HERSHEY - The grueling quest for a state wrestling title continues today as five area wrestlers head to Hershey to compete in the PIAA championships at Giant Center. Three of the wrestlers - Sean Heggs (Juniata), Zach Heeter and Alex Lieberman (Midd-West) will battle through the Class AA bracket - while two from Mifflin County, Hayden Hidlay and Kyle Kahley, will work to slash through the Class AAA bracket.
Heggs, a fourth-place finisher in the state tournament a year ago, returns at 138 pounds after collecting a District 6 Class AA title as well as Southwest regional gold. Heggs will have the opportunity to be the first wrestler from Juniata county to win a medal while representing both of the county's schools - he wore an East Juniata singlet a year ago.
Winning gold at the state tournament will not be an easy task, but Heggs' previous experience will undoubtedly help him as he seeks to reach the podium for a second straight year.
"His past experience of being at the state tournament is huge," Juniata coach Mike Robinson said. "He has an advantage because he medaled last year."
The 138 pounder will first face the fourth-place finisher out of District 3 in Biglerville's Jasper Hankey, who Robinson said will be a challenge.
"Biglerville has a solid program and (Hankey) is a tough individual," Robinson said. "District 3 is tough to get through."
Heggs, who represents one of the four regional winners in the state, will have his hands full with the opening bout, but Robinson said the 138 pounder is ready.
"He can't wait to get on the mat - he is mentally and physically prepared. He has a lot of heart and you have to give a young man like him a lot of credit," he added. "He has definitely earned his praise being one of the regional champions."
The Mustangs will send two grapplers to the state tournament; it's the first time Midd-West will have a wrestler on the floor there since Sam Shirey finished sixth in 2009. Heeter and Lieberman each took different paths to the consolation bracket but were able to finish strong and win bronze at last weekend's Northeast regional.
Stepping on the mat at 145 will be Heeter, who has seen the postseason before - he's previously wrestled in the regionals but fell short of making it to the state tournament. Heeter will face off against Conemaugh Township's Tanner Cahill today in his opening bout and coach Clint Swartz is confident his 145 pounder has the potential to make some noise.
"He has put a lot of time in - he wrestled in the regionals as a freshman and always competed at a high level," Swartz said. "He has a good chance to get on the podium."
Lieberman (170 pounds) will open his title quest in a matchup with South Fayette's Michael Fetchet. Lieberman, who has been hindered by injuries the previous two seasons, battled his way to Hershey after winning section and district titles.
The atmosphere at the Giant Center can be overwhelming for first-time participants in the tournament, but Swartz said his two wrestlers will approach it like any other tournament.
"It's just another weekend," he said. "We will try to keep the focus and do what we've done all year."
Mid-Penn conference newcomer Mifflin County will send two of its wrestlers to the Giant Center for the second straight year of the two-year-old program.
Hidlay, a freshman, is wrestling at 113 and Kahley will battle in the 220-pound slot.
In the opening bout, Hidlay will face a familiar foe in Central Dauphin's Austin Camacci, whom he beat 6-4 in a previous matchup this season. The Husky grappler hopes history will repeat itself as he looks to move on and conquer other wrestlers in the bracket - none of whom, by coincidence, contributed to his five losses this season.
"All of his (Hidlay's) losses came from guys in the opposite side of the bracket," Mifflin County coach Kirby Martin explained.
The freshman's bracket is packed with experience-laden opponents who are in their third and fourth years of wrestling at the highest level. The stage is something Hidlay has not wrestled on before but the scrappy 113 pounder will be ready.
"This is something he has looked forward to - there's a lot of excitement," Martin said.
Kahley, who enters the state tournament after working his way through the consolation bracket in the Northwest region, will have a tough road to hoe as well when he opens his tournament against two-time state champion Thomas Haines of Solanco. Martin said the grappler shouldn't be fazed by the pressure-packed atmosphere at the Giant Center.
"He works hard - and a big thing is he doesn't get too nervous - he likes being on the mat alone," Martin said.
With wrestlers in the state tournament for a second-straight year, Martin and the Huskies have laid the foundation for a solid program.
"It's definitely something that you want - consistency as a team and individually is great and it's a direction we want to be going."
The Class AA tournament is first on the agenda, with the preliminary round at 9 a.m. and the first consolation round at 12:15 p.m. Additional small-school sessions are at 9 a.m. (quarterfinals) and 6:30 p.m. (semifinals) Friday. Today at 4 p.m. the Class AAA first round will be wrestled, followed by consolations at 7:15. The big schools have one session Friday at 1:30 p.m. for quarterfinals; the semis are Saturday at 9 a.m.
The combined finals for Class AA are at 2 p.m. Saturday. The Class AAA medal matches are at 7 p.m. Saturday.