Mike Snyder and Milton knew their District 4 Duals fate when Friday night's match with Central Columbia ended in a loss. The Black Panthers just aren't in a spot in their current condition to compete with a team as balanced and talented as Warrior Run, who they wrestled Saturday in their last chance to qualify for the team tournament.
But Snyder, a veteran of District 4 as a wrestler and coach for nearly 20 years, didn't sulk on Friday night. He could have ranted about the loss of sophomore Brandon Stokes who was lost on Jan. 4 with a broken collarbone. He could have ranted about wrestling maybe the toughest week of the season without three starters.
He didn't. Instead, he highlighted how his program was going to be better for weeks just like this one. Snyder's putting kids on the mat who normally wouldn't have had the opportunity to wrestle anywhere other than in the practice room.
And for a Milton program which is trying to build back to its hey-day when it was winning Class AAA district duals tournament titles, this is the right path. The Black Panthers still have one of the district's best hopes for a gold medal in Hershey in Ryan Preisch. Zack Bennett and Gage Heller have taken it upon themselves to become added hammers in the lineup with Stokes out. And the fight of his young wrestlers in less than advantageous conditions has Snyder thinking positively about the future.
"I'm excited about what they're doing," Snyder said following the loss to Central Columbia. "We threw a guy out there at 160 who is a first-year wrestler going against one of (Central's) better kids and he battled. Guys like that are getting an opportunity to battle and they're going out there and saving us team points and getting a chance to wrestle."
Milton lost its final dual before the cutoff Saturday afternoon to Warrior Run, 45-27, meaning for the second consecutive year it missed out on the district duals. But this is a Milton program taking the right steps toward becoming the program it wants to be.
Sun-Gazette wrestling rankings
Top 10 pound-for-pound
1. Ryan Preisch, Milton
2. Billy Barnes, Williamson
3. Garrett Wesneski, Canton
4. Brian Friery, Lewisburg
5. Zach Fry, Hughesville
6. Matt Herr, Hughesville
7. Dakota Nixon, Muncy
8. Gavin Caprio, Central Mtn.
9. Garrett Hoffman, Montoursville
10. Chad Reese, Central Mtn.
Top 5 teams
1. Central Mountain
3. Jersey Shore
5. Warrior Run
1. Brian Friery, Lewisburg
2. Angelo Barberio, Muncy
3. Hunter Zondory, Jersey Shore
4. Braden Stahlnecker, Hughesville
5. Dennis Route, Canton
1. Eric Hunt, Warrior Run
2. Jordan Gessner, Lewisburg
3. Kyle Drick, Montgomery
4. Zach Beamer, Hughesville
5. Adam Malek, Loyalsock
1. Roshaun Cooley, Williamsport
2. Zack LeBarron, Warrior Run
3. Keanan Bottorf, Central Mountain
4. Tyrus Hamblin, Williamson
5. Trevor Sones, Hughesville
1. Devin Stahlnecker, Hughesville
2. Brian LeBarron, Warrior Run
3. Nick Buckle, Montgomery
4. Herman Briggs, Williamson
5. Dante Taylor, Lewisburg
1. Zach Fry, Hughesville
2. Keith Batkowski, Montoursville
3. Shawn Nitcznski, Sullivan County
4. Andy Aguilar, Muncy
5. Carl Gorg, Williamson
1. Nathan Jones, South Williamsport
2. Trevor McWhorter, Williamson
3. Charlie Andrews, North Penn
4. Nolan Ott, Montoursville
5. Emery Watson, Central Mountain
1. Billy Barnes, Williamson
2. Zack Bennett, Milton
3. Hayden Swartwood, Jersey Shore
4. Devin Remley, North Penn
5. Demetri Probst, Central Mountain
1. Dakota Nixon, Muncy
2. Colton Killion, Jersey Shore
3. Thomas Goetz, Montgomery
4. Kirah Thompson, Williamson
5. Ryan Seagrave, South Williamsport
1. Chad Reese, Central Mountain
2. Max Reed, Lewisburg
3. Elias George, Warrior Run
4. Triston Choate, Montoursville
5. Dylan Ammerman, Sullivan County
1. Ryan Preisch, Milton
2. Gavin Caprio, Central Mountain
3. Garrett Hoffman, Montoursville
4. Logan Aikey, Lewisburg
5. Harvey Wood, North Penn
1. Matt Herr, Hughesville
2. Lucas Shaheen, Montoursville
3. Isaiah Bobotas, Montgomery
4. Dominic Loffredo, Jersey Shore
5. Tyler Cole, Canton
1. Garrett Wesneski, Canton
2. Tyler Betz, Montgomery
3. Tanner McCarty, Sullivan County
4. Nate Lose, Jersey Shore
5. Brandon Stokes, Milton
1. Connor Route, Canton
2. Cameron Porter, Central Mountain
3. Ben Cerney, Montoursville
4. Jacob Huling, Jersey Shore
5. Ethan Barnes, Hughesville
1. Connor Bassett, Montoursville
2. Bryce Hanley, Central Mountain
3. Stephen Harrison, Loyalsock
4. Nick Roberts, Muncy
5. Brady Bryington, Canton
Snyder raved prior to the season about the number of students coming out to join the wrestling team at all levels. A group of elementary wrestlers covered the mat Friday night putting on a short workout for the fans. It's just one part of Snyder's plan to rebuild the program.
