Central Mountain has tough bracket at PIAAs

Central Mountain’s Geo Barzona, left, wrestles at the annual Top Hat tournament in Williamsport in December. (ANNE REINER/Sun-Gazette)

Central Mountain is surrounded by greatness and pedigree in the bracket for this weekend’s PIAA Team Wrestling Championships in Hershey.

Above the Wildcats in the Class AAA bracket is Kiski Area, the District 7 champion who is in the state team tournament for the second consecutive year and for the sixth time since 2003. The Cavaliers have earned a spot on the podium twice — finishing second in 2003 and fourth in 2005.

Then there’s Central Dauphin, the District 3 power which has won this tournament four times, including tying a state record with four consecutive state titles from 2008 to 2011. The Rams are in the state tournament for the 11th time.

And then there’s Central Mountain’s opponent in tonight’s first round: Bethlehem Catholic. Maybe no school has generated as much discussion in recent years as the Golden Hawks.

Becahi has won five state dual-meet championships, three as a Class AA school, and two as a Class AAA school. They’re ranked ninth in the country and they’ve lost to public high schools just twice in the last four years — one of those being in last week’s District 11 championship to Nazareth.

As storied as Central Mountain’s history is, it’s not quite that storied. The Wildcats open their seventh trip to the state team tournament since 2008 tonight at 8 p.m. at the Giant Center in Hershey against the defending state champion Golden Hawks.

“We know getting to the state tournament there’s not going to be any easy ones,” Central Mountain second-year head coach Biff Walizer said. “Becahi has built themselves into a bit of a juggernaut the last few years.”

The task in front of District 6 champion Central Mountain isn’t lost on Walizer. Not only are the Wildcats facing a tough uphill test tonight against Bethlehem Catholic, but just to win a match at the state tournament for the first time since 2012 will be a tough test for Central Mountain.

Win or lose, Kiski Area or Central Dauphin awaits Central Mountain, either in the quarterfinals or the first round of consolations. Central Mountain has survived and thrived this year with a team as balanced as any team in the area. Finding a weak spot in the Wildcats’ lineup is harder than finding Waldo in a candy cane factory.

But what the Wildcats don’t have is the top tier talent which helped it take third in this tournament in 2008 and 2010, and fourth in 2009. Geo Barzona is the team’s top returning wrestler. He’s a two-time state sixth-place finisher who is ranked eighth in the state at 120 pounds and has already committed to wrestle next year at Bucknell.

Four Central Mountain wrestlers appeared in this week’s PaPowerWrestling.com state rankings — Barzona, Seth Andrus, Tanner Weaver and Richie Thompson. It pales in comparison to the 10 Bethlehem Catholic wrestlers in the state rankings, three of which are in Intermat’s national Top 20 rankings.

This isn’t a Central Mountain team riding the strength of the Alton brothers, Jordan Rich, Zach Corl, Brian Brill or any other of the nationally-ranked, Division 1 wrestlers who have come through the program. This is a Central Mountain team which is just that: a team.

Central Mountain got to 14-0, including a win over last year’s state third-place finisher Belle Vernon, by being able to shuffle its lineup when necessary and by being deep enough to not give up big points when Walizer does that shuffling. Twenty wrestlers have won at least one bout this year for Central Mountain. It’s a lineup which can pick up bonus points just about anywhere while limiting those opportunities for its opponents.

The question for Walizer is whether that is good enough to win in Hershey this weekend. It’s a question he’s hoping to get the answer to.

“I sure hope it’s good enough,” Walizer said. “We might not have all the returning state medalists that other teams have, but we think our balance will come into play.”

This could be a big weekend for a wrestler like Barzona, who is hoping to take that next step at the state individual tournament this year to become a state champion. Twice the senior has finished sixth there and neither time was it good enough.

Barzona is making his debut this season at 113 pounds this weekend. And whether he’s at 113 or 120 tonight, he’s going to face a top-10 ranked opponent from Bethlehem Catholic.

If Barzona is at 113, he could see Bethlehem Catholic freshman Kenny Herrmann who is ranked ninth in the state. If he’s at 120, he would likely see top-ranked Ryan Anderson.

“We’ve been looking at possible matchups and scenarios, and there’s some instances where Geo is going to be asked to go up to 120 and take on a guy who is top 5 in the state. But all our guys are selfless, and all season we’ve been bumping and shuffling our lineup. That’s a big part of the reason we’re here.”