5 things to watch at the PIAA wrestling championships

Wednesday, March 6, 2019 | 5:50 PM

HERSHEY — The PIAA wrestling championships begin Thursday, with Class AA kicking things off at 9 a.m. at the Giant Center.

Nine WPIAL wrestlers earned No. 1 seeds. Three — Seneca Valley sophomore Alejandro Herrera-Rondon, North Hills junior Sam Hillegas and Frazier junior Thayne Lawrence — are returning state champions.

Here are five things to watch at the annual tournament that concludes Saturday night:

Can Pitzer handle the pressure?

It’s not unusual for a freshman to win a PIAA championship, in the lower weights.

But can Mt. Pleasant freshman Dayton Pitzer (39-1) do it in the 182-pound weight class?

Pitzer will face more pressure and more experienced wrestlers at the state tournament.

He’s handled most of the competition already by winning WPIAL and PIAA Southwest Regional Class AA titles and three other tournaments this season.

He’s only lost once, falling to Belle Vernon senior Scott Joll in the Westmoreland County Coaches’ Association tournament in early January. He avenged that loss a month later at the Penn-Trafford Ultimate Warrior finals.

Going for a three-peat

There is no doubt that the toughest weight class in Class AAA is 132 pounds.

North Hills senior Sam Hillegas (38-0) is the No. 1 seed and is the favorite to win his third consecutive state title.

It won’t be easy, however, because the weight class is loaded.

Northampton senior Julian Chlebove (40-3) is seeded fourth and could be Hillegas’ semifinal-round opponent Saturday.

“It’s hunting season, and I’m going hunting for my third title,” Hillegas said. “It should be a lot of fun.”

The other top wrestlers include Shikellamy junior Cade Balestrini (32-2), who is seeded second, and Downingtown East senior Lukas Ritchie (33-3), who is seeded third.

Completing the task

Norwin’s wrestling program has never had a PIAA champion. Will this the year for the first?

Junior Kurtis Phipps hopes so.

He lost a 1-0 decision to Herrera-Rondon in the 106-pound finals in 2018.

His brother Drew also lost a 1-0 decision in the final in 2016, falling to Stroudsburg’s Jake Jakobsen at 195. Norwin grad Tim Morgan also lost in the finals in 1965.

“My focus is not winning the title,” Phipps said. “I’m focused on the match in front of me. If I happen to win the title, it would be great.”

Phipps is seeded No. 1 at 120.

Ealy seeks title

Hopewell also could get its first state champion.

Senior Jacob Ealy (38-2) is seeded No. 1 at 138 pounds in Class AA. He wrestled in Class AAA in 2018 where he finished fifth at 126 pounds.

“Wrestling in Class AAA has prepared me for this season,” Ealy said. “I’m looking forward to the competition in the state tournament.”

Ealy won the WPIAL and PIAA Southwest Regional titles with ease.

The Pitt-Johnstown recruit beat Forest Hills super freshman Erik Gibson (40-4) in the finals at the Southwest Regional.

Title chances?

Five WPIAL wrestlers claimed state championships in Class AAA and two in Class AA at the 2018 tournament.

This year’s group could surpass that total. Five wrestlers in Class AAA and four in Class AA earned top seeds.

In addition to returning champions Herrera-Rondon (113, AAA) and Hillegas (132, AAA) in Class AAA and Lawrence (160, AA) in Class AA, the other top seeds are: Phipps (120, AAA), Franklin Regional senior Colton Camacho (126, AAA), Kiski Area senior Cam Connor (152, AAA), Burrell sophomore Ian Oswalt (120, AA), Ealy (128, AA) and Derry senior Dom DeLuca (220, AA).

The WPIAL returned home with 15 champions in 2015 and 12 in 2016.

Many of those winners are finding success on the college level.

Paul Schofield is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Paul by email at pschofield@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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