They've made the next step and advanced to the Northwest Regional Class AAA Tournament. Some of the qualifiers have goals far beyond the regional, but most will fight just to make it to the PIAA Championships.
Whatever their goals are, wrestlers and coaches have worked, sweated, cut weight and sacrificed, and all the while, they've kept an eye on the postseason and the regional tournament. At times, it seemed pretty far off, but now a trip to Hershey is within their reach.
"This is dessert for our kids," said Philipsburg-Osceola coach Tim McCamley, who has eight regional qualifiers. "This is fun for these kids. I know there's a lot of pressure, but the only pressure is the pressure they put on themselves. It's not from me. I want them to enjoy the ride."
"The guys are looking forward to this weekend," Hollidaysburg coach Mike Moore said of his three-man contingent. "They are very focused on getting to the state tournament. They can smell the chocolate. We had a couple of outstanding workouts with Northern Bedford this week. So, I believe we are prepared going into the weekend."
For the 16 area wrestlers and everybody else in the tournament, the exit on the road to Hershey begins on the mats at 5 p.m. today at the Altoona Fieldhouse. A quarterfinal round will follow at about 7:15, and a consolation round will wrap up the first day.
The action resumes at noon Saturday with the semifinals and second round of consolations. The consolation finals are set for 5:30 p.m., and the championship finals will follow at about 6:30.
NW Regional AAA Tournament
Where: Altoona Fieldhouse
Starts: Today, 5 p.m. Saturday, noon
Medal rounds: Third-place bouts, 5:30 p.m. Saturday; Finals, 6:30 p.m.
What's at stake: Top three at each weight advance to the PIAA Championships.
The wrestlers will be battling through 12-man brackets made up of the top four from District 6, the top three from District 10, the top three from District 9 and the top two from District 8.
Of the 16 area guys, only Altoona junior T.J. Brandt (126) and P-O' senior Logan Walstrom (145) are returning state qualifiers. Hollidaysburg sophomore Damian Huff (106) finished fourth at 103 - one place shy of qualifying.
Brandt - one of five Mountain Lions in the field - is a two-time regional runner-up, losing to Clearfield's Christian Stone, 4-2, his freshman season and Brashear's Godwin Nyama, 7-6, as a sophomore. Both Stone and Nyama are at the loaded 120-pound weight class this year. More on that later.
Brandt (26-3), a three-time District 6 champion, gets a bye in the first round, and then gets the winner of Perry's District 8 runner-up Chris Moyers (13-10) and General McLane's District 10 third-placer Ken Stoll (21-16) in the quarterfinals.
"If T.J. is wrestling his best, he can beat any individual in the state at his weight class," Gilbert said. "He will need to wrestle one match at a time and get his offense going early."
Brandt will be joined by teammates D.J. Hollingshead (120), Connor Lesniak (152), Markief Knode (160) and Austin Rosenberry (285).
Hollingshead (32-3), a District 6 runner-up, will have to wade though a loaded weight class that includes District 8 champ Nyama, whom the Altoona freshman star will very likely wrestle in the quarters, District 9 champ Stone and District 6 champ Traxler, both of whom are in the top bracket.
Stone finished third at 112 at regionals last year, and Traxler won at 119 for his second regional title. Nyama was seventh at Hershey, and Traxler was sixth.
"I expect Hollingshead to follow the gameplans against each opponent this week and rely more on his strengths during the match," Gilbert said. "If he wrestles tough, he has a great opportunity to place in the top three."
Walstrom (37-2), who finished third in last year's tournament, is looking to bounce back from his 3-1 loss to Bellefonte's Leo Wortman in the district finals. He opens with Cathedral Prep's District 10 third-placer Daniel Krysiak (18-9), and there's a possible semifinal bout against DuBois' returning 135-pound third-placer Tom Sleigh (29-7).
Wortman (33-4) and Clearfield's returning 130-pound regional runner-up Nolan Barger (26-4) are in the top bracket.
"He was working out on Sunday," McCamley said, "so he's ready to go. He wants to be in the finals this weekend. He knows how important each match is."
The Mounties eight-man contingent is their largest since qualifying eight in 2000. Jeffrey Thompson (160), P-O's only third-placer, whill be joined by fourth-placers Brian Evans (120), Caleb Shively (126), Andrew Greenawalt (138), Jared Smith (152), Jay Prentice (170) and Nick Gray (220).
"I'd like to get them all through," McCamley said laughing. "It would be a fun time at states with these guys. The good thing about this team is they know when to hit the switch."
Huff (22-7), who placed fourth in a tough weight last week, will find a tougher path this week. He gets Clearfield's District 9 runner-up Noah Cline (11-14) in his first bout, but Westmont Hilltop's district champ Logan Blackburn (21-7) awaits in the quarters and, most likely, Cathedral Prep's returning regional runner-up Jake Gromacki (22-3) in the semis.
"Damian Huff has a very deep weight class," Moore said. "He needs to step on the starting line believing he is the best wrestler on the mat."
Huff will be joined by teammates Laret Miller (182), who finished second at districts, and Matt Barton (285), who finished third. Miller (25-3) opens, oddly enough, with Central Mountain's Blaze Buckwalter (29-8), whom the Golden Tiger senior beat for the first time in the district semifinals. McDowell's Khlique Harris (32-2), who finished fourth at 152 last season, will likely await in the semis.
"It's a tough opening round to the tournament," Moore said, "but that's why it's the regional tournament. It should be tough. Buckwalter is a pretty good kid. If Laret keeps his intensity and focus, there is no doubt he will win."