PSU’s Nolf 1 of 21 WPIAL grads wrestling near home

PITTSBURGH — Jason Nolf played it off as if this weekend was just another tournament. He sat upon a dais filled with four other top seeds for this weekend’s NCAA Wrestling Championships and just shrugged his shoulders at the notion of wrestling so close to home.

The Kittanning High School graduate is aiming for his third consecutive NCAA championship when the tournament begins today at PPG Paints Arena. He didn’t get to this point in his career by elevating any one tournament over another.

But this tournament is a little different for Nolf and other Southwest Pennsylvania natives. It’s the first time Pittsburgh will be hosting the Division I NCAA Tournament since 1957, when Danny Hodge, who now has the college wrestling Heisman Trophy named in his honor, was in the process of winning his second consecutive Outstanding Wrestler award.

Nolf is one of 21 Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) graduates competing in the tournament. If the WPIAL were a state, it’d have the fifth most qualifiers of any other state in the country.

“It’s cool. A lot of family and friends can come watch,” Nolf said during a pre-tournament press conference Wednesday. “It’s just another tournament and I’m here to compete. It doesn’t really matter where we’re at, I just want to compete at my best and that’s what I’m worried about.”

That kind of attitude is exactly how Nolf got to the point of being on the best pound-for-pound wrestlers in the country, and one of the best to ever wear a Penn State singlet. It’ll be hard, though, to not recognize the influence wrestling in Southwest Pennsylvania will play in this weekend’s season-ending tournament.

Nolf is the only one of those 21 WPIAL graduates to garner a top seed this weekend, but he won’t be the only one making noise. Iowa’s Spencer Lee is the No. 3 seed at 125 and the defending national champion, Pitt’s Micky Phillippi is the fourth seed at 133 pounds, Penn State’s Vincenzo Joseph is a two-time defending national champion, Arizona State’s Josh Shields is the third seed at 165, and Virginia Tech’s Zach Zavatsky is the third seed at 184.

And that is only scraping the surface of the Pennsylvania natives who make up more than 15 percent of the entire tournament field.

“One benefit of being from this area is there’s amazing coaches everywhere,” Nolf said. “So the biggest thing for me was finding really good partners and the coaches who could facilitate that. I had so many practice partners like (Michael) Kemerer, Shields, (Josh) Maruca, (Sam) Krivus, (Luke) Pletcher. I could name a million people. But our generation all great up with each other and we’re always competing against each other, which is why that group of guys became so good.”

The WPIAL has become a well-known hotbed for high school wrestling in the country, and at one point, probably surpassed Lehigh Valley as the best producer of high school wrestling talent in the country for a few years. It’s an area five coaches who participated in the pre-tournament press conference know they have to recruit hard year in and year out.

Ohio State coach Tom Ryan has three Southwest Pennsylvania natives in this weekend’s tournament: Pletcher, Te’Shan Campbell and Ethan Smith. Penn State’s Cael Sanderson has two with Nolf and Joseph. Iowa’s Tom Brands has three in Lee, Max Murin and Kaleb Young. Even Oklahoma State’s John Smith has one in Dakota Geer. And nearly all of Keith Gavin’s roster at Pitt is made of Southwest Pennsylvania guys.

“If we’re not getting guys around here, we’re going to struggle,” Gavin said. “It’s probably the most important thing we do.”

“Pennsylvania is a great state for wrestling,” Ryan said. “This region, we have three guys from here, so it’s good for those guys to have an opportunity to compete in their home area.”