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Central Mountain had to be ready to roll after late start to season

SUN-GAZETTE FILE Central Mountain’s Gino Serafini wrestles at 113 pounds during a dual last season against Selinsgrove. Serafini has helped the Wildcats start this season 7-0.

Biff Walizer’s preparation time was already trimmed. The normal three-plus week preseason was cut to just 10 days when Central Mountain was finally able to begin practice on Jan. 4.

When the team was finally able to return to practice after the school district returned from remote instruction, Walizer then cut the Wildcats’ mat time even more. He split the boys and girls wrestling teams into two groups. The girls team and lightweights worked with Walizer. The team’s upper weights worked with assistant coach Doug Buckwalter.

The idea was to avoid having one mass of people working out in the Central Mountain practice room together should there be an issue with COVID-19. So instead of a two-hour practice on the mat, each group spent an hour on the mat practicing and an hour in the school’s fitness center lifting weights and doing cardio workouts.

Walizer was concerned about the lack of mat time heading into the season. The Wildcats opened the schedule at the PHAC Duals last weekend, which included a matchup with state-ranked Williamsport. Four days later, there was a matchup against Selinsgrove. Both the Millionaires and the Seals were legitimate threats at the Wildcats’ 38-match Heartland-I winning streak and its run of six consecutive league titles.

But the Wildcats haven’t appeared to be hampered at all by the limited mat time. Instead, it beat Williamsport – along with four other HAC-I teams – and followed it up with an impressive win against Selinsgrove to secure its seventh consecutive league title since joining the Heartland Conference.

Central Mountain is ranked 13th in the state by PA Power Wrestling, and for good reason. The combination of veteran success and young prospects make this Central Mountain team one of the most intriguing teams Walizer has fielded since taking over the program. And what’s really interesting is this team still isn’t full strength.

Returning state placewinner Derek Keen did not come out for the team. Two-time regional qualifier Lane Porter is out with a knee injury. And still, the Wildcats are undefeated heading into the Big 7 tournament today in Altoona.

“We’re just tickled pink to be on the wrestling mat,” Walizer said after Tuesday’s win over Selinsgrove. “And there were plenty of people who said along the way there’s no way we’re going to have a season. So to be wrestling good teams like Selinsgrove and Williamsport, we’re just happy to be here.”

Even before Gov. Tom Wolf hit the pause button on high school and youth sports in early December, Central Mountain still hadn’t visited the practice room. The school district was in a full remote learning phase and Walizer wasn’t sure when they’d be able to get in the room. There were times when he wondered if they would even have a season.

That feeling wasn’t lost on his team, either. With the governor shutting down practices and competition, wrestlers had to find ways to work out on their own. The wrestlers understood there was going to be no easing into a truncated season, so they had to be ready to compete and they had to be in shape to do so.

“It was frustrating not knowing when or if we’d wrestle,” senior state qualifier Nik Miller said. “But I know a lot of these guys worked out outside the room when we could.”

“I’ve been waiting all summer for this season. I just wanted to get out there and wrestle and do the sport I love,” junior Damien Galentine said. “We had to make sure we were pushing each other and getting everything in we needed to cover because we had to be ready to wrestle.”

Walizer knew what kind of team he potentially would have this season. With three state qualifiers, another half-dozen regional qualifiers, and as instant impact of a freshman class as he’s had, the potential for the Wildcats was as high as its been since they won a pair of matches at the state team tournament in 2017.

But with Keen not returning and Porter on the shelf with his knee, the freshmen in the lineup who were to be complementary pieces of the lineup are now carrying a bigger burden to win. Luke Simcox and Griffin Walizer were both nationally-ranked junior high wrestlers a year ago. Tuesday night against Selinsgrove, they provided big points, first when Walizer won a toss-up in the night’s second bout, and then when Simcox beat previously undefeated Aiden Gaugler to close the dual.

It’s been only seven matches, but Central Mountain’s four freshmen starters are a combined 24-4 with three of the losses coming to state-ranked wrestlers. Zane Cooper and Simcox are both 7-0. Rocco Serafini is 5-2 wrestling up a weight class at 152. And Walizer is 5-2 with a win over state-ranked Troy Bingaman of Mifflinburg.

“I guess you can’t really tiptoe around it that we need those guys now,” Walizer said. “We’ve had to be creative with the lineup, but the kids are stepping up and performing for us.”

“They’re a huge part of the lineup,” Galentine said. “With them in there continuing to push and fight in practice, they’re making sure they’re getting better and it’s helping them win some matches.”

