NEW BETHLEHEM — Why not, why wouldn’t the Redbank Valley Bulldogs be chasing down a program milestone in a season like this?

While the COVID-19 pandemic still has its shadow over the PIAA wrestling season, the Bulldogs finally are closing in on their opening match Friday night at Mercer. They didn’t start practice until Jan. 4.

The schedule is ambitious with at least 16 dual meets scheduled over a span of 35 days. That could change, of course. A lot can. That’s why head coach Mike Kundick isn’t taking anything for granted.

And here’s the fun part. The Bulldogs, 18-3 a year ago, are 12 wins shy of 600 in program history and Kundick, 195-99 going into his 15th season, is also 12 wins shy of tying the team’s all-time winningest coach, his late father Ben who was 207-73-1.

“The kids are doing great and definitely, without a doubt, we had the hardest first week of practice ever,” Kundick said Monday. “We have no time for what me and my dad did for the last 30-some years. You can’t spend a lot of time on technique. You have to get into shape, that’s the top priority. Almost my whole team played football and then nothing until last Monday. Football was successful and it just stopped. Being down for over a month, that’s hard to come back.”

Kundick is aware of the reality of not easing into the season.

“We’re going to be wrestling three times a week, so basically, matches will be practice because that’s all we got,” Kundick said. “And there are a couple of weeks we’re wrestling four matches. As long as we get out of it healthy and get them prepared for districts, that’s basically what it’s all about.”

Kundick has a 21-man roster with nine seniors, two juniors, five sophomores and five freshmen. Of that group, senior heavyweight Kobe Bonanno is a returning state qualifier while he and fellow seniors Trenten Rupp and Aiden Gardner were district runners-up last year. Junior Ridge Cook, senior Dalton Bish and junior Ray Shreckengost are returning regional qualifiers as well.

Other returning postseason starters are seniors Hudson Martz, Coltin Bartley and Noah Anderson.

“Obviously, I’m excited,” Kundick said. “I’ve never had this many seniors and that’s exciting in itself. The couple freshmen coming up and the other classes that have some good wrestlers, we’re pretty experienced as a whole. There’s a lot to look forward to, but in the back of your mind, you’re thinking this is different. I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

Four Bulldogs caught the eye of the initial www.papowerwrestling.com state Class 2A rankings in December — Bonanno (29-9 last year), Bish (28-7) at 106 pounds, Gardner (23-7) at 215 and Cook (28-11) at 113. Bonanno is No. 14 in the state and No. 5 in the Northwest Region, the second D9er behind Brookville’s top-ranked Nathan Taylor in the regional rankings and No. 2 in the state.

“Kobe has matured so much,” Kundick said. “A couple of years ago, nobody would have even thought of looking at him and last year, he came out of it and it’s going to continue and if everything goes right, I expect him to be there in the postseason.”

Bish is ranked No. 3 in the region and No. 7 in the state at 106, but will likely land at 113 with Cook going to 120. Cook was No. 5 in the regional rankings at 113. Stepping in at 106 is freshman Dan Evans.

Another freshman looks to have the spot at 126 pounds in Duncan Blake with Trenten Rupp back at 132. A D9 champion as a sophomore, Rupp had his third straight 20-win season and trip to regionals last year at 20-12 and has a 63-35 career mark. Freshman Gavin Kerchinski likely backs Rupp up there as well.

At 138 is senior Dalton Bish (24-12). Senior Gage Snyder (12-11) should fill the spot at 145. Sophomore Baylee Anthony is a varsity newcomer at 152 with Anderson (9-20) going at 160. Freshman Coda Kirkpatrick should fill the spot at 172.

The elimination of a weight in the upper region — last year was 182, 195, 220 and heavyweight and this year it’s 189, 215 and heavyweight — created a logjam in the top three weights for the Bulldogs.

Martz (16-11) and Bartley (13-17) are at 189 while Gardner (75 career wins), ranked No. 6 in the region and No. 22 in the state, and Shreckengost (16-13 last year), two regional qualifiers must settle on the starting spot at 215. Senior Dustin Yarger is another 215-pounder

“Back in the early 90s, we had a hard time finding heavyweights,” Kundick said. “Sometimes we didn’t have one and now we’re loaded with talented and quality kids.”

Bonanno is backed up at heavyweight with sophomores Jacob Latuhin, Carsen Rupp and Gabe Carroll.

The ultimate goal of course is to get to states. The Bulldogs gunning for any dual meet postseason success is in doubt because of the PIAA not finalizing that plan, if there ever will be one. Individually, only eight wrestlers get to Hershey with the top four finishers in each weight class at the new Super Regional getting berths. It’s different, but it’s something.

“All sports are going through the same thing,” Kundick said. “It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s the best we’re going to get so we have to deal with it.”

Ruben Carrillo and Devin Laird are back on Kundick’s staff along with volunteer assistants Ty Haines and BryLee Shumaker.

ROSTER

Seniors: Dalton Bish, Trenten Rupp, Gage Snyder, Noah Anderson, Dustin Yarger, Hudson Martz, Aiden Gardner, Coltin Bartley, Kobe Bonanno.

Juniors: Ridge Cook, Ray Shreckengost.

Sophomores: Cole Bish, Baylee Anthony, Gabe Carroll, Jacob Latuhin, Carsen Rupp.

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Freshmen: Daniel Evans, Levi Shick, Gavin Kerchinski, Duncan Blake, Coda Kirkpatrick.

SCHEDULE

JANUARY

15-at Mercer

20-at DuBois, 5:30 p.m.

21-at Franklin

26-Brockway

28-at Mars, 7 p.m. (No Jr. High)

30-McDowell, 1 p.m.

FEBRUARY

2-Derry

4-Indiana

6-at Punxsutawney, 10 a.m.

8-at Armstrong, 5:30 p.m.

9-Sharon

11-Clarion

13-at Cathedral Prep, 10 a.m.

15-Curwensville

16-Brookville

18-at Cranberry

27-Regionals, at Sharon

MARCH

6-at Super Regionals, TBA

12-PIAA Championships, Hershey

Matches start with junior high at 6 p.m. followed by varsity unless otherwise noted.

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