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WNY Athletics Wrestling Season Preview

In the always evolving world of high school wrestling, this off-season’s New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) Wrestling and Executive committee meetings guaranteed more change on the horizon. The biggest topic of course was the ongoing discussion over the future of the 99-pound weight class in New York State. Other big topics of discussion included the number of postseason matches a wrestler can compete in, a single NYSPHSAA/Federation individual championship, and at-large and seeding mechanics for the state tournament.

However, while wrestling leadership across the state decides the future direction of the sport, athletes and coaches at home have plenty to prepare for as the new season looms. And as is expected with a new season, wrestlers across Western New York will have the opportunity to step up and fill the shoes of the departed Class of 2019.

In Section VI, 96 of the 360 class tournament place finishers graduated in the spring. Thirteen of the 30 sectional champions graduated as well (six from Division I, seven from Division II), and just under exactly half of the Section’s state tournament place winners graduated (eight out of 17). And, out of the eight graduated state place winners, all three 2019 state champions and two more state finalists are gone as well.

Team wise, there may not be a clear favorite in either division, but last year’s top large and small school squads in Niagara Wheatfield and Falconer, respectively, could be considered preseason favorites to return to Syracuse in January. However, teams with high powered, young lineups and others with large senior classes are always a threat to upset the balance of power.

With winter practice officially beginning on Veterans Day, Monday, November 11th, here’s what you need to know and watch out for this season.

Section VI Duals – New Date

The 2019-2020 Section VI Dual Meet Championships are slated for Saturday, January 4th at Lancaster High School. After the event was cancelled last January, the Section decided to move the date of the event to two weeks earlier than it has been in each of the last two seasons. The extra time cushion will give the Section a chance to make it up (following an established contingency plan) should weather cause an issue again on the day of the event. The 2020 state dual meet tournament will be on Saturday, February 1st at SRC Arena on the campus of Onondaga Community College in Syracuse.

99-pounds…Where are we at?

The 99-pound discussion has been a central topic of contention in New York State as of late, whereas the Wrestling Committee has cited statistics favoring the elimination of the weight, public opinion heavily favors keeping the weight class. A suggestion even arose to reconsider ‘eliminating’ the weight but rather incorporate it for individual competition only. NYSPHSAA Asst. Chairman Todd Nelson suggested that the majority of the participation and forfeit statistics in regard to 99-pounds that the Committee cited were issues more so with dual meets anyway, not individual tournaments.

While the topic continues to be discussed in state and sectional committees, state wrestling leadership now says they are going to re-examine the topic once NFHS publishes possible new weight classes anticipated in March 2020.

The bottom line is: no changes to the 99-pound weight class, at least for this season.

Federation/NYSPHSAA single tournament

Section XI’s wrestling chairman proposed a revised state tournament placement format where each division expands to eight places rather than the usual six which would eliminate the ‘Federation’ and ‘state’ place finisher differentiation. The Wrestling Committee voted unanimously in favor of this proposal in April and it was approved for use beginning this winter at the October 10th Executive Committee meeting.

Normally, when athletes from the CHSAA, PSAL, or AIS (Independent) schools make it into the placement rounds, the tournament holds a 7th place bout in whatever weight class this situation occurs in. Often times this causes a lot of confusion when it comes to podium pictures and handing out awards. The proposal also covered the concern of Federation athletes taking a placement away from NYSPHSAA athletes and emphasizes the importance of actual 7th/8th place match itself. The proposal received full Wrestling Committee and Philosophy Committee support as well.

Waiver of postseason five match rule

Section VI postseason class tournaments ran into complications with the NFHS five-match rule last winter (and many before that) resulting in a number of uncontested placement matches. Other sections around the state ran into issues where, in attempting to avoid complications with the five-match rule, conducted two-day state qualifiers which naturally resulted in duplicate expenses, travel time, and weight control. The Wrestling Committee voted unanimously again for a waiver for the five-match rule for the postseason, making possible a sixth bout in class, sectional, and state tournament competition. This proposal was supported by ten of the eleven sections as only one section (IV) did not participate in the vote.

The Executive Committee approved the waiver on October 10th, granting a possible sixth bout in one day for postseason competition only. The Championship Advisory Committee passed the proposal unanimously as well, 11-0, on September 18th. The passage of this waiver will take effect immediately beginning in the upcoming postseason.

