Norristown extends championship streak

LOWER GWYNEDD — It took until the very last second of the very last match of the PIAA District One Class AAA Central Wrestling Tournament, but Norristown High was able to extend its streak of producing District One champs to seven years when heavyweight Shaheed Hill took down previously unbeaten James McDonald of West Chester Henderson in sudden-victory overtime.

Hill’s win extended the streak, which was started in 2009 when the late David Irwin won the 119-pound weight class with a 6-5 victory over Central Bucks West’s Steve Ferrara at the District One North tournament at Quakertown.

It was a disappointing finish for the Eagles in 2009, who saw sophomore Brandon Parker lose to Eric Koch of Quakertown, 8-3, in the 140-pound finals, Stephen Parker lose in the 145-pound finals to Pennridge’s Colin McConnell, 16-2, and Joe Kent get pinned in the 152-pound finals by Quakertown’s Nick Lubenetski.

But Irwin’s title began a streak that was extended by Brandon Parker in 2010, Brett Harner and Parker in 2011, Mike Springer, Zach Fuentes, Harner and Shane Springer in 2012, Mike Springer, Rashon Lusane, Fuentes and Harner in 2013 and Mike Springer last year.

“That’s when we started the turn the corner,’ said Norristown head coach Mark Harner who had been coaching the Norristown youth program until brother Steve quit following the 2004 season.

Mark took over the following season.

“It took me a while to figure out high school wrestling,’ he said with a chuckle, “and there had been a hole in our junior high wrestling program.’

Eventually, Harner saw the tide turn.

“We started getting some talent,’ he recalled. “Brett (Harner) and Zach (Fuentes) came up (in 2010) and we’ve had some real talented kids come along behind them.’

Since, the Eagles have found ways to win individual postseason crowns.

“We haven’t been great in the postseason,’ the coach said, “but we seem to do pretty well.’

Crazily, Norristown wound up finishing ahead of Plymouth Whitemarsh in the team points standings.

The Colonials breezed to the Suburban One League American Division team title and brought 12 wrestlers to districts.

But beginning with Zach Wakefield not making weight at 120 pounds on the tourney’s first day, the Colonials seemed to lose their invulnerability.

By the time Monday night drew to a close, the Colonials had just two regional qualifiers, and lineup stalwarts Gianpiero DiBattista, Francesco Palagruto and Quincy Williams had all seen their seasons end well short of their goals.

“I don’t know where to begin,’ said a deeply disappointed Justin Giovinco, the Colonials’ head coach. “We came out flat (on Saturday), to put it bluntly. We just didn’t seem to have any snap in our shots, as they say.’

The unusual circumstances of shutting down early on Saturday ahead of the snow bothered some, but Giovinco thought it afforded his team a fresh start. But it was not to be.

“It was inconvenient, but we thought it was a good thing,’ Giovinco said. “We thought we be able to stop, get our breath and come back stronger.

“But that didn’t happen.’

What made the finish worse for Giovinco was that he felt this was a team on which he had a major impact.

“Our senior class was one I had high expectations for,’ Giovinco said. “I was real close to this class because I felt I really had something to do with their development. I was able to see myself in them, so it was difficult to watch. It was tough seeing the mental lapses that ended some of their seasons.’

Giovinco had compliments for wrestlers like senior Andrew Vo (“He was wrestling up two weight classes and never complained. He gave his heart and soul to the program.’) and freshman Zach Fischer, who got the most out of their abilities this season.

But it was tough watching the so-called cornerstones of the team come up short.

“Franny (Palagruto) was in a tough weight class,’ Giovinco said, “but I thought he’d be able to get through.

“GP (Gianpiero DiBattista) is heartbroken in the way everything played out, but he’s wrestling at the next level, and the memory of this will help him. He’ll be fine, but it was tough to see him go down that way.

“Quincy had put in enough work to get to next week, but that weight class (285) is always tough to figure.

“Generally speaking, it was a pretty brutal weekend for us.’

On the plus side, Giovinco said, the two regional qualifiers, Marco DiBattista and Ben Billings, will get plenty of help this week.

“We have great team chemistry and we still have 20 guys showing up for practice every day,’ Giovinco said. “Zach Fischer is in and helping Marco, and Gianpiero is always there for his brother.’

Giovinco also said PW will require a minor retooling in the off-season.

“Next year’s going to be a rebuilding year,’ the coach said. “We’re going to have our work cut out for us.’

BACK POINTS: Want to know what’s so much fun about the sport of wrestling? In the very first set of pigtail matches Saturday, Avon Grove’s Jeremy Smith, a dwarf, wrestled Upper Moreland’s Amanda Walker, a female. It seems there truly is a spot for everyone in scholastic wrestling.

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