New practice room, strong start have Highlands wrestlers optimistic for rest of 2022-23 season

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Monday, January 16, 2023 | 9:50 AM


There’s plenty of positivity surrounding the Highlands wrestling program.

The team has a place to call home after moving into a new wrestling room at Grandview Elementary in Tarentum.

They also are off to a strong start on the mat.

The Golden Rams are 5-1 overall and already have scored a pair of important Section 5-2A wins against Laurel and North Catholic.

Longtime Highlands coach Grant Walters credited a change in philosophy, dedicated wrestlers and an addition of some new coaches for the strong start.

He believes they can set some new heights for the program this winter.

“I used to push these kids and tell them I’m not satisfied, but this year I feel like I’m getting a lot more out of this group of kids by telling them to just go out and have fun, don’t worry about the points and if you get taken down forget about it and move on,” Walters said. “It’s been fun so far, and hopefully we can carry it the rest of the season. That’s probably the best characteristic of this team is that they like to have fun.”

Walters credited Highlands athletic director Drew Karpen, the school board and Superintendent Dr. Monique Mawhinney for their support of the program and giving the team a permanent practice area.

Having a wrestling room at Grandview Elementary also has allowed Walters to reintroduce the program’s Wall of Fame, which includes the top wrestlers in Golden Rams history.

It’s given the current group a source of motivation.

“All these years I’ve coached here, we’ve never really had a home, but this year we got a wrestling room, which was a big help for us,” Walters said. “We’ve also brought back the wall of fame and our current kids can see that. They want to get to WPIALs and states, so they can get their name etched on that wall. It’s a big driving point for them.”

Twin brothers Noah and Logan Leslie wrestle at 215 pounds and heavyweight. They are two of the three senior starters, along with Tyler Bender (185). The rest of the team is underclassmen.

Bender, junior Julius Saunders, sophomores Brayden White and Aiden Burford and freshman Javeon Chambers already have eight-plus wins.

Burford won the 139-pound title at the Bo Wood tournament in Indiana on Jan. 7, and Chambers and Bender scored runner-up finishes. The team finished third overall.

“Bender knows this is his last ride, so he’s stepping up,” Walters said. “The Leslie twins also know it’s their last ride. The younger guys like Brayden White, Aiden Burford, Javeon White, Keegan Babinsack and Julius Saunders know that there’s a wins record on the wall. They have to perform to get it. They’re on their own pace right now, and we’re hoping that we can get each of them over 20 wins this year.”

Highlands’ 40-36 win over Laurel in the section opener was a statement and a confidence boost. Section matches with Knoch, Hampton and Ellwood City stand between the Golden Rams and a section title.

“We had some things fall our way in that match (with Laurel), but the guys we expected to get the big wins got the big wins,” Walters said. “We always have a gameplan, and we have a great coaching staff that figures out that gameplan. We do our part, and they do theirs and everything comes together.

“My team has a lot of different personalities, but they have the same goal, and that goal is to win the section and make the WPIAL team playoffs. Then move on from there and make the state team tournament. That’s been the goal since the beginning of the year, and they are holding up their side of the deal.”

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer

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