Paul Schofield: Westmoreland County wrestlers shine in PIAA finals

Sunday, March 15, 2020 | 8:41 PM

What an exciting and puzzling week it has been for high school athletics and everyone else as the coronavirus pandemic has interrupted our lives.

With the sports world on pause, it’s a good time to look back and nothing was more exciting than the PIAA wrestling championships for three Westmoreland County wrestlers.

Latrobe freshman Vinny Kilkeary, Hempfield junior Ethan Berginc and Norwin senior Kurtis Phipps won state titles in Class AAA.

For Kilkeary and Berginc, they stunned the so-called experts who predict state winners.

Kilkeary came out of nowhere to win the 106-pound title. He pinned Cathedral Prep’s Jake Van Dee in overtime in the final with a headlock and then got a Twitter shout out from Latrobe graduate Luke Pletcher on Sunday after the Ohio State senior won a Big Ten title.

While the finals were exciting, Kilkeary’s semifinal win against Bethlehem Catholic freshman Tyler Kasak truly was unbelievable.

Trailing 8-3 in the third period, Kilkeary used a six-point move (escape, takedown, three-point nearfall) against Kasak, who had only allowed one point in 10 previous matches, to grab a 9-8 lead.

After Kasak reversed with 13 seconds left to grab a 10-9 lead, Kilkeary scored a reversal and three-point nearfall in final seven seconds for a 14-10 win that stunned the Giant Center crowd.

“Vinny had two great weeks,” Latrobe coach Mike Ciotti said. “He really picked it up when he beat (Hempfield) Briar Priest in the WPIAL quarterfinals.”

Greensburg Salem coach Randy Parsley said of Kilkeary: “He has a high motor.”

Berginc was the other surprise winner.

The Jeannette junior, who competes for Hempfield in a co-op, was the only wrestler to reach the finals from the pigtail round. Berginc won five matches, including a first-round win against No. 2 seed Ben Monn of Cumberland Valley.

“We felt he could beat Monn,” Hempfield coach Tommy Dolde said. “Once he won that match, he suddenly became the favorite. He wrestled extremely well, and I’m so proud of him.”

In the finals, Berginc defeated Cedar Cliff’s Aiden Lewis, 3-2. Berginc lost 4-2 to Lewis in the opening round of the Powerade Tournament on Dec. 27.

Jeannette athletic director Ryan Hayden said the school will honor Berginc and put his name on a gymnasium banner with the other state wrestling champions.

While Kilkeary and Berginc wins were surprises, there was a sense of relief out of Norwin.

Finally, the Knights had a state champion, and the third time proved to be the charm for Phipps.

After losing twice in the state finals, Phipps used a five-point move in the first period and defeated Waynesburg freshman Rocco Welsh, 7-6, for the third time this season.

“It’s a relief,” Phipps said. “I finally get to celebrate. I got it done.”

Phipps said after building up the lead, he got a little nervous.

“He has a gas tank,” Phipps said of Welsh. “I did enough to win. The first couple rounds, I felt amazing and I was scoring points.

“It’s unbelievable to be Norwin’s first state champion. It’s such an honor. I hope the young guys who watched me feel like they can come do it. It’s possible for Norwin.”

Phipps was named to represent Pennsylvania against the United States in the Pittsburgh Wrestling Classic.

But like the rest of sports, the classic was postponed with the hopes of rescheduling.

The fourth finalist from the county was Hempfield junior Isaiah Vance, who dropped an 11-4 decision to Sun Valley senior Hunter Catka.

Vance had a solid tournament and knows he has to get quicker and stronger if he wants to finish on top of the podium.

Highs and loses

There were a few calls by officials that left fans, coaches and wrestlers shaking their heads.

Franklin Regional junior Carter Dibert, a returning state champion, was done in by a questionable call in his quarterfinal-round match against Bethlehem Catholic’s Dante Frinzi. Dibert battled back and finished third.

Frazier senior Thayne Lawrence was denied a possible third PIAA title when the official called a stalemate with a cradle locked in early in the third period of his loss to Notre Dame-Green Pond’s Andrew Cerniglia. The call was booed loudly by spectators.

Greensburg Salem senior John Meyers earned a third-place medal after losing in the semifinals to Selinsgrove’s Nate Schon.

Other highs were Norwin junior John Altieri, who placed third at 138 pounds, and Latrobe senior Gabe Willochell, who defeated Seneca Valley junior Alejandro Herrera-Rondon for third place.

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

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