By DENNIS C. WAY
This season's Methacton High wrestling team is arguably the best, in terms of talent, experience and leadership, that head coach A.J. Maida has had in his six years as the program's head coach.
There is quality experience and a team-wide affinity for hard work throughout the lineup, a pair of returning regional qualifiers, including a state medalist, and even a couple of stud freshmen.
The Warriors' numbers are up and their expectations are high.
"It's put-up time,' Maida said proudly.
So why, with one of the deepest squads this traditionally strong wrestling program has seen in quite some time, are the Warriors hoping to finish in the top half of the standings in their conference?
The answer has to do with the conference, itself.
Folks, welcome to the Pioneer Athletic Conference, which these days can, with little resistance, boast being the best wrestling league in District One.
Proof can be found in a number of sources, most notably the most recent Pa. Power Rankings, which ranked three PAC schools — Boyertown (fourth), Spring-Ford (22nd) and Owen J. Roberts (23rd) — among the four D-1 squads listed in the state's top dual-meet teams.
And the PAC is not just a top-heavy league with three great teams and seven squads of mediocrity.
Along with Methacton, Pottstown and long-time conference standout out Upper Perkiomen are quality teams capable of beating most programs in the district.
"Anybody can beat anybody,' said Spring-Ford head coach Tim Seislove. "If you want to be part of this league you better get your work in.'
"In the PAC-10, you know, going into every year, that you're going to have your work cut out for you,' Maida said. "But that's where we want to be.'
That sentiment of striving to keep up with the PAC's collective Joneses is not shared, however, throughout the league.
"One part of me likes wrestling in the PAC-10 because it's real wrestling and you'll see some great matches,' said Pope John Paul II head coach Selden Staples. "There were just some incredible matches at the league championships last year.
"But the other part is, it makes for some long seasons. If we have a great night (against PAC competition), we might win two or three matches. We can't measure ourselves against the competition in the PAC-10 because it's not a reasonable measurement.'
But while coaches remain somewhat divided on the issue of trying to compete in a stacked league, wrestling fans continue to circle dates on calendars and fill gymnasiums.
"I think what (fans) like about the league is that anything can happen,' Seislove said. "As competitive as the league is, you have to stay healthy. If you lose two or three wrestlers (to injury), it will crush you.'
The universal PAC favorite this season is Boyertown, which returns two state qualifiers, including Jordan Wood, a 220-pound state finalist as a freshman a season ago, and four regional qualifiers.
Owen J. Roberts, the regional team runner-up to Norristown last year, has been hurt by graduation, but is not quite in rebuilding mode.
"We saw their J.V. team and a lot of their young wrestlers last year,' Seislove said, "so we know they're still very good.
"I think we're behind those two right now.'
Much as the remainder of Southeastern Pa. is trailing District One's premier wrestling league.
As for the local wrestling scene, a Southeast Regional team crown such as Norristown earned last season seems remote, but there's still plenty of quality.
The Eagles take a step or two back this year, and will be relying on returning state qualifiers Mikey Springer and Rashon Lusane and regional-qualifying heavyweight Shaheed Hill to collect as many points as possible.
"Dual meets will be tough because we'll be giving up so many points (due to forfeits and inexperience),' said Eagles head coach Mark Harner. "We're going to be really thin, but we have some good young kids who will be getting used to varsity matches.'
Middleweight Dan Limbauan and upper weights Isaiah Samuel and Henry Williams will be counted on for vital points, while lightweights Justin Altrogge, Eric Fuentes, D.J. Robbins and Michael Johnson represent the future.
"We're a year away,' Harner said.
Perhaps closer than that is Suburban One League American Conference contender Wissahickon, which returns seven starters (all district qualifiers), including senior middleweight Pat Fennell, who is on track to claim the program record for career wins (sitting at 104, he needs 21 victories to eclipse the standard set by 1994 grad and former state finalist Steve Pyle).
"We're somewhat optimistic,' said head coach Anthony Stagliano. "We have good numbers (35) and we still have kids coming out.'
Upper weight Eric An, lightweights Alex Chiodo-Ortiz, Devon Memis and Isaac Philip and middleweight Nick Natale round out the returning starters.
"The league is more balanced this year,' Stagliano said. "PW is on their way up, Norristown is probably a little down and we think Upper Moreland is the clear front-runner.
"And we get them in the first week.'
Eleven of Plymouth Whitemarsh's 14 postseason wrestlers a year ago were underclassmen, a trend that bodes well for incoming head coach Justin Giovinco.
"We have a good core group,' Giovinco said. "A lot of them went out to Hershey (for the PIAA tournament) last year, just to watch, and I think that lit a fire in their bellies.
"It got them hungry and anxious and they put a lot of work out in the off-season. They all went up a couple of weight classes, and they don't look like kids anymore.
"They're throwing people around in the (practice) room.'
