Growing up grappling: Wrestlers bloom from Pittsburgh WPIAL

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Growing up grappling: Wrestlers bloom from Pittsburgh WPIAL

Te'Shan Campbell eyeing his opponent.  Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

Te'Shan Campbell eyeing his opponent. Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

Te'Shan Campbell eyeing his opponent. Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

Te'Shan Campbell eyeing his opponent. Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

By David Leftwich

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Maybe it’s something in the water.

Pitt wrestling sits in one of the nation’s most fertile recruiting areas, in the heart of the high school Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League — a 100-year-old program now part of a statewide interscholastic wrestling league.

The WPIAL’s ample recruiting base has provided Pitt with 12 of the 28 wrestlers on its current roster. Athletes said that growing up with their teammates and competitors has fostered a healthy sense of sportsmanship, where friendships on the mat carry on for years after the athletes have outgrown the league.

Most of the Panther wrestlers, such as freshman standout Te’Shan Campbell, have competed against one another at the highest level since childhood.

“I grew up with Cam [Jacobson] when we were youths, and me and Nate Hall wrestled when we were younger,” Campbell said. “They’re all familiar faces.”

Sophomore Dom Forys said that even as childhood friendships morph into high school competitions, wrestlers don’t take one-on-one rivalries out of the circle.

“It’s always cool that it’s all one big community still even though you’re enemies on the mat,” Forys said. He was in his high school Pittsburgh Wrestling Club with some of the same people he now faces collegiately, such as Drexel wrestler Alex DeCiantis.

Frank Vulcano, chairman of the WPIAL wrestling committee, said wrestling has always been a close-knit sport. He wrestled at Pitt in 1981 and still keeps in touch with teammates from his collegiate wrestling years, even after more than 30 years off the mat.

“[There’s] a lot of camaraderie in wrestling,” Vulcano said, particularly in a league as long-standing as the WPIAL. “They start out in the club programs, [then] in the Pittsburgh programs they get to wrestle with each other and they still get to work out with each other … before you know it they move on to the collegiate level and they’re friends and they compete against each other.”

Vulcano said college coaches recruit early, scouring teams for talented athletes as young as eighth- or ninth-graders.

“The college coaches reach out, they’re around all the tournaments,” Vulcano said.“We’re a hotbed of wrestling. It’s a place where a lot of coaches across the country come to recruit.”

Pitt head coach Jason Peters said all of the talent in the WPIAL doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to decide which wrestlers will be stand-out stars in college.

Many wrestlers without impressive resumés, according to Peters, have the natural talent to perform at the college level.

“We’re guessing a lot of the time,” Peters said.

Forys, for example, won 17-straight matches and has already qualified for the NCAA tournament this season. But he didn’t even place in the state competition during his senior year of high school.

He said stiff competition once he got to Pitt was “a huge contribution” to his late success, pushing him to rise above others in his bracket.

This season, the Panthers have faced some inconsistency on the mat, largely because of a young roster. Only five of the 28 wrestlers on Pitt’s team are juniors or seniors.

Pitt finished the regular season with a 10-7 record, recording strong wins against ranked opponents No. 15 University of Wisconsin and No. 20 University of Virginia, while also suffering tough defeats against unranked West Virginia University and Clarion University.

The ACC tournament on March 6, in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the Panthers will likely meet up with former WPIAL teammates, will offer Pitt a shot at redemption. . Individuals who win this weekend secure a spot at the NCAA Tournament the following weekend.

“I expect us to go out there and get a few champs and a couple runners-up and be able move on to the next round,” NCAA hopeful Campbell said.

No matter what happens this weekend, Campbell said playing with talented wrestlers from the WPIAL has affected his career from the very beginning.

“I’ve been able to touch some of the best wrestlers in the country just from this area alone,” Campbell said. “I feel like that played a role in me being able to transfer over in college.”

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