Penn Hills wrestling shows postseason progress

Thursday, February 27, 2020 | 11:45 PM

Heading into the season, Jeremy Packer was hopeful the Penn Hills wrestling program could be well-represented at the WPIAL Class AAA individual tournament this season.

Packer worked his magic as he has gotten his wrestlers prepared to peak at the right time of the season as three Indians qualified for the WPIAL tournament after placing fifth or higher in the WPIAL Section 1-AAA tournament Feb. 22 at Kiski Area.

Junior Hunter Shields (132), senior Mike DeVito (152) and sophomore A.J. Palumbo (195) all qualified for the WPIAL tournament. It was the first time Penn Hills had three qualifiers since TeShan Campbell, Mike Ames and Zach Crankshaw went to WPIALs in 2014.

“It’s nice for some of the guys that don’t have the records and name recognition to make it out. It’s rewarding for these guys,” Packer said. “This probably, from top to bottom, is the deepest and best team that we’ve had here. We’ve probably had some more individual talent, but as far as a team coming together, I’d say this is the best one that I’ve had.”

Shields (20-8) qualified for the WPIAL tournament after finishing third by defeating Greensburg Salem’s Cody Kaufman by a 1-0 decision.

It was the second straight WPIAL appearance for Shields, who was seeded eighth.

Earlier in the season, Shields finished fourth at the Eastern Area Invitational and Steve DeAugustino Holiday Classic.

DeVito (11-9) and Palumbo (14-14) each finished fourth in the section tournament in order to qualify for the WPIAL tournament.

“Credit to them, they are peaking at the right time,” Packer said. “They saved their best wrestling for when you want to be wrestling. They’ve been both knocking off some kids that have been seeded higher than them. It’s a testament to the hard work they’ve put in.”

DeVito, who battled injuries and illness during the postseason in recent years, has been used up and down the Penn Hills lineup and has settled at 152.

“I feel a lot stronger at 152 because 145 was a little bit of a harder weight class, and I wasn’t eating the way I should’ve,” DeVito said. “At 152, I’m now at full strength and I’m doing a lot better.”

Palumbo had a turnaround season this year as he’s coming off a one-win season.

“I’ve been pushing myself at practice more and believing in myself that I could actually do it,” Palumbo said. “I didn’t want to start to overthink anything, but just go out there and do my thing.”

At the section tournament, the Indians had a chance to even add one or two more teammates at WPIALs. However, sophomore Steve Tucibat (120) and senior Robert Harris (170) lost their fifth-place matches.

When looking forward to the WPIAL tournament, Shields said he thinks he will be more mentally prepared for the big stage this time around.

“Last year, I was really nervous since I wasn’t use to the atmosphere. I feel like I’m going to be nervous this year but I feel like it’s going to be a lot less nerve-racking there. When I went there last year, there were a lot more people there than I initially expected,” Shields said.

Shields, who has his sights on qualifying for states, will look to upset the higher-seeded wrestlers as two of the top four in 132 are from his own section — No. 1 Latrobe’s Gabe Willochell (30-0) and No. 4 Franklin Regional’s Garrett Thompson (21-8).

“I feel like I have the potential to make a huge impact on the WPIAL tournament,” Shields said. “I don’t discredit anyone who has won in any other section because they are all hard, but considering last year the first and second state kids were in my section and this year with Gabe in it, my section has been pretty hard the last two years.”


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