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Youth movement gives District 1 wrestling a reason for hope

Kennett's John Pardo finished third in the state as a junior. (Nate Heckenberger - For MediaNews Group)

HERSHEY >> There’s a joke that goes around press row at the Giant Center in Hershey that goes like this: How do you know we’re in the consolation rounds?

District 1 is on the board.

It’s a funny, and unfortunately true jab at poor ole District 1, that just so happens to get the most Class 3A state qualifiers thanks to having the most Class 3A schools of any district. 

There are some painful truths this region has to swallow. For starters, the Southeastern Pennsylvania region is a basketball and lacrosse region. Those two sports offer easier and often times more enjoyable experiences than the rigors of wrestling, and steal athletes that would otherwise grapple in wrestling communities in most other parts of the state.

Another indelible reality is that of the 16 prep school wrestling programs in the state, 13 are in the Southeastern part of the state. There are a couple handfuls of the region’s best wrestlers that will never grace the PIAA Championships, in lieu of the prep world.

Despite some of those natural handicaps, there is reason to be optimistic around District 1. Yes, for the second straight year only 16 of 65 3A qualifiers earned state medals.

Perkiomen Valley’s Gavin Pascoe. (Nate Heckenberger – For MediaNews Group)

However, only two of those 16 graduate — Perkiomen Valley’s Gavin Pascoe (160 pounds) and Kennett’s Bailey Shindle (285). Compare that to the previous year when 10 of 16 District 1 medal winners graduated, and there’s reason for hope. 

District 1 has some young, tough talent.

Quakertown’s Collin Gaj (145) just went undefeated as a sophomore, capping his season off by beating two-time state champion, Mac Church of Waynesburg Central, in the finals.

District 1’s other two 3A finalists — Quakertown’s Mason Ziegler and Owen J. Roberts’ Dillon Bechtold (215) — will be back for their senior years, and four other top-four finishers return. 

Quakertown’s Mason Ziegler. (Nate Heckenberger – For MediaNews Group)

Of the 88 state medalists outside of District 1 this year, 49 are graduating. District 7 is losing 22 of its 32 place winners, District 11 sends off nine of 17 and 10 of District 3’s 20 placers won’t be back.

Now, Districts 7 and 11 rarely have down years, with capable underclassmen inevitably waiting in the wings, but the next year or two could be a chance for District 1 to gain a little ground. 

The other part of the equation is the emergence of Faith Christian Academy. Whether the Lions stay in Class 2A for awhile or not has yet to be seen, but they give District 1 the superteam other regions have boasted for decades. 

Faith Christian’s two state champs, Adam Waters, left, and Gauge Botero. (Nate Heckenberger – For MediaNews Group)

District 11 has Bethlehem Catholic and Notre Dame-Green Pond. District 10 has Erie Cathedral Prep. District 6 will be getting Bishop McCort back for the postseason next winter, after a two-year ban. 

A powerhouse Malvern Prep team is all well and good in the major regular season tournaments, but does District 1 no good when it’s time to compare hardware in Hershey. Now, Faith is becoming a destination.

Love it or hate it, the AAU mentality is sweeping youth/high school sports, and Faith is a cheaper alternative than the Inter-Ac schools and close enough to the Lehigh Valley, that maybe District 1 starts to steal some talent from up there, rather than lose the Kasaks and Frinzis of the area to District 11. 

What does stand out is some familiar faces in new places, specifically District 1 coaching staffs. Faith’s coach Ben Clymer has certainly been around awhile, but he’s 15 years removed from winning state championship at Northwestern Lehigh. 

Council Rock North’s Eren Sement. (Nate Heckenberger – For MediaNews Group)

Pennridge added Nathaniel Brown, a state champ from District 4’s Lewisburg, to its staff, and former Blue Mountain state champ, Josh Kindig, is making an impact as an assistant at Council Rock North. 

And the benefit of having four-time state champ, Chance Marstellar, and his Stellar Trained club nearby is absolutely undeniable. 

Adding some outsiders to District 1 can only help.

All signs are there for an up 2024 in this region. Of the top five team finishers at the Class 3A Southeast Regional — Pennridge, Quakertown, Kennett, Owen J. Roberts and Council Rock South — 30 of their combined 40 qualifiers from those teams return, including 10 wrestlers who own state medals.

Owen J. Roberts’ Dillon Becthold. (Nate Heckenberger – For MediaNews Group)

Fifteen other District 1 wrestlers were eliminated in the blood rounds, including Faith, and 12 of them should be back.

It’s easy to rattle off numbers and assume repeat successes, but there is reason to believe District 1 can become more of the puncher and less of the punchline in the very near future.

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