HEISER: Welcome to Pa. Mat Madness

Steve Heiser
  • The PIAA Wrestling Championships are set for Thursday through Saturday in Hershey's Giant Center.
  • Twenty-one York-Adams League athletes are expected to compete in the state high school meet.
  • Penn State will try to win its fifth national title in six years from March 17-19 in New York City.

Welcome to Pennsylvania Mat Madness.

It's well known that college basketball's March Madness has long dominated the national sports landscape during the month that welcomes the long-awaited metamorphosis from winter to spring.

In these parts, however, high school and college wrestling will soon take center stage.

That's because the Keystone State has long been recognized as the red-hot center of the national wrestling universe, and over the next dozen days, regional interest in the sport will reach its absolute zenith. In fact, all the wrestling stars are aligning perfectly.

PIAA meet: Twenty-one York-Adams League athletes are set to compete in the wrestling carnival known as the PIAA Individual State Championships. Tens of thousands of fans will descend on Hershey's Giant Center to watch near-constant action on six mats over three days.

All the local competitors will have one thing in mind — capturing a state medal, hopefully covered in gold. Unfortunately, most will come home empty-handed. That's simply the nature of the beast. One thing should be kept in mind — just qualifying for the PIAA meet is a laudable achievement in the best wrestling state in these United States.

In Class AAA, the York-Adams League's best bets might be District 3 champions Dalton Rohrbaugh (Spring Grove, 103, 39-1), Owen Wherley (South Western, 138, 33-2) and Blaine Yinger (Northeastern, 285, 33-3). In AA, the area's top hopes might be Southeastern Regional champs Nate Newberry (Biglerville, 152, 36-2) and Dakota Mackley (Eastern York, 170, 28-3). Still, don't be surprised if one of the other local competitors makes a surprising run to a medal. It happens nearly every year.

The PIAA meet runs Thursday through Saturday.

Mackley sets sights on being among Eastern greats

York College: York County's wrestling interest this weekend, however, won't be limited to just the PIAA action.

The improving York College program will send three athletes to the NCAA Division III meet at U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Saturday and Sunday — junior Ryan Flynn (133, 29-7), freshman Greg Warner (141, 25-9)  and senior Mike Spencer (285, 29-7). Flynn will make a return trip to nationals, while Warner and Spencer will make their debuts at the D-III meet.

Wrestlers will need two victories to receive All-America status and four wins will claim an individual national title. Flynn, coming off his second straight Mideast Regional crown, might be York's most likely choice to earn All-America honors.

Coach Duane Bastress has seen his Spartans' program make significant strides in the past year. York was ranked No. 21 in D-III in the latest Intermat poll. An All-America effort in the D-III meet would mark another major milestone for the program.

Penn State:  The most high-profile wrestling event of the month will take place March 17-19 at one of the most storied sports venues in the nation. The NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships are set for historic Madison Square Garden in New York City.

When the mats are put away on March 19, Cael Sanderson's Penn State juggernaut is expected to own its fifth national title in six years.

Sanderson's crew is ranked No. 1 in the nation and is coming off a dominant performance last weekend at the Big Ten Championships, when it totaled 150.5 points, well ahead of second-place Iowa's 127.0. Senior Morgan McIntosh (197, 28-0), sophomore Zain Retherford (149, 29-0) and red-shirt freshman Bo Nickal (174, 29-1) each captured individual Big Ten titles, and each is ranked No. 1 in the nation in his weight class by Intermat.

The Nittany Lions also boast a former York-Adams standout. New Oxford High School graduate Jordan Conaway is a returning All-American after an eighth-place finish at 125 a year ago at nationals. The senior is 26-5 this season and ranked No. 5 at 133.

Overview: Put all those events together, and the next dozen days promise to be nirvana for area wrestling fans.

Wrestling, on the national scene, is generally treated as a niche sport by the media and fans and relegated to second-class treatment. That tends to grate on the nerves of wrestling's passionate followers.

That is not the case in Pennsylvania, however. Here, wrestling is big time.

And it won't get any bigger than in the upcoming days and weeks.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.