BROOKVILLE — With nine postseason starters back, including PIAA Class 2A heavyweight champion Colby Whitehill and another state qualifier in Owen Reinsel, the Brookville Raiders wrestling team heads into another season starting at Saturday’s Greenville Duals.
The Raiders’ lineup might be a bit more vulnerable as they work their wrestlers into their postseason weights, but expectations are high again for a program that’s produced eight straight 20-win seasons with six straight D9 dual team titles, one state dual title, 35 D9 individual titles and 23 state medals with four state champions, including Whitehill, over that span.
While the Raiders kept their dual title streak going, Brockway stopped their team title run at the individual tournament at five straight. Expect Redbank Valley and Port Allegany as well to be in the mix to make things interesting in team title chases this season.
Raiders head coach Dave Klepfer has 18 wrestlers on the roster, so there’s not a lot of room for error, or injury. Along with the lightweight-heavyweight bookends of Reinsel and Whitehill, other returning postseason starters are seniors Parker Fleming, Cody Hetrick and Wyatt Kulik, and juniors Nathan Taylor, Elliot Park, Cayden Walter and Wyatt Griffin.
“Other schools are a lot worse shape than we are in their schools that are in better shape than we are, but we had 18 last year, and I didn’t think it was enough and we were just fortunate enough to be able to fill all the weight classes with those 18 guys, and then guys continued to get better throughout the year,” said Klepfer, entering his 16th season with a 242-103 record.
“And things worked out there at the end for the most part, but this year is a whole new year, some new faces and it’s one of those things where I’m not making any predictions for sure, but we’ve got a nice talented group of kids and we’re excited to be in here moving but at same time, like I said, we got lots of work to do.”
While the postseason yielded the program’s eighth state champion in Whitehill, the individual portion of the postseason fell a little short of trips to Hershey and medals. However, the dual meet season couldn’t have had a better finish.
Holding off Brockway in a 32-29 semifinal win before topping Port Allegany 45-21 in the finals for the D9 title, the Raiders headed to the PIAA Duals in Hershey and grinded out a 4-2 weekend to bring home a fourth-place trophy. It was their fourth top-four finish in eight years.
“It was a pleasant surprise,” Klepfer said. “As far as a coaching standpoint it was probably our best work as a staff over the last 20 years, mine anyway as a head coach. The state title obviously was a big deal, and take nothing from that team (in 2016). But the way the group last year overachieved was pretty special. And that was 100 percent the kids. They worked hard all year long. Every Saturday we practiced and they put the work in and it worked out at the end for them.”
So it’ll be back to the grind of a schedule again for the Raiders with the Greenville Duals this week, another trip to the King of the Mountain Tournament at Central Mountain High School and what should be a spirited matchup with Redbank Valley on the December schedule.
And of course, it’s the Raiders’ annual Johnson Motors Ultimate Duals on Jan. 18. Aside from the Duals, the Raiders are home only four other times.
“We have so much work to do between now and then, but our main goal will be to win the district titles and everything after that is kind of like gravy,” Klepfer said. “Once you get down to Hershey, it’s anyone’s game and we proved that last year. We were ranked like No. 12 at the time and we just got on a roll. Guys were wrestling hard for each other and believed in each other and somehow we walked out of that arena with a big trophy.
“I think in most preseason practices, we probably had eight of our 14 starters in here. A handful more were playing football or soccer, but we’ve got probably half our lineup who are ready to wrestle tomorrow, but the other half are the ones I’m really focused on, the young kids who have gotten a lot of wrestling to learn.”
THE CHAMP — Whitehill is the first Raider to ever have a chance at winning two state titles. The previous six — Chuck Yale, Jason Gilligan, Jeremy Reitz, Brock Zacherl, Taylor Ortz and Gavin Park — were all seniors.
Last year, Whitehill ran the table, going 39-0 with 26 pins. The University of Pittsburgh recruit is nearing a milestone as well with a 92-13 career record.
Whitehill had his trip to the Fargo Nationals cut short due to an injured AC joint in his shoulder. He recovered in time to wrestle at the Super 32 Tournament in North Carolina this fall where he finished fifth after reaching the semifinals.
“He did all the right things in the offseason and suffered that injury out at Fargo and he overcame that and battled,” Klepfer said. “I told him when we were leaving Hershey last year that I’ve never been in a situation where we had the state champ coming back, so the best advice I could give him is that bulls’ eye is way bigger now than what it was before he walked into this arena three days ago. So he was going to have to do more work this year than he did last year if he wants to repeat. He’s kind of embrace that.”
Of the eight medalists last year, five return including the top four finishers.
“You have to have three perfect days (at states),” Klepfer said. “It’s just the way it is and I don’t care how good you are. I don’t care what your name is, you have to be healthy, you need a little bit of luck on your side and you have to wrestle exceptionally well three straight days with little to no mistakes and that’s not easy to do.”
OTHER ANCHORS — Reinsel’s first year in what turned out to be a very rugged 106-pound weight class finished with a D9 title, regional runner-up finish and a 1-2 trip to Hershey for what summed up to be a 33-6 record.
Reinsel won’t get back down to 106 this year and he’ll start at 120.
“He hasn’t stepped off the mat too much since last March at Hershey,” Klepfer said. “He’s put in a tremendous amount of work, got out to some camps, traveled part of the country, got out to Colorado this summer, so he’s doing what it takes to make that next step. He’s made some nice changes on the wrestling side of things to where we’ve been talking, making some changes on his feet so he’s anxious to get started.
