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Pope John Paul II’s Matt Vulakh knocks off defending champ

HERSHEY >> He has a tough act to follow … one that resides at the same address as he does.

But Matt Vulakh isn’t overcome by awe at the prospects he’s facing this weekend. Certainly not in the weight class he’s competing in at the PIAA Championships.

Vulakh and his highly-touted older brother, Ryan, both advanced to the Class AA quarterfinal round on the basis of their early-bout showings at the Giant Center Thursday.

Matt, to be sure, had the more-challenging route at 106. The Pope John Paul II sophomore had to win twice to stay in the championship bracket, the opposition featuring the weight class’ defending state champion in Gary Steen of Reynolds.

The younger Vulakh (26-9), coming off a fourth-place showing in the South East AA Regional last weekend, needed less than a minute to dispatch Mount Union’s Bryce Beatty in one of the day’s first bouts. He then shook the bracket by scoring a 5-2 decision on Steen, the North West AAA Regional champ who came in with a 35-1 record.

“I’m in shock to be honest,” Matt Vulakh said. “Going into the match, my goal was to hopefully catch him in something. I Just ended up wrestling tough and was able to get it done.”

Pope John Paul’s Matt Vulakh lets out a smile after the final seconds ticked off a 5-2 upset win over Reynold’s Gary Steen. (Nate Heckenberger – For MediaNews Group)

The magnitude of his performance against Steen still had its impact on Vulakh’s thought process … just not enough to distract him from the job at hand. He took Steen down on a counter attack in the first period for a 2-0 lead. Steen escaped to make it a 2-1, but in the second Matt escaped to make it 3-1.

“When I got the first takedown,” he said, “it kind of shocked me for a second. Then I just started wrestling full out.”

In the third, Steen escaped quickly again to make it a 3-2 score. In the last 20 seconds, the Reynolds sophomore got in on a shot, but Vulakh scrambled out of it and ended up on top for the takedown.

The effort earned Matt a quarterfinal bout with Kai Burnett of Chestnut Ridge (33-7), the North East AA Regional third seed.

“It’s definitely a huge confidence boost,” Matt said. “I want to keep going and get as far as I can.”

“Matt knows he can wrestle anybody,” PJP head coach Tom Hontz added. “He maintained great position – I think he learned from big brother – stayed in the center of the mat and scored when the opportunities were there.”

A diversification of his skill set has also paid dividends, Hontz said.

“He’s worked on a couple things, like scrambling out of a counter and getting the takedown,” he recalled.
In the meantime, Ryan continued his roll through Pennsylvania’s small-school 152-pound ranks. The PJP senior, a George Mason commit sitting atop his AA weight class, remained unbeaten with a 3:39 pin of Conneaut Area’s Brendan Laird.

“Ryan’s right on top of his game,” Hontz noted. “He has his own personal goals and just keeps mowing through opponents.”

Vulakh (32-0) will face St. Joseph Academy junior Keegan Rothrock in the quarters. Rothrock (35-9) is the South West AA Regional third seed.

Jack Files’ Hershey participation lasted just two bouts. The Pope John Paul II senior suffered a pair of close losses on the first day of the tournament to end his season 23-12.

Files came up short in his 195-pound qualifier, edged by Coudersport’s Elijah Ayers, 7-5. In the consolation round, he was edged by Central Columbia’s Jack Schecertly, 2-1.

Methacton’s Kibwe McNair, right, scores a reversal on Lower Dauphin’s T.T. Elhajj during an 8-5 win in the first round at 138 pounds Thursday at the PIAA Championships. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)

Class AAA

Kibwe McNair knew he needed more energy to make the most of his participation in the PIAA Championships this weekend.

So the Methacton junior focused on his conditioning in practices following last weekend’s South East AAA Regional tournament. His attention to that detail paid McNair big dividends on the first day of state-level wrestling at the Giant Center.

McNair worked his way from a qualifying-round start to the 138-pound quarterfinals with a pair of wins. He started out by pinning Bellefonte’s Cole Stewart in 2:30, then upended Troy Thomas Elhajj of Central Dauphin in the evening’s first championship round.

