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Mitch Rupert on wrestling: WAHS was successful in face of adversity last week

Williamsport competed at the Tom Best Memorial Top Hat last weekend without its best wrestler. It competed without one of its most dynamic freshmen. And it competed without a returning upper weight starter.

And still the Millionaires finished in third place. It’s believed to be the team’s highest finish at the Top Hat since 1994, back when coach Brian Nasdeo was in his senior season of a 100-win career.

Last week’s performance was a solid indication of just how far the Millionaires have come since Nasdeo took over the program five years ago. That they were successful was not in and of itself a surprise. But that they were successful in the face of the adversity of who was missing from the lineup speaks to the depth which has been built on the hill in the city and where the expectations are for this once cellar-dwelling program.

“We just want to do the best we can do and wrestle to the best of our ability,” freshman Carter Weaver said after winning the 120-pound championship at the Top Hat. “If we do that, the outcome will come that we need.”

What has changed with Williamsport is wrestling to the best of their ability and the outcome they need have both changed meanings in the years since Nasdeo has taken over the program. This is the most technically-advanced group of wrestlers in the practice room the Millionaires have had in years. Nasdeo doesn’t have to pull teeth to get the kids to come in and work out. They want to be there and they want to get better.

Even as he recovers from surgery for a torn labrum which has robbed returning state qualifier Braden Bower of his sophomore season, Bower’s voice is heard at workouts and competitions. Nasdeo has had to deal with more injuries than he would like this early in the season — in part because of some lingering effects of football season and in part because of some grueling preseason tournaments. But those who are hurt don’t bail on practice. They’re right there in the room in the bowels of the high school doing what they can to help their teammates improve.

Williamsport isn’t hiding from its goals. It’s not slow-playing what it really wants from the season publicly while frantically working in the shadows. The Millionaires are vocal about their want — if not their need — to be in Hershey in February for the PIAA Team Wrestling Championships. A year ago Williamsport took the first step to that goal when it upset state-ranked DuBois in the District 4/9 semifinals to reach the first district duals final in school history.

Even though the Millionaires lost in the final to Selinsgrove, they rebounded three days later to beat the Seals in a dual meet to show they’re capable of beating the teams necessary to win a district title. That was all this team needed to see to prove to itself just what it was capable of. This is still a team dominated by freshmen and sophomores with some upperclass leadership littered in like Owen Mahon, Ethan Williamson and Austin Stugart, who were all regional qualifiers themselves last year.

“Last year was all about getting wins, but we’re really dedicated and focused on making it father,” sophomore Riley Bower said. “We want to make it to team states. We have a lot of injuries already, but we’re prepared to wrestle through it and ready to do whatever we have to.”

This young wave of wrestlers taking Williamsport to a new level has been together since they were 8 or 9-years-old for the most part. And they’ve been coached by Nasdeo for that whole time. He’s had them all over the state and all over the country participating in high level tournaments to sharpen their skills.

And life in the practice room is never easy. Because there’s a higher caliber of wrestler in the room than he’s ever had, the intensity has ratcheted up every day in practice. But there’s a method to Nasdeo’s madness. He wants to make competing easier than practicing. The opportunity to wrestle for wins and losses its what’s fun to this group of wrestlers. They can let all the work they’ve done just fly when they put their toes on the line.

That fits perfectly with how Nasdeo wants his kids to wrestle. He’s a big proponent of scoring as many points as you can as quickly as you can and seeing what the scoreboard says when the 6 minutes have concluded.

“The competitive environment in the room definitely does help us all when we’re out there,” Weaver said. “A lot of what it is is (Nasdeo) telling us to wrestle the same way out here as we do in the mat room. I feel like that’s a big piece of what makes the team successful and what is going to continue to make this team successful.”

What the Millionaires are trying to accomplish isn’t lost on its young batch of wrestlers. They’ve watched the varsity program since their days as elementary wrestlers. They’ve seen the struggles. But they’ve also see Roshaun Cooley earn the school’s first state medal in 20 years. They’ve seen Cooley and Robinson turn their dedication into the opportunity to wrestle at the Division I level in college.

They know it’s their turn to leave their mark on the program. And while these are just the first steps, they’ve already been successful steps. Half of the team’s points-scoring wrestlers at the Top Hat finished in the Top 3, and it likely would have been more with a healthy Braden Bower in the lineup. Ten of its 12 scoring wrestlers scored points. Nine wrestlers placed in the Top 8.

It was a widely successful weekend, but it doesn’t come as a surprise. This is the expectation now at Williamsport. The Millionaires want to make noise in every tournament in which they compete, and that includes this weekend’s King of the Mountain, the Bethlehem Holiday Classic and the Tool City Tournament in early January. The Millionaires have hit the ground running which is important with a first-month schedule as tough as the one they’re facing. And continuing this run of success is the goal.

“I’ve been more excited to see this program go somewhere than I have been to see myself go somewhere,” Weaver said. “The team environment we have is something completely different from anything else I’ve been around. It’s been a lot of patient waiting and hard work to get us here.”

WRESTLER OF THE WEEK

Nevin Rauch, Milton, 285 pounds

Winning the Cumberland Valley Kickoff Classic at 285 pounds would have been enough for Rauch to merit mention in this spot to begin with. But how he got there cemented his spot. Rauch upset top-seeded and AAA fifth-ranked Stephen Schott with a fall in 5:05 in the semifinals. He added his fourth fall in the finals against AAA 12th-ranked Giomar Ramos in 2:24 in the final to become just the third Milton wrestler to win a title at the Classic, joining Ryan Solomon and Ryan Preisch as title-winners. And just for good measure, Rauch needed just 21 seconds to pin Williamsport regional qualifier Ethan Williamson in a dual Tuesday. Rauch is currently ranked 11th in the state in AA, but the former district runner-up should continue to climb that ladder with more performances like last weekend. Look for a Dec. 21 matchup against Mifflinburg rising freshman Emmanuel Ulrich to tell us a lot about both wrestlers.

CAN’T-MISS MATCH OF THE WEEK

Canton at Montoursville, Tuesday, 7 p.m.

A matchup of one of the best teams in District 4 (Montoursville) against one of the best up-and-coming teams in District 4 (Canton) should provide a good test for both teams. If nothing else, a potential matchup of Timmy Ward vs. Cael Crebs should make the price of admission along worth it. Even without Dylan Bennett, who continues to recover from a broken thumb sustained during Montoursville’s final football game, Montoursville is one of the most talent-laden teams in the district and is looking for a return to the PIAA Team Wrestling Championships for the first time since 2016 when it finished in the Top 6 in the state. Canton is looking to show just what the program is capable of with the return of Ward and a freshman class which helped Devon Weed earn the district’s junior high coach of the year award last season.

Top 5 teams: 1, Montoursville; 2, Central Mountain; 3, Williamsport; 4, Muncy; 5, Canton.

Pound-for-pound Top 5 wrestlers: 1, Cameron Wood, Montoursville; 2, Nate Higley, Sullivan County; 3, Jacob Blair, Muncy; 4, Nevin Rauch, Milton; 5, Riley Bower, Williamsport.

Mitch Rupert covers high school wrestling for the Sun-Gazette. He can be reached at 570-326-1551, ext. 3129, or by email at mrupert@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Mitch_Rupert.

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