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Malvern Prep’s rise as national power comes with challenges for prospects and their home schools

MALVERN>> It’s the eve of Thanksgiving and Malvern Prep’s wrestling room is rustling.

On one half of the room, a bigger group of Friars drill, while a smaller cluster gathers on the other side. 

There, in the back corner of Malvern’s wrestling room, futures are determined as pairs of talented wrestlers with impressive youth and high school resumés tangle like young bucks, maneuvering for a starting spot in one of the most competitive lineups in the country.

Things have not always been this way. Even six, seven years ago, Malvern coach Nate Lautar could’ve only hoped to have the room he has now, where duos of probable National Prep All-Americans tangle in wrestle-offs.

As Malvern has risen to a national power, decisions for parents and student-athletes have become all the more challenging as thoughts of being left behind and keeping up with the Jones’ are counterweighted by pricey tuitions and a lack of Division 1 college scholarships.

In the new age of “superteams” in all sports, Malvern Prep has become the pinnacle of wrestling in the Philadelphia area, and that has its pluses and minuses, both for potential Friars and the schools that hope to retain them.

For sure, Malvern is an incredible asset for Chester County, with a room full of talent, but that talent that has made the Friars a force at the same time deprives rosters from the Ches-Mont League and around District 1.

Malvern Prep coach Nate Lautar addresses his team before wrestle-offs. (Nate Heckenberger – For MediaNews Group)

“I think we’re guarded because we’re not PIAA, 100 percent,” Lautar said. “At the same time, I think it’s unfair because I don’t think most people know what goes into it. I’m here four days a week, all year around. Whether it’s conditioning, whether it’s clubs, whether it’s camps, this isn’t just show up, recruit kids and build some superstar team. It’s not that easy. Our school doesn’t have scholarships, it’s all need-based financial aid so to get kids and build a team is way harder than people think.”

When Lautar took over in 2011, Malvern finished 46th at the Beast of the East tournament and went 2-2 at the Devil Duals at Avon Grove. Nowadays, if Malvern isn’t in the top three at National Preps, it feels like a down year. 

Malvern’s youth club has been Lautar’s pipeline, training kids from elementary age and keeping many of the best of them.

In the 106-pound wrestle-off, Coatesville native, Leo Pezone, earned a spot over West Chester native, Tyler Conroy. Nearly one-third of Malvern’s roster hails from Chester County. 

Malvern Prep’s Leo Pezone lifts teammate, Tyler Conroy, in the 106-pound wrestle-off. (Nate Heckenberger – For MediaNews Group)

Public schools across all sports have lamented ‘losing’ kids to successful private programs like Malvern, but with an individual-centric sport like wrestling, there can still be benefits.

“It’s not a bad thing,” Downingtown West coach Brad Breese said. “It’s a different thing. It’s annoying when a decent kid leaves, but those kids are probably not a good fit with the team, and it gives them an option to go where they want to go. But Malvern is a nice asset, if you have somebody who wants to work out with other partners who can push them, they’re open to having guys come over and work out.”

To attend Malvern, the starting tuition is $38,585. That’s a huge sacrifice, right off the bat. Wrestling at Malvern has changed in the last decade. Before, a talented wrestler could walk right in and start right away. The last few years, the roster has gotten so deep, kids who would thrive on their home team don’t always find a starting spot immediately. 

Malvern Prep’s SP O’Donnell. (Nate Heckenberger – For MediaNews Group)

“You just have to keep working,” said senior SP O’Donnell, who’s committed to wrestle for Duke University. “Freshman year I didn’t start. I was behind (Spencer) Barnhart. It was just, come into the room and watch him be good and push yourself to be that good. I see all these kids lose a wrestle-off as a freshman or sophomore, but it doesn’t matter. It just gets you that much better and that much more prepared to be a starter because you have to earn it.”

With so much at stake with the wrestle-offs, the winners gain the right to compete in Malvern’s brutally-challenging regular season schedule. Those who don’t win their wrestle-offs still get to battle at the Beast of the East and other strong tournaments, but would need to win late-season wrestle-offs to earn a postseason spot.

“Losing a wrestle-off is tough, especially when it’s so close and you have to wrestle close friends,” said Coatesville native Jason Torres, who was beaten out by nationally-ranked Nick O’Neill. “In the end we’re all working together and college is the end goal.”

Malvern Prep’s Jason Torres. (Nate Heckenberger – For MediaNews Group)

That end goal of college is a common theme for Friars wrestlers, and rightly so. Malvern has produced and propelled many Division 1 wrestlers. Most recently, Nick Feldman was the No. 1 recruit in the country and is at Ohio State. Barnhart and Reed Fullmer are committed to the University of Pennsylvania. Tommy Link and O’Neill are headed to Army.  

