ALTOONA - The realignment of the state's wrestling regionals will be noticeable to Mifflin County when the Class AAA Northwest tournament gets under way at Altoona Area High School today.
Because of the growth of the classification in eastern Pennsylvania, District 4 this year was combined with District 9 for the purpose of a regional qualifier, meaning wrestlers from the Susquehanna Valley will now have to get through Altoona on the way to the state tournament. That district's claim to fame as producing a high number of state placewinners means another test for the schools already part of the event.
"I think what it does is it helps our region - it gives us a little more depth," Mifflin County coach Kirby Martin said. "Jersey Shore is a solid team, they've been to the state tournament at least the last two years. Shikellamy's got some really good kids. I think it just helps us - you want to be wrestling good kids in the postseason to be getting ready for states. I'm glad they're now part of our region."
Along with Shore and Shikellamy are Selinsgrove and Williamsport in District 4, and all four schools are represented in the event. Still part of the region are Districts 6, 8 and 10, meaning five of the 11 districts with Class AAA wrestling schools are in one place. Districts 1, 3 and 7 are now their own regional. Districts 2, 11 and 12 form the fifth region; District 5 has only Class AA wrestling.
Despite the number of districts involved in the Northwest, one thing will not change - only the top three wrestlers will move on to Hershey.
"We have a lot of districts coming into it, but still the number of schools coming into our region is only about half of what some of the other regions have," Martin said. "I understand why we only get three."
Districts 1 and 3 have 62 Class AAA schools each, compared to 33 schools from the five districts that form the Northwest, which actually has the fewest schools among the five regions.
Also on tap for the weekend are the Class AA Southwest regional, which includes Juniata and Mount Union. That tournament, at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena in Johnstown, includes schools from Districts 5, 6 and 7. The top five wrestlers move on to the state tournament bracket.
In Williamsport, the Class AA Northeast regional includes District 4 entrant Midd-West. Three wrestlers advance from that event.
Mifflin County's contingent will be seen in 10 of the 14 weight classes, with three district champions and the same number of runners-up among the qualifiers.
"I think what we're seeing is the strength of our schedule and our kids being up to the level of competition," Martin said, adding that this weekend will offer much stiffer competition.
"It wasn't always a smooth year but I think this group of kids, they got tested throughout the year at various tournaments and dual meets, by wrestling in the Mid-Penn," he said. "The postseason competition isn't necessarily something that they're apprehensive about."
Mifflin County won the District 6 team title, both in the dual meet tournament and at the individual tournament a week ago. Fronting the group and its award-winning coach are a trio of freshmen - the three district winners - who have proven to be a phenomenal group all season.
"Yeah, they are," Martin said. "They understand the sport. They've done it since they were in elementary school. They study the sport, they train all year round.
"Their accomplishments up to this point have been excellent, but not necessarily unexpected. At this point they can only get better."
Mifflin County knows Shikellamy will bring a challenge from the east, but Martin is just as aware that the western side of the region has plenty of good wrestling. Clearfield, DuBois and Punxsutawney from District 9 are well-represented, and he said there are sound kids and good teams in Erie.
"But I feel like our kids are ready for this level of competition," he said. "We've still got to win the close matches, and that's what it's going to come down to."
With two more weekends left in the season, there's no time to rest yet, he said.
"I think for these kids, they want to continue to just push the bar higher for our program," Martin said. "I'm not going to let them just sit back and coast now - we want to continue to make history."