The Southwest Regional Class AA Tournament has always been a pretty good preview to the PIAA Championships. Those who place at the regional often place at the state tournament.
What wrestlers will find at the rugged tournament, which begins at 1 p.m. Friday at the Cambria County War Memorial and includes the top four from District 6, the top three from District 5 and the top seven from District 7, are loaded weight classes that will test their ability, nerves and patience.
Consider what some of the 51 area wrestlers are facing over the weekend:
n Cambria Heights has five District 6 runners-up in the tournament in Ryan Dupas (113), Joe Davis (120), Brad Thomas (126), Ross Inzana (170) and Jake Beach (195).
At three of those weights, Derry's three-time state champion Jimmy Gulibon (126), North Star's two-time state champion Nick Roberts (120) and Kitanning's returning state champ Jason Nolf (113) are possible semifinal opponents.
At the other two weights, Jefferson-Morgan's Dustin Conti (170), who is ranked second by Off The Mat, and Southmoreland's fourth-ranked Jordan Kitta (195) could be semifinal opponents.
What: Southwest Regional Class AA Tournament
Where: Cambria County War Memorial
Starts: Friday, 1 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.
Medal rounds: First, third, fifth-place bouts, 5 p.m. Saturday
What's at stake: Top five at each weight advance to the PIAA Championships.
Asked whom he ticked off to get those pairings, Heights coach Mike Eckenrode laughed and said, "You have to go with the flow. You've got to wrestle one match at a time. Whenever you don't win a title at districts, you're going to get the toughest seed. They all ended up in once place. I just tell them to go out and wrestle their best. The thing about it is, you can qualify the top five kids."
Central Cambria's returning regional runner-up and state fifth-placer Ben Rager (33-0), ranked third at 126, is in the opposite bracket from Gulibon, who missed much of the season with a torn miniscus.
n The 113-pound weight class has four returning state medalists, including Nolf (36-0), a sophomore who is 80-0 in two years, and Bedford's Ryan Easter (33-4), who lost to Nolf in the regional finals last season before taking fifth at 103 in Hershey.
There are also Ligonier Valley's Josh Patrick (14-1), who placed third at 112 at regionals and fourth at states and Beth-Center's Zach Swarrow (26-7), who was third at 103 at regionals and seventh at states. Add to that Dupas and Chestnut Ridge's Trent Crouse, who has beaten Easter twice, and the weight gets even tougher. Crouse could wrestle Dupas in the quarterfinals and Nolf in the semifinals. Easter is in the bottom bracket.
"There's some high-quality kids at 113. It's crazy," Ridge coach Greg Lazor said. "I would love for us to get a chance to wrestle Nolf. Crouse has wrestled Roberts this year, and he's wrestled Easter three times. He's wrestled Swarrow, so he's been battle-tested. Before we get to Nolf, we have a couple other big matches."
n The 138-pound weight class will again be a bear. Penn Cambria district champion Nick Szala (33-2), Bellwood-Antis runner-up Trevor Helsley (32-3), Blairsville third-place Noah Tarr (36-3) and Claysburg-Kimmel fourth-placer Ty Dively (32-2) are back.
Throw in Northern Bedford District 5 champ Drew Gartland (24-5) and Charleroi District 7 champ Nick Gavazzi (32-1), and somebody very good isn't making the Hershey trip.
Szala and Dively could meet in the semifinals. Helsley, Gartland, Tarr and Gavazzi are all in the same bracket.
"I look for Ty to be ready," C-K coach Dave Marko said. "What happened at districts has motivated him to work harder, clean up on some mistakes and be a better overall wrestler because of it.
"This tournament is, as usual, loaded with talent. In my opinion, it's as tough as any region in the state, but that competition helps prepare us for the state tournament."
n The 160-pound title bout could be a rematch between Central Cambria district champion and state seventh-placer Tony Risaliti (31-2) and Forest Hills runner-up Cody Law (29-1). Bentworth's Francis Mizia (37-2), who was third at regionals and seventh at states, is in Law's bracket.
In addtion to Rager, C-K's James Dodson (34-0) at 132 and Moshannon Valley's James Stodart (35-0) at 195 will put their undefeated records on the line.
"James has a very tough bracket with multiple returning state qualifiers in it," Marko said. "That said, James is wrestling well right now and with confidence to do his best."
The quarterfinals and first round of consolations are set for 4 p.m. Friday, and a second round of consolations will follow at 7. Wrestling resumes Saturday at 11 a.m. with the semifinals. The consolation finals and championship finals are set for 5 p.m.
C-K, which finished second in the regional team standings last season, and Heights, which finished second to Mount Union in District 6, could push for the team title, but it could come down to District 5 powers Ridge and Bedford.
The Lions have eight regional qualifiers, including two-time state qualifier Tyler Dibert (34-4) at 170, edged out Bedford for its first District 5 title since 1983. Bedford could be hampered by an injury to 182-pounder Michael Brett (31-7), who was still in the tournament as of Wednesday.
"In the past, making it to regionals was a great accomplishment and reward," Lazor said. "We want to go there and take it seriously. We're sending eight there, and we can score some points.
"We should be able to compete more now than in the past. As a district, if we send three to regionals, we send less to states than the other districts. This year, we should send more than in the past. I'm really excited for District 5 to make a name for itself."