There was a lot expected of District 5 in last season's Southwest Regional Class AA Tournament, especially by its coaches, because of the quality of wrestlers and teams in the district.
It didn't pan out, though. Only 11 wrestlers qualified for the PIAA Championships and the highest placing teams were sixth-place Bedford and eighth-place Chestnut Ridge.
The district is again deep, and Chestnut Ridge has won two big individual tournaments this season - the Thomas Subaru Tournament, which is like a mini regional, and the District 5 Tournament - and the Lions finished fourth at the PIAA Duals.
Ridge enters the tournament with nine of the area's 41 wrestlers, including four-time district champion Tyler Dibert (170) and two-time champ Dan Albright (195).
Bedford has finished second to Ridge in the Thomas Subaru, District 5 Tournament and District 5 Duals, but the Bisons have a seven-man contingent, and five of those guys won district titles. The Bisons will be led into the tournament by two-time state placewinner Ryan Easter at 120 and fellow fellow district champs Jonathan Gabriel (106), Garrett Thomas (126), Toby Brett (138) and Tanner Williams (152).
Is this the year, District 5 busts out?
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 will advance to the PIAA Championships.
"Last year, I was disappointed with the district at regionals," Ridge coach Greg Lazor said. "District 5 is getting stronger and stronger. District 5 has been impressive this season. When wrestlers from the district start believing they can do it, they will be more successful. This year, we could do quite well."
"Last year, a lot of the District 5 kids got experience there, and many of them are back," Bedford coach Brian Creps said. "If you look at the number of districts, District 5 is pretty small. It's tough to compare which one is strong and which are weak."
Can Ridge or Bedford win the team title? The last District 5 team to do so was Bedford in 1997. The Bisons also won in 1991 and 1995. Among those pushing Ridge and Bedford will be South Fayette, which finished third at the Subaru tournament and qualified eight to regionals, and District 6 champion West Branch.
"We're all about going to win everything we enter," Lazor said. "That's the nature of the beast. We look to be in the running. There's a lot of teams that have a good shot. Bedford has a lot of studs that could help them do well. District 7 could do well."
"There's a lot of our kids wrestling well, and they were talking about the team title the other day," Creps said. "Chestnut Ridge has had a very good season, obviously, and South Fayette was at the Thomas Tournament. I told the kids to take care of themselves individually, and that's the best thing they can do for the team."
How the districts will do remains to be seen. What everybody can agree with upon is the tournament appears to be rugged again with very deep weight classes that will test the ability, nerves and patience of all involved.
The tournament 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.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. The top five at every weight class will advance to the PIAA Championships next week in Hershey.
"It's extremely tough," said Moshannon Valley's Justin Fye, whose three-man contingent includes District 6 champions James Stodart (189) and Jake Ludwig (220). "There are guys at this tournament who won't make it out, but they could place at the state tournament. Every guy is good. I feel our region is one of the toughest in the states. It's going to be grueling, and you have to have a short-term memory."
"A lot of the fans don't understand how tough it is," Creps said. "You look at 106, and you just need to get out of that weight. Then you get to states, and you have a chance to do whatever. A lot of the weights are really deep. The main thing is getting into the top five. There are going to be some good kids that don't make it to states."
There are no returning area regional champions, but there are returning finalists in two-time runner-up Easter and Claysburg-Kimmel's Josh Brown (113).
Brown lost to Ligonier Valley's Justin Patrick, 8-2, in last year's 106-pound finals, but he snapped a three-bout losing streak to Patrick, 6-5, to win his first District 6 title two weeks ago.
Easter has run into Kittanning's Jason Nolf both years, losing 8-0 as a freshman and 5-1 last season. But Nolf, who won a state title as a freshman before placing third last year, is at 132. If he makes it to the finals this season, Easter could be facing Ligonier Valley's unbeaten District 6 champ Josh Patrick (24-0), whom Easter beat in the regional semifinals, 2-0, but lost to in the fifth-place bout at states, 2-0.
"The brackets are set up good, with Ryan on one side and Patrick on the other," Creps said. "If Ryan wrestles well, he can get out and move on to states."
Dibert will be aiming for his third trip to Hershey after placing fifth in Johnstown two years ago and fourth last year. And it won't be easy to get to the finals. South Fayette's Mike Fetchet, whom Dibert beat in overtime, 6-4, in the Thomas semis, is in his bracket. Jefferson Morgan's returning regional champ Dustin Conti, who beat Dibert, 8-5, in the Thomas finals, is in the other bracket.
"He knows what it takes," Lazor said. "He's at a weight with two studs of the tournament. It will be a tough road, but he's excited to see if he can qualify again."
Notes: Forest Hills' Cody Law (160), Burrell's Dakota DesLauriers (182) are the other returning champs. DesLauriers has won two titles. ... Claysburg-Kimmel won last year's team title. ... The most banged up of the West Branch group is coach Jason Bainey, who needed five stitches to repair a gash near his eye he suffered working out with 285-pounder Morgan Selepack.