicker back on the roster and Brodie Harbaugh back from injury gives Greg Lazor more options in the upperweights. Chestnut Ridge will probably have to beat some combination of Southern Columbia, Saucon Valley, Muncy, Burrell, and/or Notre Dame GP to get that medal.

My Class AA Bracket
   — Again, take this for what it's worth.