LEWISTOWN The tournament trail is a grinding and grueling affair.
Over a three-week period, its purpose is to weed out the individual with the skills and mental toughness from those who break. Wrestling on the tournament trail is a war of attrition and to the victors go the spoils.
With sectionals and districts completed, 18 area wrestlers are still alive in a quest for PIAA glory.
Northwest Regional-Class AAA
The next stop on the trail for Mifflin County is the Northwest Regional Class AAA tournament, where Districts 4, 8, 9 and 10 will join District 6.
Head coach Kirby Martin brings a nine-man Husky contingent to the Altoona Field House Friday evening with the sole purpose of each kid cracking the top three in their respective weight classes. Do that and you punch your ticket to the PIAA state championships next week at the Giant Center in Hershey.
Last week, the Huskies not only advanced nine through, they won the team championship for the second consecutive year. Needless to say, the confidence level is very high in the room.
"At this point in the season, practices are monotonous. The goal is to try and make sure practices are fresh and intense," Martin said. "As far as wrestling goes, they are motivated that's for sure. The success of this past weekend is fueling the fire right now."
Mifflin County advanced 10 to the regional tournament last season with only Hayden Hidlay and Kyle Kahley breaking through to states, a stat Martin most definitely hopes to best in 2014. In order to do so, they must wrestle relaxed.
"The big ones are conditioning and technique. It is going to come down to kids who can handle adversity and how you respond to that," Martin said. "I'm optimistic. This group is focused and I want to help them get to the point where they aren't afraid to make a mistake and can wrestle free. That's my goal right now."
Freshman Noah Myers (113), sophomores Hidlay (138), Noah Stewart (152), Brandon Wilson (160) and Trey Hartsock (182), junior Isaac Underhill (132) and seniors Timmy Pearce (195), Kahley (220) and Colton Craig (285) will get their chances to make a statement and advance to states when first-round action gets under way at 5 pm Friday.
"Scoring the first takedown is something we are going to emphasize. We had some problems getting off the bottom at times last week," Martin said. "Good postseason wrestling also entails not putting yourself in a compromising position if you have a nice lead. Those are things we are still emphasizing in practice."
Myers (23-11) opens with T'Naz Gregory (18-5), the District 10 runner-up from Erie Prep, Underhill (20-9) faces Owen Watkins (15-10) of General McLane, Stewart (32-7) meets Erie Strong Vincent's Jared Carlson (24-7), Wilson (3-2) gets Dustin Coles (13-10) of Bradford, Hartsock hooks up with Warren's Cody Gunn (20-10), Pearce (29-7) faces Daniel Salinas (12-14) of St. Mary's, and Kahley takes on Meadville's Luke Carr (22-7).
Hidlay (32-2) and Craig (18-10) have first-round byes.
Underhill, Stewart and Wilson all placed fourth last season, one spot away from going to states.
The team championship should be a four-team race between Mifflin County, Central Mountain, Erie McDowell and General McLane.
Southwest Regional Class AA
The Southwest Regional is one of the toughest in Class AA, thanks in part to the all-around strength of District 7.
Tough is an understatement.
Comprised of Districts 5, 6, and 7, this regional is brutal to get through, despite qualifying five in each weight to Hershey. Two state champions (George Phillippi of Derry Area and Jason Nolf of Kittanning) are in this region.
Mount Union coach Corey Wertz brings a five-man contingent to the War Memorial in Johnstown with the hopes of cracking the school's regional jinx as of late.
"Everything is going well in practice. We are trying to stay healthy and in good shape. That's all we can do," Wertz said. "It's definitely not an easy region to get out of. We have been telling them they have to go in, go after it, and in order to get out you have to beat good kids. No question about it. It's not easy to get out. There is so much depth.
"One of the things we tried to do to help getting through was entering the Bedford Tournament this season. There were a lot of good wrestlers there, just like we'll see at regionals. We're anxious to see how much that helps us."
Seniors Sage Moist (120), Dylan Smith (160), Philip Kyle (195) and Nikolas Smith (285), along with sophomore Jake Boozel (126) will battle stiff competition with the hopes of gaining a state berth.
