It was only a matter of minutes into this year’s state duals where Chestnut Ridge coach Greg Lazor would find out what the Hershey rookies on his team were made of.
In retrospect, having many of those wrestlers compete early in Thursday’s opener may have been the best thing to happen to the Lions.
Those newcomers plus the veteran leadership of the team allowed them to surprise Lazor himself in a strong third-place effort in the Class AA bracket.
Chestnut Ridge finished in the medals for the second straight season, which it hadn’t done before, and the locals now have four team trophies in the seven years they have reached the Giant Center.
Overall in that time span on the small-school level, only Reynolds has more team medals. The powerhouse Raiders have finished in the top four in every year since 2013, which includes their three straight championships. Chestnut Ridge has four, while Boiling Springs, Brookville, and Southern Columbia all have three in the past seven seasons.
“Every year, we talk about getting a medal at team states,” said senior captain Jared McGill. “Our goal is really to be state champs. That didn’t happen with the (semifinal) loss, but the next best thing is to come back and medal.
“Everyone on the team contributed and gave a great effort this weekend.”
The road in 2019 began Thursday afternoon against District 7 runner-up Freedom, and the starting weight for the Class AA matches was 126 pounds.
Wrestling in the four bouts to follow junior Gryphon Callihan were freshmen Trevor Weyandt (132), Luke Moore (138), and Daniel Moore (152), and sophomore Baltzer Bollman (145), who were all making their debuts at the state duals.
On paper, Freedom had an advantage in the middle that included a returning state placewinner, a pair of state qualifiers, and a wrestler with over 110 career wins.
Luke Moore and Bollman held their opponents to regular decisions, and coupled with Callihan’s close loss by decision at 126 against another state qualifier and Weyandt’s pin, the Lions were off to a good start. That allowed the advantage Ridge had from 160-120 to run away with the team win, 51-21.
Despite having to cover up a broken nose with a mask for the first time, Weyandt felt right at home wrestling in the Hershey atmosphere.
“It’s one of the best feelings ever, and we have a great fan base that supports us,” he said after Thursday’s victory. “Its a grind, but that’s why we do all the extras in practice to get ready.”
Against Hamburg in the quarterfinals, the logical path to victory looked like get a lead, ride things out in the middle, and then hopefully close it out behind McGill and company.
The Lions had about as good of a start as they could, with three pins (Duane Knisely at 220, Dalton Seace at 285, Nathan Holderbaum at 113) and a decision (Kai Burkett at 106) in the first four bouts.
That also deflated a large crowd that Hamburg had on hand, and sent Ridge’s younger group to the mat in a similar situation as the day before, as the Hawks’ best wrestlers were coming up.
Ross Dull (120), another freshman, Callihan (126), Luke Moore (138), and Bollman (145) each only surrendered regular decisions against more experienced opponents that included a pair of state qualifiers. Daniel Moore (152) had a win for the Lions, and Hamburg forfeited to Seth Holderbaum (160) that actually clinched the match before McGill’s pin put a little punctuation on the eventual 42-18 blowout.
On Friday night, Chestnut Ridge got a rematch of last year’s semifinals with Southern Columbia, which won a 30-27 match a season ago.
This time, the Lions were up 16-6 after six bouts thanks to Burkett’s pin at 106 to begin the match, Dull’s major at 120, and decisions by Callihan at 126 and Luke Moore at 138. Also in there was Weyandt’s strong effort in a 3-2 loss to state medalist Patrick Edmonson at 132.
The Tigers ran off three straight pins (145-160) to seize the bonus points they needed, then their advantages at 195 and 220 with Preston Zachman and Gaige Garcia knocked the Lions into the consolations in a 34-31 win.
But Saturday saw no hangover effects from how close the Lions were to reaching their second-ever final, as they handled Burrell and Brookville without a lot of trouble to finish third.
Decisions by Nathan Holderbaum (113) and Dull (120) were key in the Burrell match, which ended 32-29 but only because Lazor forfeited the final two weights after the win and another team medal had been assured of.
The Lions jumped on Brookville early and never looked back in a 46-18 victory. With seven bouts left and a nine-point lead, pins by Dull (120), Callihan (126), and Weyandt (132 while trailing 10-4) sealed it up.
Those five newcomers in the middle of the lineup posted a state duals record of 11-11, but also saved bonus points and earned a few wins that weren’t expected.
“In a lot of matches this year, we say ‘Oh, they’re strong in the middle, which is our youth’,” said Lazor. “But they’re used to it at this point. They know what to expect.”
And they set the tone for the veterans to do their job as well.
“We’re like brothers,” said McGill. “We’re family. It feels like a family even with the fans and our coaches. It’s a pretty tight knit group.”
McGill, the top-ranked 170-pounder in the state, has embraced the role of team leader this season. In Hershey, he was front and center in leading pre-match warmups, giving team huddle encouragement, and cheering on his teammates.
Those warmups, which often feature some kind of backflips and the like by several of the wrestlers, are light-hearted moments but also eye-catching to other schools. Prior to the semifinals, the Southern Columbia staff huddled its team in the back hallway of the arena floor and noted how mentally loose Chestnut Ridge seemed and to be as ready as the Lions to wrestle.
“Losing (Justin) McCoy to graduation, I kind of knew I needed to be the leader this year,” he said. “I just wanted to show the younger guys what it’s all about at Chestnut Ridge. They’ve really bought into it, and it showed this weekend.”
McGill won all five of his bouts in Hershey and earned his 150th win as well. Currently 151-16, McGill is one of only three locals to ever win that many bouts in a career.
The other two are his former teammates McCoy (167) and Aaron Burkett (152).
It was the second milestone for Chestnut Ridge’s numbers game, as Lazor collected his 200th victory with the Lions on Thursday afternoon.
While McGill and four others — Austin Crouse, Brodie Harbaugh, Mason McVicker, and Dalton Seace — made their last team trip to Hershey, the Lions will return a solid nucleus next winter that begins with many of those younger faces that produced so much this past weekend.
The program also continues to roll out strong junior high wrestlers, as evidenced by another Mountain Conference championship on Saturday.
“Hopefully, we can stay really competitive like we’ve been,” said Lazor.