The expectations for this Central Mountain team are still high, just as they are every year. But there really isn’t time to think about those expectations. Following today’s competition at the Big 7 tournament, Central Mountain has just two more competitions before the District 6 tournament on Feb. 19.

The Wildcats will host Canton, Milton and DuBois on Feb. 6, and then travels to a quad meet at Mifflin County with Tyron and Bellefonte on Feb. 13.

“With the condensed time frame we were under and there being no powder puff on our schedule, we’ve had to jump right into the fire,” Walizer said. “That definitely was an emphasis as we were getting ready. I think it showed in their preparation because they’ve been intense and focused. We’re very pleased with the way things are going so far.”

NO PROB, BOB(BY)

By now, South Williamsport’s Bobby Gardner is a household name in District 4 wrestling. He’s a returning state qualifier who won 60 matches in his first two seasons for the Mounties and has been the key figure around the program’s resurgence the last couple years.

But the junior seems to have taken his game to a new level in the first couple weeks of the season. He’s 12-0 after posting a 4-2 win over Montgomery’s Caden Finck on Thursday night. But among those 12 wins are a technical fall against a returning state qualifier, and a major decision against another state-ranked wrestler.

But it’s not just that Gardner’s winning that is impressive. Consider that he has yet to wrestle anyone with a losing record and his opponents have a combined 45-19 record, and it makes what Gardner has done so far look even better.

“I feel pretty good. I feel like I’m pretty solid technically, and I just need to get a little stronger,” Gardner said after Thursday’s win. “But I’m not letting it get to my head. I’m trying not to get a big head right now.”

Gardner has always been the lead-by-example type. Quiet and reserved, he’s always allowed his wrestling to do the talking. He was 28-1 entering the district tournament his freshman year before a nasty cold didn’t allow him to wrestle his best. He seemed even more determined because of it his sophomore year, wrestling in a loaded 106-pound weight class which produced a pair of state placewinners, including the state champion. But he found a way, in a blood-round match at regionals, to upset No. 1-ranked Cade Wirnsberger and earn his spot in Hershey.

Since then, South coach Eric Gerber has seen Gardner’s confidence level continue to rise. With his 12-0 start to the season which brings his career record to 72-13, that confidence level is rising quicker than a thermometer in Las Vegas in August.

“He’s just working hard and being consistent every day,” Gerber said. “Qualifying for the state tournament lets him know he belongs there. He’s doing everything that’s asked of him and he’s doing the extra work day in and day out.”

WRESTLER OF THE WEEK

Kaden Milheim, Warrior Run, 113 pounds

The sophomore hasn’t had many opportunities to leave his mark this season, wrestling just three contested bouts in Warrior Run’s five duals. But he left his biggest mark Tuesday night when he upset defending state champion Branden Wentzel of Montoursville, 8-7. Milheim was a state-ranked 106-pounder a year ago who didn’t get out of the sectional tournament because he was one of five state-ranked 106-pounders in the Central Sectional field which produced two state placewinners, including Wentzel. But he showed his growth Tuesday when Wentzel bumped up to face him in a dual which Montoursville won. Milheim trailed 5-2 going into the third period, but was relentl≠≠≠ess with his offense over the final two minutes, scoring a takedown with 18 seconds to go to earn the victory.

CAN’T-MISS MATCH OF THE WEEK

Williamsport Quad, Friday, 5:30 p.m.

It’s fixing to be a busy week for Williamsport, which will wrestle state-ranked Gettysburg today, as well as Selinsgrove. The Millionaires were also supposed to wrestle Wyoming Seminary this week, but that was canceled when Sem decided to move its season to the spring. But the quad-meet the Millionaires are hosting Friday night will be must-see viewing as No. 3 Southern Columbia (AA), No. 10 Brookville (AA) and No. 17 Mifflin County (AAA) visit the Magic Dome. Williamsport will open against Brookville and Mifflin County faces Southern Columbia at 5:30, with the winners of those two duals wrestling at 7 p.m. Williamsport canceled its trip to the Powerade Tournament next weekend, but added this quad meet instead. Not a bad trade.

Top 5 Team Rankings

1. Central Mountain; 2. Williamsport; 3. Montoursville; 4. Montgomery; 5. Canton.

Top 10 pound-for-pound wrestlers

1. Cael Crebs, Montoursville; 2. Dylan Bennett, Montoursville; 3. Nate Higley, Sullivan County; 4. Riley Bower, Williamsport; 5. Branden Wentzel, Montoursville; 6. Braden Bower, Williamsport; 7. Conner Harer, Montgomery; 8. Bobby Gardner, South Williamsport; 9. Luke Simcox, Central Mountain; 10. Nik Miller, Central Mountain.

Mitch Rupert covers 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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