Wrestling second most watched sport on NFHS Network in 2018-2019

According to Chris Watson, NYSPHSAA Director of Communications, the Individual Wrestling Championships last February were the second most watched high school sports event on the NFHS Network in NYS last school year. The 12,834 viewers who paid to watch ranked second only behind the Glens Falls/Lowville Class B state championship basketball game (13,950). Without a doubt, the only reason that one game was more widely watched was due to the presence of Syracuse commit Joe Girard III from Glens Falls. According to Mr. Watson in the July Central Committee minutes, “Our top sixteen events all featured Glens Falls or Individual Wrestling Championships.”

Wrestling officials most expensive in New York State

While NYSPHSAA calculated a very slight decrease in expenditures on officials between last season and the one before, wrestling referees overall are the most expensive of any officials in the state. Between three days of state championships (NYSPHSAA duals (1) and individual tournament (2)) the officials’ cost was $18,200 last season, just in fees, while the same fee was only $17,604 the previous season. With travel, lodging, and meals included, for the three days of championships, NYS wrestling officials cost $30,764 compared to $31,178 for the previous season.

Last shot for McDougald’s

Cousins Justin (Niagara Wheatfield) and Willie (Niagara Falls) enter their final high school seasons with a combined eight Section VI titles and six New York state place finishes. Justin made it back to Albany in February as a two-time state runner-up and championship hopeful but had to settle for fifth as a junior. Entering this season, Justin will undoubtably be looked to by the rest of the Section as a hopeful and favorite for a championship in Albany. If Justin can claim a title in 2020 he would be the first Falcon to do so in a decade (Angelo Malvestuto, 2010).

Willie of course was a state champion in Albany in 2018. He fell in last year’s title bout in a highly anticipated rematch with one of the best to ever do it in state history. While Willie has won a state title, it’s no secret that he is a competitor and the sting of the finals loss last winter will have him motivated to chase down another championship.

Justin’s brother Warren, a 2019 Wheatfield grad, was a state finalist in 2019 as well and finished his career with over 200 wins, four sectional titles, and three state place finishes. By the time the dust settles next February, the McDougald trio will have been one of the most decorated families in Western New York history.

New head coaches

The St. Joe’s Marauders will be led by a new head coach in Brad Devlin starting this season. Devlin takes over for Pete Kennedy who stepped down at the end of last season after fourteen years as head coach at ‘Joe’s.

One of Section VI’s traditional powerhouses in the Iroquois Chiefs will be led by program legend Jimmy Kloc starting this season. Kloc, a two-time NYS champion while at Iroquois, has been Troy Almeter’s assistant coach for the last few seasons.

The Hamburg Bulldogs will also feature a new head coach this winter in former modified coach Ken Schmitz. Schmitz takes over for longtime Bulldogs head coach Ken Meyer, who stepped down at the end of last season.

Sal Flores takes over as head coach at Dunkirk after having been involved with the program for a number of years.

Keith Stoerr will be the first head of coach of the newly organized Health Sciences/Maritime/Tapestry wrestling team.

Bill Kissell takes over the freshly partnered Alden/Depew team. Alden will be the host school and will have three league duals in Alden and one in Depew.

Three state champions graduated from the top three small schools in WNY…who will step up to lead these teams?

The Section’s trio of New York State champions last winter all, coincidentally, represented one of each of the top ranked small schools in the final 2019 WNY Athletics ranking. Falconer’s Robbie Penhollow, Pioneer’s Mike Rigerman, and Iroquois’s Cory Day were all team captains, state champions, and of course seniors whose roles on their respective teams will need to be replaced…but by who?

Replacing seniors is tough but replacing state champions who have graduated is even tougher. However, the wrestling communities that support these three programs are as strong as any in New York and will produce and look to their most experienced wrestlers and upperclassmen.

Falconer’s highest placing postseason returner will be sectional finalist Brayden Newman (junior). Senior and state qualifier third placer Bryce Baglia will also be looked to by head coach Drew Wilcox to be a leader for this team that returns seven sectional place winners. In addition to losing Penhollow, NYS 6th place finisher Jimmy Kramer also graduated in the spring. In the ‘next man up’ mentality of the Golden Falcon program, they’ll need just that if they are to make it back to the state duals for a third straight season.

While Pioneer also doesn’t return a wrestler with state tournament experience, head coach Chris Edwards will turn to underclassmen Daniel Kirsch (sophomore) and Kameron Riordan (junior) to anchor the Panther lineup this winter. Kirsch was a sectional finalist last season to cap off an outstanding freshman campaign but barely missed the cut as a state tournament wildcard. Riordan was fourth in Section VI Division II last season and should make an impact in the middle weights.