All five grapplers were regional qualifiers a year ago and it's that experience, according to Wertz, which may push them over the top this year.
"It is important to have that experience, but at the same time they have to make the most of it. This is it for them. There is no next year. You have to have that sense of urgency for a big tournament like this," Wertz said. "Wrestling is more mental than physical. You have kids at the same weight, with the same ability and the same basic moves. In a tight match, whoever is stronger mentally wins. Simple as that. The message we're giving is go all out and give it your best."
In opening round action, Moist (32-3) will meet Avella's Luke Lloyd (24-16), Boozel (29-7) faces Patrick Dewitt (36-1) of Valley, Dylan Smith gets Pete Provanzano (25-12) of Chartiers-Houston, Kyle (28-6) takes on Avella's Derek Allen (26-13) and Nikolas Smith (29-4) battles David Grafton (12-14) of Kittanning.
Juniata has one qualifier and that is Derek Beitz, a third-place finisher at districts last week. The senior is looking to become the third member of his family to qualify for states, joining brothers Seth and Zack.
"You have to take one match at a time. You can't overlook anybody. It doesn't matter if it's a one-point win. A win is a win," Juniata coach Mike Robinson said. "You have to wrestle like it's you last match ever and Derek always does that. He wrestles 100 percent in every match.
"One thing about Derek is he bounces back. The loss in the semifinals last week will not hinder him. He wrestled for five minutes and 50 seconds and came up short, the last 10 seconds was the turning point. He's looking forward to a rematch with (Dylan) Smith. He has to take it one match at a time to advance to the state tournament. His brother Seth placed low in the regions and was in the state finals the next week. He just has to get to the state tournament, good things will happen, and he believes it. He just has to take care of business."
Beitz (37-3) will meet Derrick Beattie (32-14) of Burrell in the opening round.
"It's a solid region. Juniata competed previously in District 3 and changing to District 6 gave us a top region to go through," Robinson said. "District 7 and District 5 bring in top kids and a lot of depth just like District 3 did when we were down in the Southeast Region. You see the sport of wrestling growing in the Pittsburgh area with all the different club teams. It definitely makes for a tough road to get to Hershey."
Northeast Regional-Class AA
Midd-West coach Clint Swartz brings a three-man group to the Northeast Regional Class AA tournament at Williamsport High School. The region is made up of Districts 2 and 4.
Zach Longacre (220) joins returning regional qualifiers Alex Lieberman (170) and Tanner Ebright (132) in the hopes of cracking the top three in their respective weight class, punching their tickets to Hershey.
Lieberman and Longacre are seniors and Ebright is a junior.
"They are looking pretty good. They had a good week of practice and their attitudes are good. Hopefully, it will turn into a good weekend for us," Swartz said. "Winning the first two matches makes it a lot easier. Being in the right frame of mind and go out and wrestle six minutes are key. Everybody at this level is the same ability-wise. You just have to go out and wrestle six minutes as hard as you can.
"Experience plays an advantage. It takes away from the big scene at regionals. They (Alex and Tanner) are used to what's going to happen and how it's going to work."
Ebright (28-7) has the tough task of meeting top-seeded Austin Harry of Lake Lehman in the first round. Harry (34-1) is ranked second in the state by Off the Mat.
Lieberman (31-6), a state qualifier a year ago, faces Rashaun Mathis (30-13) of Wilkes-Barre GAR, while Longacre (27-11) goes against Wyalusing's Dylan Otis (37-2). Otis is the top seed and ranked third in the state.
Lieberman lost a tough match last week to Garrett Hoffman of Montoursville and failed to defend his district title. Redemption is on his mind.
"I didn't really see a letdown in Alex. Normally that kind of stuff doesn't bother him. Looking at this week, he's ready to go and wants to get a rematch if he can get that far," Swartz said. "I think the kids look at it (records and rankings). We tell them it doesn't matter about record and rankings. You can throw that stuff out the window. Just go out and be aggressive, hold nothing back, go at them and anything can happen. If we win, that's great. If we lose, we have to be ready to move on."