“I knew I had the edge in conditioning,” McNair, the South East AAA Regional fourth seed, said after his bout with South Central AAA Regional champ Elhajj. “I’ve been working hard … more sprints, extra practices. I worked 10 times harder than I had.”

In his 8-5 verdict against Elhajj, McNair (32-5) worked the conditioning difference to his advantage. He rode his opponent the entire match, working to wear Elhajj down.

His reward will be a spot in Friday’s quarterfinal round … a big step upward from being a DNP (did not place) at Hershey last winter.

“In districts, I was in every single match, but I got gassed,” he recalled. “When I got to states, I knew I had to fix it.”

McNair ended up one of seven wrestlers from Pioneer Athletic Conference schools reaching the quarterfinals. Three other teams – Boyertown, Owen J. Roberts, Spring-Ford – advanced pairs of wrestlers through Thursday’s opening action.

Like McNair, Spring-Ford’s Jack McGill had to win twice to stay in gold-medal contention. The 138-pound Ram sophomore edged Ambridge’s Daniel Yetsick 3-2, then handled Penn Trafford’s Nick Coy 5-1.

Owen J. Roberts’ Dan Mancini returns Thomas Jefferson’s Alex Weber during his 7-3 win at 152 pounds Thursday at the PIAA Championships. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)

For Daniel Mancini, one of two Owen J. Roberts grapplers remaining in the championship bracket, the first day of states offered a fresh start from a third-place showing at regionals. Mancini (34-3) made the most of the opportunity by handling Thomas Jefferson’s Alex Weber, 7-3.

“I feel I didn’t wrestle to my full capability,” he said. “This week means the most. You can’t hang your head.”

Like Mancini, Antonio Petrucelli saw his hopes for regional gold untracked in a championship-final loss to Souderton’s Ty Williams, Petrucelli (41-8) got his weekend off to a flying start by pinning Central Dauphin’s Tye Weathersby in 1:42 of their 138-pound clash.

“Especially now in the post-season,” Mancini said, “we’re focusing on things where we fell short in the regional.”

Spring-Ford’s Jack McGill scores the winning points against Penn-Trafford’s Nick Coy in a 138-pound first round match at the PIAA Championships Thursday in Hershey. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)

Boyertown’s quarterfinalists are Julien Maldonado at 106, and Jacob Miller at 195. Maldonado (36-13), a sophomore making his first appearance in the state individual tourney, pinned Dover’s Mason Leiphart in 132, and Miller (37-6) scored a 10-4 decision of Northampton’s Jayden Bortz.

Spring-Ford’s Joey Milano, wrestling in the PIAA individual tournament for the first time, marked his first day of action by racking up a technical fall on Trinity’s Cole Whitmer at 182. Milano (43-2) ran up a 16-1 lead on Whitmer to halt the bout at the 5:21 mark.

OJR’s Connor Quinn bounced back from a narrow 10-9 loss to Gettysburg’s Dylan Reinert to score a 1:40 pin of Dallastown’s John Ligon in first-round consolations at 160. Quinn (23-3) remains alive in wrestlebacks along with Boyertown’s Brett Breidor (152)

NOTES >> Class AA starts off Friday’s schedule with quarterfinals and second-round consolations at 9 a.m., then wraps up the day with semifinals and three consi rounds starting at 6:30 p.m. Class AAA has quarterfinals and two rounds of consolations starting at 2:15 p.m. … Area wrestlers seeing their seasons end with pairs of losses were Spring-Ford seniors Shane Reynolds (113) and Chase Smith (170), Daniel Boone’s Gavin Richard (113), Boyertown’s Evan Mortimer (160) and Methacton’s Tonee Ellis (220).

Boyertown’s Evan Mortimer lifts and returns Council Rock South’s Matt Colajezzi during their 160-pound consolation match. Colajezzi won 1-0, eliminating Mortimer. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)

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