Milton has continued to produce state medalists, 12 since 2003. But the dual-meet success hasn't been there. In recent years, Snyder has programmed the Black Panthers' schedule to take advantage of that, scheduling tournaments like the Beast of the East, the Hurricane Classic and the season-opening Cumberland Valley tournament.
While his better wrestlers have been exposed to their best competition outside of the state tournament in those tournaments, he said his younger wrestlers have benefited also. Take for instance, the seasons being put together by junior Zack Bennett and sophomore Gage Heller.
Bennett is a three-year starter for the Black Panthers coming off a regional qualifying year. But he's gone to a new level this year.
He started the year with a fifth-place finish at the Cumberland Valley tournament. He's only grown from there, finishing this week with a 17-5 record, and with quality wins over Jersey Shore's Hayden Swartwood and Central's Taylor Johnson. Bennett has lost just once since the Beast of the East just before Christmas.
Heller was a sub-.500 wrestler a year ago as a freshman, qualifying or the district tournament despite finishing the season with a 12-15 record. But Heller has come on this year, taking sixth at Cumberland Valley. He's won 11 matches in a row and is 16-7.
And the emergence of both wrestlers couldn't have come at a better time with Stokes, a sophomore 195-pounder on the shelf at least until sectionals with his broken collarbone. Heller's 11-match winning streak started on the day Stokes was hurt.
"We had conversations with the team before the season and said if we're going to be what we want to be, we need to replace Ryan Solomon and we need to replace Taylor Porter. That's not going to be easy," Snyder said. "We needed Gage and Brandon Stokes to step up. I know what we're getting out of Zack because we've gotten it out of him the last two years. I'm excited for what he's going to do in the postseason and I'm excited for what Stokes is going to do and I'm excited for what Gage is going to do. Those guys are still young. With those guys maturing this much this year, if they can take that step again next year, we're going to be one of the teams to beat."
Following Saturday's dual-meets here's an unofficial look at what the District 4 Class AA Duals field could look like. Official seedings and brackets will be released today.
1. Towanda (24-3); 2. Southern Columbia (12-2); 3. Wyalusing/Lewisburg (13-4)*; 4. Wyalusing/Lewisburg (13-4)*; 5. Warrior Run (12-4); 6. Hughesville (13-5); 7. Montoursville (12-5); 8. Troy (12-6); 9. Line Mountain (10-5); 10. Williamson (18-10); 11. Benton (9-5); 12. North Penn (14-8); 13. Montgomery (12-7); 14. Muncy (11-8); 15. Mifflinburg (8-6); 16. Danville (12-10); 17. Canton (12-11).
*The third and fourth seed will be determined by a coin flip
WRESTLER OF THE WEEK
Chad Reese, Central Mountain, 160 pounds
Escape the Rock continues to be one of the top tournaments in the country, distributing championship belts to the winners. Reese was one of three Central Mountain wrestlers to place last weekend, and his third-place finish is nothing to scoff about. Reese's only loss came back fall in 52 seconds in the quarterfinals to John Carroll's (Md.) Chris Almony, a two-time national prep qualifier. Reese's season has been up and down against the best of competition, but with the postseason just a couple weeks away, a third-place finish at ETR should be just the spring-board he needs.
OF THE WEEK
District 4 Duals at Milton, Saturday 11 a.m.
There has never been a Class AA field as wide open as this year's. District 4 has progressed from just getting the champion to the state tournament to now having the top three teams advance. In turn, the district instituted wrestlebacks beginning with the quarterfinals to determine the third-place team. The consolation bracket could be just as much fun to watch in Milton as the championship bracket. Jersey Shore is the favorite to win the Class AAA tournament, but it has yet to wrestle Shikellamy this year. It could be an interesting final if those two meet up.