Once again, Upper Merion will be scrambling for wins in the conference, although head coach Marcus Johnson remains positive.
"We have 16 guys and we have more than a couple that can win matches,' Johnson said. "A realistic goal this year would be for us to get some kids out of the league championships and get them to districts.'
Regional qualifier Sean Ginsburg is the most notable Viking, while Felipe Gonzalez and Andrew Raskiewicz return and freshman Matt Koresko offers hope for the future.
"We're starting to get to that corner,' Johnson said. "We haven't turned it yet, but we're getting there.'
In the Suburban One League's Continental Conference, North Penn head coach Rob Shettsline is confident of contending for a league championship, primarily on the talents of returning state qualifiers Alex Price and Jeff Reimel, although returning starters Mikey O'Brien (119), Sofiane Bensmail (126), Cameron Healy (170), Rich Liberio (160) and Chris Barr (195) will be responsible for gaining key dual-meet points.
"It's possible that we could win our league and our league tournament,' Shettsline said. "Those are our goals.
"Just like last year, our league is going to be a close. Pennridge and Quakertown are the teams to beat.'
In the aforementioned Pioneer Athletic Conference, Methacton is hoping returning state medalist Tracey Green (285) and returning regional qualifier Joe Staley can be the big guns in a solid lineup heavy on mat experience.
Eric Straup (120/26), Cody Rupp (132), Jake Qawasmy (152), Jack Ryan (160), Devin Bradley (182/195) and Tahar Ferradji (215) represent a supporting cast that is capable of starring roles.
"I've never known a senior class like this,' Maida said. "They've done everything we've asked of them.
"I think we have the right guys and the right mindset. Now we have to go out and do it.'
One of Methacton's principle rivals is Spring-Ford, a team that may lack star power, but in any other league would be a championship favorite.
The Rams return three regional qualifiers — Ryan Hayes (113), Danny Krieble (182) and Jon Cooper (145) — along with standouts Jimmy Frank (106), Josh Boyer (285), Adam Dombrosky (138), Mason Romano (195) and Nick Perri (220).
That would be enough to be wearing the favorites cap in most leagues, but in the PAC will likely see them battling for second or third.
"We have a good nucleus coming back,' Seislove said. "Our lineup is solid. We don't have anybody, right now, that I would say is a lock to medal at states. But we'll see what we look like when we get our lineup together.'
Perkiomen Valley will fill a complete lineup, according to head coach Tim Walsh, but it won't exactly be a lineup heavy on experience.
"Many of the kids we have in our lineup are inexperienced,' Walsh said, "so we're hoping to stay competitive.'
Accordingly, the Vikings schedule will be an interesting mix of both challenging and relatively easy opponents to help break the youngsters in without breaking them down first. The star attraction for the Vikings is returning Southeast Regional champ Nick Giangiulio, with the likes of Brian Marshall (106), Alec Della Donna (182), Luke DiElsi (220) and Alex Michener (285) riding shotgun.
DiElsi will compete despite a shoulder injury for which surgery has been recommended.
Pope John Paul II is not going to be in the PAC title chase, but head coach Staples will be content working toward another goal — gaining some valuable experience for a lineup that boasts just two seniors.
One of those seniors is returning district champ Kirk Cherneskie (182), who along with fellow upper weight Mike Collins (170) will represent the tough section of the Golden Panthers lineup.
"Our numbers are up,' Staples said, "but we are very inexperienced. We'll be solid in the upper weights, but very thin in the lower weights.
"We need the competition, but wrestling in the PAC is always a challenge.'
Over in District 12, La Salle is hopeful of putting together a strong season and winning its sixth straight Philadelphia Catholic League crown behind an experienced lineup and standout upper weight Antonio Pelusi, fresh off an eighth-place finish at the prestigious Super 32 tourney.
And head coach Richie Gebauer is, to put it mildly, excited.
"We have a real nice senior class, one of the stronger ones we've had,' Gebauer said. "We have real strong leadership and I feel we're well ahead of where we were at this time a year ago.'
Along with Pelusi, the Explorers welcome back the likes of standouts Greg Konieczny, Anthony Piscopo, Sal Anderson and Pat McGinley.
Mix in a couple of new/old faces Sonny Pelusi (Antonio's brother), who's back from injury and junior Justin Stout, who's back after recovering from a heart issue plus standout freshman Luke Ratchford (145), and Gebauer is ready to take on powerful Father Judge yesterday.
"This is the most excited I've been since I've come here,' he bubbled.
Another local program with thoughts of a league title dancing around in their heads is Germantown Academy, which boasts no fewer than four returning National Prep placewinners in its lineup this season.
Upper weight Luke Kissleback (sixth), Brady Riley (seventh), Jared Gober (seventh) and John Grossi (eighth) lead the Patriots, who are seeking their 10th straight Inter-Academic League title, with plenty of support coming from Barrett Connor, Kristian Kergides, Eric Corliss and Cliff David.