If you can start for Malvern, there’s a good chance colleges will be interested. Lukas Littleton-Mascaro, a highly-touted freshman from the Conestoga area, believes even if he has to put in a year on the B-team, it’ll pay off in the end.

“The competition, it’s a higher level,” said Littleton-Mascaro, who was edged by nationally-ranked Anthony Mutarelli at 113 pounds. “You wrestle the top tournaments in the country and I feel like that’s just getting me ready for college.”

Wrestling at the next level is a worthwhile goal, but it is also a challenging one. Division 1 wrestling programs have just 9.9 scholarships to field 10 starters and their backups. 

The allure of paying to go to a private school in an effort to earn a college scholarship is understandable, especially with social media’s ability to create serious FOMO with parents and athletes.

At the same time, not going to a private school doesn’t mean you can’t get to where you want to be. Former Downingtown West wrestlers, Doug Zapf and Max Hale, are starting at Penn. West Chester Henderson’s Sammy McMonagle is at Brown University. Coatesville’s Nate Lucier is at Binghamton University.

“You have to have a conversation with your youth program and the parents, and I don’t want to call it recruiting because they’re already there, but private schools sell themselves because they have to,” Kennett coach Kevin Reigel said. “Our job is at least to go, ‘here’s what public school has to offer.’”

Kennett’s John Pardo. (Nate Heckenberger – For MediaNews Group)

Like many of the stronger public school programs in Chester County, Kennett benefits from an active youth club (Kraken). 

“Having that one guy to workout with, who will push you at practice every day, it certainly makes bigger changes, quicker,” Breese said. “If you don’t have that, and can’t find it, it’s why people go other places. But it’s also made people lazy because sometimes they don’t try to find another kid on their team, and just leave.”

Without competitive practice partners, the pull from non-boundary schools strengthens. 

It’s not a trend limited to Chester County. Bethlehem Catholic is a power with its collection of kids around District 11 and sometimes New Jersey. Out in Johnstown, Bishop McCort’s wrestling team was ruled ineligible for the 2022 and 2023 PIAA postseasons after a number of wrestlers transferred in. 

In this region, a new player has recently popped up, but this time in the PIAA realm. Faith Christian Academy, in Quakertown, finished third in the state in Class 2A states last winter and has eight of the top 49 incoming freshmen, according to PA Power Wrestling’s list.

Whether you like it or not, from the LeBron James’ of professional sports to the little Timmys of youth sports, the stacking of teams trend is not going away anytime soon.

“There’s AAU basketball, youth lacrosse is all clubs, and soccer is building those development teams with the Union,” Lautar said. “They’re all going towards that model. To me, you put like-minded kids around each other, they’re naturally going to get bigger.”

Malvern Prep’s Spencer Barnhart won his wrestle-off for the fourth year in a row and is committed to wrestle at Penn in college. (Nate Heckenberger – For MediaNews Group)

The inner debate for families is tough to navigate, for sure. Is the financial commitment worth it? Is it worth it, even if the athlete won’t start for a year or two? Is it worth it, even if my kid does start but there aren’t many college scholarships?

There really is no universal truth. It always comes down to the individual. 

The Ches-Mont has had an upswing the past six years or so, and make no mistake, that correlates with the rise of Malvern and other clubs like Kraken, Defiant and Turks Head.

If there’s one sales pitch from the public schools, it’s the PIAA postseason. Prep schools hold the cards in the regular season, but nothing compares to the depth and intensity of the PIAA Championships in Hershey every March.

“The one thing is the PA postseason,” said Reigel, who went to National Preps when he coached Church Farm in the early 2000s. “You almost can’t touch that anywhere else in the country. That’s the one chip. National Preps is pretty cool and it’s prestigious. There have been some great wrestlers there, but the PA postseason, it’s tough to walk away from that.”

Many of the Friars say they wish they could compete in Hershey, but none spoke of any regret of wrestling for Malvern.

“It’d be fun to wrestle for my hometown of Avon Grove but I don’t think I’d be here today without Malvern wrestling,” Barnhart said. “So I’m pretty grateful for that.”

Malvern Prep’s Spencer Barnhart. (Nate Heckenberger – For MediaNews Group)

Though District 1 gets looked down upon at the state level, things might look a lot different if those 10-12 Malvern wrestlers from the Southeast Region would be in Hershey every winter.

But of all the history up in District 11 and all the studs out in District 7, little old Malvern Prep, in the heart of basketball country outside of Philadelphia, has become the biggest dog in the best wrestling state in the country.

“Malvern actually puts wrestling on the map around here,” Henderson coach Rob Beighley said. “To have a team the last five years in the top three, top five in the country, that’s good for Chester County. Having a team that has that quality of kids, a bunch of hammers and the offseason workouts they have, it kind of showcases a little bit of our area.”


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