Altoona coach Joel Gilbert has been coaching the Mountain Lions for six years, and his six-man contingent is the largest he's returned to the Altoona Fieldhouse for the Northwest Regional Class AAA Tournament.
It's also arguably the most talented group that has qualified for the regional tournament.
The group includes four-time District 6 champion and returning regional champ T.J. Brandt at 138, district champ and two-time district finalist D.J. Hollingshead at 132, district runners-up Markief Knode and Mante Barnes at 160 and 195, respectively, much improved and dangerous 285-pounder Austin Rosenberry and promising sophomore Trent Kephart at 182.
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Hollidaysburg’s Matt Barton is among the favorites at 285 pounds.
"Thse guys work extremely hard," Altoona coach Joel Gilbert said. "They've traveled and wrestled in freestyle and Greco-Roman tournaments. Three of them wrestled at nationals in Fargo. They've had the oportunity to expand their wrestling and wrestle some of the best in the country. It's their time to shine.
"I think all the guys are looking forward to the tournament. I think it will be a good weekend. The draws were fair, and it's a great opportunity to get the guys to the state tournament."
The tournament begins at 5 p.m. today at the Fieldhouse. There's a preliminary round, a quarterfinal round and one round of consolations going to be wrestled tonight.
The tournament, which has expanded to a 14-man bracket after the merging of District 9 and 4, resumes at 10 Saturday morning. The semifinals are at 12:30, and the consolation finals are set for 6. The finals will follow at about 7.
The top three wrestlers at each weight advance to the PIAA Championships - the ultimate destination of high school wrestlers.
Sixteen area wrestlers will be vying for a trip to the Giant Center in Hershey, including the six Mountain Lions.
Philipsburg-Osceola will have a seven-man group of district runners-up Brian Evans (126) and Jay Prentice (170), third-placers Dennis Lumadue (182) and Nick Gray (220) and fourth-placers Bryan Descavish (120), Caleb Shively (138) and Scott Yarger (145). Shively didn't wrestle his consolation final bout at districts due to a bad back, but he's expected to wrestle.
"We're ready to go," P-O coach Tim McCamley said. "They want to go over there and get on with it. We're healthier than last week. Shively is tough, and he's ready to go. He's felt good the past couple days, so we're hopeful. The tournament is difficult. There's not a whole bunch of heavy favorites, but there's a lot of good guys. We have to be at the top of our game to make it."
Hollidaysburg returns with district champs Damian Huff (106) and Matt Barton (285) and fourth-placer Calob Walls (152).
"We're very confident coming into it," Hollidaysburg coach Mike Moore said. "We have two guys coming off district championships, and it sets up well for them. Calob Walls getting some experience as a junior will bode well for him next year. Strange things happen at the regional tournament. I've seen fourth-placers get through this tournament. At this stage, you have to love being in this atmosphere. You have to be excited."
The most experienced of the 16 is Brandt (26-3), who is a three-time regional finalist. He'll be looking to become the first Altoona wrestler to win consecutive regional titles since Jason Kutz won in 1991 and 1992.
"T.J. should get to the finals," Gilbert said, "and more than likely, he'll see [McDowell District 10 champ Shawn] Spearman, who is certainly capable of being a state qualifier. I expect T.J. to perform well."
Then there's Huff (21-2), who placed fourth at the district tournament last year before taking third at regionals with a 3-1 overtime win over Bald Eagle Area's Travis Giedroc in the consolation finals. DuBois' Shae Bloom beat Huff in an overtime tiebreaker bout this season, and they could meet in the semifinals.
"There are probably five or six guys at that weight who are close in terms of ability," Moore said. "I like Huff coming in with his experience and getting through the tournament. I really like his chances. When he lost to Bloom, it was the first time after he dropped to 106, and he wasn't too peppy. I see him having more energy this time."
If Moore has a champion, it will be the first one for Hollidaysburg since Brian Shaw won in 2005 and 2006. And if his district champs win regional titles, it will the first time two Golden Tigers win titles in the same regional since Larry Pleshko and Dan Fetzer won in 1976.
Barton's chances go up significantly if he can win his first bout, which will likely be against McDowell's District 10 runner-up Scot Augustine, who beat the Golden Tiger, 1-0, in the consolation finals last season. Barton (25-3) gets a bye in the preliminaries and then awaits the winner of Augustine and Clearfield's Jacob Verchick.
"I've watched a lot of video of Augustine," Moore said, "and he really doesn't have much offense on his feet. Conditioning seems to be an issue for him. Matt needs to push the pace and capitalize on his conditioning. His district finals bout is a good indicator of how far he's come."
Barton jumped into the 140-pound Moore's arms after his title, but to his credit, Moore stayed upright. He has been a little sore this week, though.
"I'm a pretty tough guy," Moore said chuckling. "I have to admit my neck is tender."
Hollingshead (31-3), only a sophomore, will likely face off against McDowell's Nick Gibson in the semifinals. Brandt beat Gibson, 5-4, in last year's 126-pound finals. Clearfield's Christian Stone, who beat Hollingshead, 6-2, in the consolation semifinals last season, is in the other bracket.
"We can't look past that Gibson bout," Gilbert said. "Gibson is ranked higher in the state, but they are two evenly matched wrestlers. We have to get our offense going early. It could be Stone in the finals, and that will be the same type of bout."
Evans, Prentice, Gray and Knode also had the experience wrestling in last year's tournament, which is filled with quality wrestlers taking that next step on the postseason rode.
"Everybody brings down their top wrestlers," Gilbert said. "DuBois has a kid that's undefeated [Tom Sleigh at 170]. Erie always has some good wrestlers. There's the addition of District 4, and Shikellamy always has great kids. You can't ask for the type of wrestling you'll see this week. I hope our guys rise to the occasion and get the job done."
Notes: BEA's Jake Taylor (182) will be going for his third title. ... Cathedral Prep's Jake Gromacki (113), DuBois' Landon Hanna (195) are returning 2012 champs, and Stone won in 2010. ... McDowell won last year's team title.