HERSHEY — Last Saturday, seven Punxsutawney area wrestlers traveled to Hershey to compete on Pennsylvania's largest stage for grapplers their age — the Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling State Championship Tournament — and one grappler attained a long-awaited, highly-coveted prize when Kaleb Young was crowned state champion at 117 pounds in the 13- and 14-year-old class.
"We can't be happy enough for Kaleb," Punxsy coach Bill Burke said upon returning from Hershey. "I guess we can say 'the third time is a charm,' as he was a state runner-up twice previously."
To the best of Burke's knowledge, Young is the first Punxsy native to win the coveted prize since 1978, when Rich Hartman did so. Greg Astorino also accomplished the feat in the 1970s.
Another of Young's coaches — his father Buddy — was also very proud of his son's accomplishment, saying Kaleb "broke the curse."
"We've been working since Kaleb's brother, Kody, was in elementary school on accomplishing this goal, and Kaleb said after he won, 'I finally broke the curse,'" Buddy said. "The curse was that none of us had ever placed higher than second. I placed second; Kody had placed second; and Kaleb had placed second twice, but the first place victory had always eluded us. So when he won it, it was a pretty good feeling, because Kody was able to be there in his corner with me. It's just one of those things you'll never forget."
Older brother Kody accomplished one of his longtime goals just a few weeks ago, as well, when, as a freshman, he reached the Division II Wrestling National Championships while wrestling at Mercyhurst.
Buddy went on to explain that in a family that has a rich history in Pennsylvania wrestling, this accomplishment means more to him than most would.
"It's huge," he said. "My brother Randy wrestled, and he was able to be there for it. My dad was there, and he said he's been waiting 35 years for this, becasue we've all been right there at the pinnacle and just couldn't crack it. So, it was big. It was emotional. To win a state title here, it's almost like winning an Olympic gold at his age."
Buddy also said the busy schedule that goes with the wrestling tournaments his sons have competed in for so long has helped to bring his family closer together over the years.
"We enjoy this," he said. "My wife Amy and I don't go on vacations, because most of our vacations are spent going to Virginia Beach for matches. But we spend a lot of time together, and it brings the family closer because of that. We were in Colorado the week before last for Kody's tournament. I went and picked Kody up Thursday, and he rearranged his test schedule so he could be there for this. It was a lot of driving, but it all helps bring us together, and it's special to be together for these moments."
While Kaleb's father has been one of his wrestling influences for a long time, he also wanted to make it clear that he isn't the only one who helped his son win the title of state champion.
"I coach my son, but I'm far from the only one who coaches him," Buddy said. "Bill Burke, (Punxsy varsity coach) Eric Eddy —(who Young said has worked extensively with the younger wrestlers on their technique this year) and (junior high coach) D.J. Gould; Jack and Jason Locke from Raging Raisins Wrestling Club out of Erie have worked with him; and John and Jody Strittmatter from Young Guns out of Johnstown have worked with him as well. They all had a hand in this. I would hate for people to think it's just me coaching. It takes more than one guy to make a great wrestler. There were many hands in it.
"It was Kaleb's work; it was Kody's work; it was the work of the Punxsy wrestlers who came before him — Matt Means and Steven Cressley. Josh Schuckers helped him. Joel Bowers — who went to states at the high school level this year — came in for two weeks at 6:30 a.m. and spent time helping Kaleb prepare, and that was huge. Joel was down there with us. Just a lot of people made it special. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and you could say the same about making a great wrestler. And that makes it a group celebration, too."
Buddy wrapped up his thoughts by saying how proud he and Amy are of their sons, adding that one of the greatest parts of parenting is seeing his children reach the goals they've worked so hard for.
"It was a big year for us," he said. "Not too often do you have this kind of opportunity. I told Amy, happiness is watching your son accomplish a goal he's been working on his entire life. I got to do it twice in two weeks time. Kody reached one of his greatest goals by making nationals, and now, for Kaleb to reach this pinnacle. It certainly was a special couple of weeks."
Another Punxsy youngster, Conner Giavedoni, gave his family a memory to cherish when he claimed a spot on the podium at the PJW State Championships— his second podium in three years — with a sixth-place finish at 95 pounds in the nine- and 10-year-old bracket.
Young, who serves not only as a father but also works closely with Punxsy wrestling from the young grapplers to the high school level, called Giavedoni "an athlete," and coach Burke was impressed with his wrestling, as well.
"Conner wrestled very well for the most part," Burke said. "He dominated his first match with a pin, then met a really tough kid and lost in the quarter-finals. But he fought back with two nice wins in a row before dropping his final two bouts. He'll only get better as he continues to mature."
Zoie Smith, another 13- and 14-year-old for Punxsy, went 1-2 at the state tournament, picking up a first-round win over Julius Hicklin of Sharon, 7-6. There, Smith fell to Area VII's top seed in the quarters.
"Zoie won her first match and did a nice job all in all," Burke said. "She kind of got overpowered after that. There were some really good kids in her bracket."
Travis Perry, who wrestled for Punxsy at 167 pounds in the 13- and 14-year-old division, made it out of the round of 32 with a 2-0 win over Beth Center's Frank Dreucci and advanced to the quarters with a 10-5 win over Area I's king seed, Louie Mauro.
Perry dropped his semi-final match, though, and was unable to battle through the wrestle-backs against Jacob Robb, of Kittanning.
"Travis won his first two matches rather impressively," Burke said. "He ended up losing the next two, but he still did a nice job considering this is only his third year wrestling. He definitely still has a lot to learn, but he did quite well. His second loss was a pretty close match. I think the big difference in that match was he simply wrestled a kid with a little more experience."
A trio of other Punxsy youngsters — Jake Skarbek and Dylan Ishman in the nine- and 10-year-old division and Keegan Fischer in 13- and 14-year-olds — all went 0-2 at states, but Burke said they all wrestled "quite well," pointing out just how great an accomplishment it is to make the state tournament.
"As we knew going in, the competition was going to be at its best down there, and they were in some tight matches," Burke said. "Especially Keegan; in his first match, he was dominating with a score of 10-0, but he made one mistake late, where he got reversed and stuck on his back.
"He tried to fight off for quite a while, but sadly was pinned with only one second left in the match. It was really heart-breaking. If that wouldn't have happened, he had a pretty good chance of reaching the podium.
"But unfortunately, due to where he fell in the losers' bracket, he faced a super tough kid in his second match and was unable to pull off a hopeful upset. If nothing else, though, this was a good learning experience for him, Jake and Dylan."
Coach Young echoed Burke's sentiment about gaining valuable experience.
"Those guys experienced the big stage, and now they know what it's like," he said. "It's a large amount of exposure, and it's good to even make it there. They'll definitely learn from those valuable experiences."
Burke and Young also shared similar sentiments with the accomplishments of all the wrestlers in their program, which they both said has "small numbers."
Despite battling numbers, though, Burke and Young both said they like the direction the competition level is headed for Punxsy.
"We're pretty pleased with the way everyone wrestled," Burke said. "While we would have liked to have a few more medals, we can't complain about a sixth-place and a champion. We're still proud of all of our wrestlers, and they should certainly be proud of themselves. And for those who didn't medal, again, it was still quite an accomplishment just making it to Hershey."
Young added: "Although we have smaller numbers in our program right now, what we lack in quantity, we're making up for in quality. That's been the Punxsy motto for a while now."