HARRISBURG — Punxsy rising senior Neko Cappella has been part of the Chucks' Big Three of wrestlers alongside 2011 graduate Kody Young and soon-to-be senior Seth Spack the past few years, but he never experienced the glory of winning a district or regional title like his accomplished grappling counterparts.
Cappella won a national title at the National High School Coaches Association Open Nationals Wrestling Tournament during the weekend of May 7 in Harrisburg. Finally, the monkey was off Cappella's back.
"In order to get better, you have to wrestle the best. Neko wrestled probably the best tournament that he ever wrestled," Punxsy coach Buddy Young said recently. "After he won it, he said, 'I finally won something.' That was a big deal."
Cappella has been considered at the level of Young and Spack, who each won a regional title and advanced to states last year. Young also won NHSCA titles in 2006 and 2010 and advanced to the PIAA tournament in 2009, and Spack was a district champion, regional runner-up and state qualifier in 2010.
Cappella has reached the regional tournament all three years during high school, but he was always the runner-up or third-place qualifier at districts and twice was one victory short of a state berth at regionals. May 7, he used a decision victory in the NHSCA championship match at 130 pounds to claim the crown.
"He was always knocking on the door. He wrestled great. He actually wrestled a complete match," Young said. "Normally, Neko can take anybody down, but he struggles to ride them. He actually rode this kid for the win, which is a great thing for Neko."
Cappella wasn't the only Punxsy wrestler to succeed at nationals. He was one of 12 Punxsy grapplers to qualify, which is the most ever for Punxsy. Of the 12, seven competed, and five placed. The other five who qualified but did not compete had a prior engagement.
When Young, a PAHS wrestling coach for nearly a decade, first started taking kids to the NHSCA tournament, only current Clarion University wrestler Steven Cressley, Spack and Buddy's his sons Kody and Kaleb made the trip to nationals.
That number has increased almost every year since.
"It's getting there," Young said. "The program's starting to move forward, just by numbers we had in junior-high."
Punxsy had more than 20 wrestlers on its junior-high team and filled out the junior-high and varsity lineups almost every match this past season. Just five years ago, Punxsy had less than a dozen wrestlers on each of the junior-high and varsity teams.
Perry Arrington, who will be a ninth grader this fall, finished second at 140 pounds in the middle school division. Arrington lost by major decision in the championship, though he was twice pinned by the same opponent earlier in the year.
"At 140, I was really skeptical how well Perry was going to do, because that's a big weight class," Young said. "Even in middle school, you have some big, strong kids."
Spack, 2011 PAHS graduate Tige Woodson and rising eighth-grader Eli Lambiotte each finished fifth.
Spack (140 pounds) and Woodson (189) were each competing in the high school division.
Lambiotte wrestled at 87 pounds as a middle-schooler.
"Seth wrestled real well. He didn't catch a couple breaks," Buddy Young said. "Tige Woodson wrestled amazingly. I was very, very pleased with him."
Lambiotte led 7-0 entering the second period before his opponent injury-defaulted during the fifth-place match.
He lost to the same wrestler in overtime earlier in the tournament.
"Eli wrestled really, really well down there," Buddy Young said.
Competing at nationals but not placing were rising sophomore Joel Bowers (112 pounds, high school) and soon-to-be freshman Troy Peace (215 pounds, high school).
Buddy Young said that Bowers lost to a state qualifier in Class AA, and that Peace was a young wrestler competing in an experienced division and was outmuscled and out-conditioned.
Qualifying but not competing at nationals for Punxsy were Kody Young, Kaleb Young, Keegan Fisher, Josh Schuckers and Josh Neal.