Finally, Iroquois returns nine class place winners led by sectional finalists Ryan Sweeney (sophomore) and Donovan Bukaczeski (junior). Don returns with some state tournament experience as he earned an at-large qualification to Albany in February. As usual, Iroquois will seemingly reload rather than rebuild with a large group of returning underclassmen. Keep in mind new head coach Jimmy Kloc will not only need to replace Day but also Jake Vergien. Vergien anchored the Chiefs in the middle weights over the last few years and also had state tournament experience.

League title streaks and returning league champions

Falconer – Winners of eight straight Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Athletic Association (CCAA) Division I titles. The Golden Falcons are 47-1 in league duals going back to the 2011-2012 season. Earning fifty league wins to only one loss in just under a decade would be a huge accomplishment even for this storied tradition.

Portville – In 2018-2019 the Panthers captured their first league title in a decade. Portville under head coach Matt Milne is in the midst of program renaissance and should be the favorite entering the season to repeat. By the way, the Panthers didn’t graduate a single postseason place winner. Keep an eye out for sophomore Dakota Mascho and senior Roland Thompson to anchor this team in back to back weights in the upper part of the lineup.

Clarence – Head coach Jason Chase and the Red Devils took back the ECIC I title last January in an exciting, down to the wire contest with Lancaster. Lancaster and Clarence have traded the league championship in each of the previous four seasons with the home team winning each time. The 2020 edition of the Border War returns to Lancaster this winter.

Pioneer – The Panthers remained undefeated in league duals for the sixth straight year in 2019. Pioneer is 44-0 over that time with three ECIC III league titles and three ECIC II titles. With the loss of Iroquois back to ECIC III, Pioneer losses their biggest challenger from last season. However, ECIC II featured five ranked teams in the final WNY Athletics team ranking (the most in any one league) so don’t count out hungry teams looking for a huge team and program win against the Panthers.

Tonawanda – The Warriors finished in the top ten of the small school ranking and brought the league title back to the city after a four-year absence. Now, head coach Dan Bishop and his team will have a familiar foe to contend with in Iroquois who is back in ECIC III. The Chiefs were ECIC II champs in 2017-2018.

Niagara Wheatfield – The Falcons earned a twenty-five point victory over Niagara Falls in front of a standing room only home gym in early January 2019, making a (loud) statement that the Niagara Frontier League title would be returning to Sanborn for the first time since the 2015-2016 season. On any other team, the loss of three sectional champions to graduation would be enough to make a coach sweat, but as history shows, Wheatfield is the definition of reloading, not rebuilding. However, don’t forget about the Falls or Grand Island who would love to climb back to the top of the NFL.

Newfane – Under first year head coach Matt Lingle the Panthers again repeated as Niagara-Orleans champions pushing their six-year league unbeaten streak to 30-0. Returning state finalist Andy Lucinski is the star of this lineup and will be expected to pace this team to another league title. Defending Section VI champion Jaden Heers will return for his senior campaign after a huge fall on the gridiron for Newfane.

St. Francis – The Red Raiders gutted out a 36-32 win at St. Joe’s in January 2019 to repeat as Monsignor Martin league champions. However, the graduations of Dominik and Nolan Thomas will leave two huge roles for head coach Mike Messore to fill, among eight more departed seniors. Obviously, graduation will always hit the Monsignor Martin member schools hard, and with rising programs like St. Mary’s and Canisius and the hungry Marauders not far behind, it will be interesting to see how or if the Red Raiders can three-peat.

New team mergers, league, class, and division changes

Barker/Royalton-Hartland – drops to Class C/D from B

Newfane – drops to Class C/D from B

Ellicottville no longer a part of the Franklinville/Cuba-Rushford squad

East Aurora/Holland – back together and with their BEDS formula calculated end up in ECIC II but still in Class B, Division II

The Depew/Cleveland Hill merger is over and Depew and Alden have joined forces. The combined squad will compete in Class B, Division II, and in the ECIC II league.

Alden spent its first year as an independent team again last season after being merged with Akron two years ago. With the Alden/Depew merger Iroquois bounces down into ECIC III to keep the league at an even eight teams. ECIC II will now feature only seven squads, and ECIC I is unchanged at eight teams as well.

Health Sciences is joining forces with Maritime and Tapestry to start a team for the first time in school history. The squad will be independent at least for this season and compete in Class B in the individual postseason. Health Sciences teacher Keith Stoerr, a Lancaster alumnus and former assistant at Alexander High School, will be the first head coach of the new team.

Teams to keep an eye on

Of teams that finished outside of the top three in the final 2018-2019 WNY Athletics team ranking and didn’t win their respective league title, here are some teams to keep an eye out for this season.

