After winning past 12 WPIAL Class AA titles, Burrell wrestling not resting on laurels
By: Doug Gulasy
Wednesday, December 5, 2018 | 4:07 PM
As the Burrell girls soccer team prepared for a game this fall, members of the school’s wrestling team ran laps around the track at Buccaneer Stadium. The wrestlers moved eventually to Puckety Church Road, running up the hill that divides the high school campus from Huston Middle School.
Every practice begins with a similar conditioning exercise: The Bucs run down the stairs adjacent to their wrestling room, take a lap around the gymnasium below and come up the stairs on the other side, continuing the cycle several times.
So when asked for the secret to Burrell’s continued WPIAL wrestling success, Mason Slahtovsky came up with the answer easily.
“Hard work and dedication,” the senior 220-pounder answered, before crediting the team’s coaches for instilling an atmosphere of winning.
Burrell won’t rest on its laurels anytime soon, not with the Bucs seeking a record 13th consecutive WPIAL Class AA championship this season. A program doesn’t win a dozen titles in a row by getting complacent, and by now the Bucs know the drill.
“We’ve really had a good group of guys that have been here … as soon as school turned over, they started coming around,” said sixth-year coach Josh Shields, one of several former Bucs wrestlers on the coaching staff. “That, plus we’ve had kids focusing all summer long on making improvements. We’ve got a good group of guys this year. We’ve got a pretty strong lineup, top to bottom.”
Shields counts around two dozen wrestlers on his roster, which gives him two significant advantages as coach: It allows him to fill out a full starting lineup in most matches, a luxury many of his fellow Class AA coaches don’t enjoy, and it allows him to play the matchup game in the postseason, moving wrestlers around in the lineup with plenty of depth in reserve.
“It gives everybody a better round in practice session,” senior Austin Mele said. “You’re getting different looks from different people. It’s going to play a bigger role this year. When we go live, it’s go time. People are ready. It’s wars everywhere — nobody wants to give up a takedown in practice.”
Burrell typically has to rely on a freshman or two throughout the season, but that might not be the case as much this season with more experienced wrestlers returning than there are spots to fill. The competition already is fierce for starting spots.
“Having that guy there, either he’s a starter now or he’s pushing him,” Shields said. “Guys can make gains within a month or two. For us to have that sort of competition for starting spots, it’s going to be good for us. It’s really going to elevate the whole team.”
Burrell graduated a pair of state medalists in Corey Christie and Shaun Gates, who also won a WPIAL title, but return a pair of sophomore state medalists in Ian Oswalt (fourth in the PIAA at 113 pounds last season) and A.J. Corrado (seventh at 132). Mele qualified for the individual state tournament last season, while senior Bryan Gaul and junior Trent Valovchik appeared in Hershey individually in 2017.
Oswalt and Valovchik return for the 120 and 126 weight brackets, followed by Gaul at 132 and Corrado at 138. Junior Dominic Holmes, sophomore Colby Christie, junior Noah Linderman and sophomore Simon Slahtovsky can fill in anywhere from 138 to 152. Senior Danny McCarthy and Mele come back at 160 and 170, respectively, junior Ricky Feroce at 182, senior Zach Rupert at 195 and Slahtovsky at 220. Senior Jason Templer will battle with Jacob Bell and Austin Lippert at heavyweight.
Freshmen Shawn Szymanski and Nick Salerno and sophomore Aaron Edwards are among the combatants for the 106 and 113 starting spots.
Several of Burrell’s returners are entering their second season as starters, and Shields said they made good gains in the offseason — especially after they wrestled in big playoff matches.
“You’re not as nervous anymore,” said Mason Slahtovsky, who battled injuries in his first starting season. “You’re used to it. It seems in the beginning, you’re nervous. It feels like I’m more at ease.”
Burrell, which begins its season with a nonsection match against Class AAA opponent Waynesburg on Friday, upgraded the wrestling room in the offseason by adding listings of individual and team champions on the wall.
Plenty of space remains for the Bucs to add to the various lists. The Bucs won their 15th consecutive section title last season, extending their winning streak in section competition to 103 straight matches. That, coupled with the 12 straight WPIAL titles, makes them the top dog in Western Pennsylvania in Class AA.
But the team is seeking a better state run, as in its first PIAA team medal since a third-place finish in 2014. The Bucs last season advanced to the third round of the consolation bracket before a two-point loss to Boiling Springs ended their tournament.
“Really, the WPIAL championship is there,” Mele said. “That’s always our goal every year to accomplish, but we want state medals as a team. That’s really the only goal right now.”
After a couple of years in the difficult Section 3-AAA, Highlands is coming home, and the Golden Rams are happy to do it.
With a smaller roster than most of its Class AAA competitors, Highlands finished 3-13 overall last season, including 0-5 in section competition. But the Golden Rams had some success in 2015-16, their last season in Class AA, and they hope for some strong results back in Section 3-AA with local rivals Burrell, Riverview and Valley, along with South Allegheny and Summit Academy.
Senior Ethan Jones led Highlands in individual victories last season, while sophomores Jeremiah Nelson and Jeremiah Saunders finished sixth at the section tournament. Touted freshman Jrake Burford medaled at the U.S. Marine Corps Greco-Roman Junior Nationals this summer.
Highlands will begin the season Friday and Saturday at the Eastern Area Invitational Wrestling Tournament at Gateway.
A small roster typically poses problems for Riverview during the team portion of the WPIAL wrestling season — although the Raiders did finish 8-8 overall in 2017-18 — but the individual season holds plenty of promise.
After graduated senior Christian Tamburro became the first Riverview wrestler in 30 years to reach a WPIAL individual final last season, some of the Raiders returners will hope to join him.
Senior Lucas Murphy, junior Isaac Murphy and sophomore Matt Yots all won double-digit matches last season for Riverview. The Murphy brothers both earned section medals, while Lucas Murphy finished eighth at WPIALs.
Riverview will compete in Saturday’s Hampton Dawg Duals.
The Vikings advanced to the WPIAL team playoffs for a third consecutive season in 2018, but some of their wrestlers potentially can inflict a lot of damage in the individual schedule this spring.
Senior David Schuffert comes into the season as the likely favorite for a WPIAL and PIAA championship at heavyweight after finishing as WPIAL runner-up and earning a seventh-place medal at the state tournament as a junior. Schuffert, who has 91 career victories, is the top returning finisher in the WPIAL and state.
Noah Hutcherson had a strong junior campaign of his own, winning 40 matches and placing fifth in the WPIAL at 170 pounds to qualify for the PIAA Southwest Regional.
Senior Matt Ashbaugh and junior Kain Stone are among the other top returners for Valley, which competes at the Eastern Area Invitational Wrestling Tournament this weekend.
Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Doug at email@example.com or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.