“He’s looking for a big year this year. He plans on standing pretty high on that podium, so you know if we can put together good healthy season and hopefully things work out for him at the end of the year.”
Walter and Fleming are the Raiders’ other returning regional qualifiers. Walter (25-10) was third at districts at 113 and he’ll likely be there again. Fleming finished 13-20 after a trip to Sharon at 126. He’ll likely be at 138 pounds to start the season.
Six other returning starters didn’t get out of districts. Popson was 10-17 at 120 and will be up at 126 or 132 pounds. Kulik finished 18-14 at 138 and should be at 145 this year.
“This preseason (Kulik) didn’t miss,” Klepfer said. “I’m looking for him to be one of our leaders this year and he’s a silent leader. When you talk about workers, there’s probably nobody that is more businesslike than him. So he’s looking to put a pretty good cap on his career.”
Hetrick, 11-16 at 145, bumps up to 152 while Griffin starts at 160 after going 16-15 last year.
Park was 21-12 last year at 170 and he’ll eventually land at 182 once he’s done dropping weight. Taylor was 18-12 at 195 and he’ll be at 220 this time around, hoping to build off a strong offseason that included an All-American finish at this summer’s United States Marine Corp/USA Wrestling Freestyle Nationals in Fargo, N.D. He finished seventh at 220 pounds in the Cadet Division, becoming the seventh Brookville wrestler to earn an All-American finish there.
“He had a very successful freestyle season where he was an All-American at Fargo, which is a very hard thing to do,” Klepfer said. “And then of course, the size was the other thing and we left there and I told him he needed to come in and about 235 to 240 pounds this year to start the season and he kind of looked at me funny and I said was serious. Put it on and then you get down to 220 and he’s going to be really hard to deal with. He followed suit, dedicated himself in the weight room he put a lot of time into being one of the better athletes in Brookville High School, both football and in wrestling, so I’m very excited for him.
“He’s very athletic at the weight class. He’s so far under the radar in our district and at the state level that it won’t take long, I don’t think, before people realize Brookville has something at 220.”
ELSEWHERE — It could be awhile before the Raiders could get anyone down to 106 pounds, perhaps sophomore Logan Ochs or even Walter. Freshman Brecken Cieleski gives the team depth at 113 pounds while freshman Brayden Kunselman brings strong youth wrestling credentials to the lineup at probably 126 pounds to start.
Kunselman was 24-5 and was sixth at 107 pounds at last year’s PA Junior Wrestling’s Junior High Championships in Johnstown.
“He’s the total package,” Klepfer said. “He’s got all the tools. He can run all three positions and his as a ninth-grader, he kind of wrestles beyond his age a little bit. He’s not afraid of the better competition and he’s the type of kid where I think we’re going to hit the ground running from the first dual meet.”
Another freshman, Coyha Brown, gives the Raiders depth at 132 and 138 while freshman Jackson Zimmerman, a PAJW junior high state qualifer last year as well, appears to have the starting nod at 171.
“I think the sky’s the limit for a guy like Jackson, and it’ll be one guy to watch at the end of the season,” Klepfer said. “We always talk about guys progressing from day one and to the last day. I’m really anxious to see where he’s at the end of the year.”
Senior Cole LaBenne or sophomore Bryce Rafferty will be at 195 pounds. Rafferty won the program’s first state title in the PAJW junior high division last year, capturing the 187-pound title and finishing 26-0. LaBenne saw limited action at 160 and 170 last year.
“(Cole) is one of those kids who has a good bit of wrestling experience, but he’s just been had a hard time making the lineup the last couple years,” Klepfer said. “Bryce brings a ton of talent from the junior high state title championship and he’s a kid who I think will help our team. He’s pretty athletic for his size so I’m excited to see how that plays out. Either way, I know we’ve got a really solid backup at 195.”
Sophomore Porter Kahle will back up Taylor at 220.
Klepfer’s varsity staff consists of Mick Stormer, John Matacic, Brady Mason, Eli Morres and Garrett Hurd.
Seniors: Parker Fleming, Cole LaBenne, Cody Hetrick, Colby Whitehill, Wyatt Kulik.
Juniors: Nathan Taylor, Elliot Park, Cayden Walter, Wyatt Griffin.
Sophomores: Logan Ochs, Porter Kahle, Bryce Rafferty, Josh Popson, Owen Reinsel.
Freshmen: Coyha Brown, Brayden Kunselman, Jackson Zimmerman, Brecken Cieleski.
7-at Greenville Duals, TBA
13-14-King of the Mountain Tournament, Central Mountain H.S.
17-Redbank Valley, 7 p.m.
20-at Falconer, N.Y. (varsity only), 6 p.m.
4-at Philipsburg-Osceola Invitational, TBA
7-Curwensville, 5:30 p.m.
18-Johnson Motors Ultimate Duals, TBA
1-at D9 Duals, TBA, DuBois
6-8-PIAA Duals, TBA, Hershey
21-District 9 Tournament, TBA
28-29-Regionals, Sharon, TBA
5-7-PIAA Championships, Hershey
Varsity matches follow junior high which begins at 6 p.m. Varsity home matches will start no earlier than 7 p.m. On Jan. 7, junior begins at 4:30 p.m. followed by varsity, which is then capped with Clarion University’s wrestling match with Southern Illinois.