Starpoint – Finished 3rd in ECIC II last season and top ten in the large school rankings. The Spartans lost only two class place winners and regular starters to graduation but return nine class placers led by talented 8th grader and state qualifier placer Gage LaPlante. Also returning will be upper weights Gabe Lee and David Meyer who were both ECIC finalists but didn’t place in the postseason. In short, head coach Steve Hart should return at least eleven wrestlers who regularly appeared in the 2018-2019 lineup.

Fredonia – Finished 3rd in CCAA Div. I and #4 overall in the final team ranking in 2018-2019. A possible dark horse to bring home Section VI Dual Meet Championship honors. The Hillbillies lose three sectional place winners to graduation, most notably Section VI champion Giovani Russo. However, Dalton Gardner, a 4th place finisher in NYS last season, is back to lead this team to take a run at Falconer in both the league and Duals championship. Also returning is Section VI champion Ceric Kristan who will anchor the upper part of the lineup along with section finalist Jake Skinner. In total, seven Class B place winners return, five of whom placed at the state qualifier.

As if all of this returning talent wasn’t enough, David Ball has landed at Fredonia this season. The junior of course won the Section VI Division II 106-pound title last season at Gowanda and took his undefeated record on the road to Albany. The addition of Ball as a sectional champion and one who is older than most at such a light weight will be a serious problem for some of the other small school contenders in Section VI.

Grand Island – The Vikings finished second in the NFL and #4 in the large school ranking so to keep an eye on this team shouldn’t come as a surprise, however head coach Craig Hoplight returns eight of his nine Class A place winners from last season. While the loss of Section VI champion Connor Kenney to graduation will hurt, sectional champions Adam Daghestani and Blake Bielec return for their senior seasons. This lineup should feature at least six seniors who are postseason placers from last year. Daghestani finished 4th in NYS and is a legitimate contender for a state title in February. Jack Randle and Brian Bielec are huge weapons for the Vikings as well. With the heavy graduation losses that Falls and Wheatfield sustained, Grand Island could be primed for another run at the NFL title.

Frontier – It was disappointing to not see the results of the Orchard Park/Frontier match that would’ve been the season finale last winter. However, head coach Jon Chowske will see ten of his eleven class placers return in 2019-2020, five of them being sectional place winners. Section finalist Travis Browning and third placer Dylan Wojciechowski lead a lineup that features a group of at least seven seniors that should spread throughout the middle weights. This could very well be Chowske’s best team in his head coach tenure thus far.

North Tonawanda – The Lumberjacks finished outside of the rankings a season ago. First year head coach Wally Maziarz led the very young squad to ten wins and had a 5th place NYS finisher in now graduated Tyler Bartolomei. This team and program in general seem to be on the upswing after an active offseason and solid youth program turnout.

East Aurora – The Blue Devils finished 9th in the team rankings last season and 2nd in ECIC III. The young squad battled hard all year for head coach Jeff Michel who returns to a team that only lost two senior Class B place winners, one of whom was Section VI champ and 3rd place NYS finisher Johnny Putney.

The good news for East Aurora is that the three Skowronski brothers account for both of the returning state qualifier place finishes for the team. Senior Alex Skowronski is a defending sectional champion while sophomore Nolan was a 3rd place finisher last season. With very little lost at graduation, only one regular senior in the lineup, and a ton of youth, this well coached East Aurora team is one to continue to watch develop.

Eden – The Raiders conceded anywhere from three to five forfeits per dual last season and still managed a 4-2 league record with twelve wins overall. Always expect a Tom Page coached team to show up and compete, and a Page coached team with a full lineup is dangerous. What’s even better for Eden is that all eight Class C/D place winners return this season including state tournament qualifier Giovanni Schifano.

Chautauqua Lake – The Thunderbirds placed thirteen at the Class C/D tournament in February. ‘Lake graduated a trio of stars but 2017-2018 sectional champ Brendon Ramsey will be looking to have a bounce back season after settling for third last year. Where the T-Birds could be especially strong is in the lightweights where they return a trio of freshmen who placed in the postseason in Martin Ohlsson, Trent Burchanowski, and Jack Bourgeois, as well as 8th grader Carter Malecki. Ten total postseason placers should be back this season.

Canisius and St. Mary’s – It seems like every year these two teams narrow the gap between themselves and St. Francis and St. Joe’s in the Monsignor Martin league. For the very first time, all four of these squads made the trip to the CHSAA duals on Staten Island. Canisius improved greatly under first year head coach Dave Wilcox who also benefits from the addition star athlete Joe Dixon from Niagara Falls. St. Mary’s continues the upward climb under Zach Weiss and made program history last season with their first win at the CHSAA duals. The Lancers made an offseason splash this summer as well when it was announced that they would begin an all-girls wrestling team, the first of its kind in WNY.

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