In any other year, 520 of the top wrestlers in Pennsylvania would be gearing up this week for the three-day grapapalooza that is the PIAA Wrestling Championships at Hershey's Giant Center.
This year, because of COVID-19 protocols, that number is 416 and for them, the Giant Center is still one step, one weekend away: the Super Regional weekend.
Split between East and West regions, in both Class 2A and 3A, wrestlers will compete to be one of the eight per weight to advance to the Giant Center, next Friday for 2A and next Saturday for 3A.
In essence, this Saturday’s Super Regional is the preliminary round and round of 16 of the state tournament, plus a consolation round or two. The ultimate outcome is the top four from the East and West regions, in both classes, advance to Hershey earning an automatic spot on the awards podium.
This weekend's wrestling will be at four locations, Pottsville's Martz Hall in the East and IUP's Kovalchick Conference Center in the West for 2A, Quakertown High School for the East and Altoona High School the West in 3A.
With relaxed restrictions for crowd sizes in effect, each participating athlete, at three of the four sites with Quakertown the exception, has been allotted two tickets. There will be no public availability.
The competition will be stiff, steady and no-holds-barred. Well, some holds will be barred: no full nelsons, chicken wings, figure-4s around the body.
Into this turbulence steps 16 Lancaster-Lebanon League athletes, 12 in 3A, four in 2A, all looking to make their mark. Here's a glance at their bracketing.
Class 2A Eastern Regional
Lancaster Catholic's Eric Howe (27-3) draws Danville senior Andrew Johnson (24-6) in the first round at 120 pounds. Johnson was a state qualifier at 106 in 2019 and opened the 2020 season with 18 wins in 20 matches, but did not wrestle after mid-January.
Johnson is one of six wrestlers in the bracket with state experience, including medalists Brett Ungar (8-0) of Notre Dame Green-Pond and Benton's Ethan Kolb (17-6).
Pequea Valley's Jace Beegle (22-3) faces a somewhat familiar opponent at 126 in Camp Hill's Christian Doi (23-4), who survived an upset-filled weekend at the Southeast Regional — Beegle the victim of one of those upsets — to win the title. Beegle placed fifth. The pair has a history. Both were state qualifiers in 2019, a season where Beegle bested Doi three times.
Beegle is joined by teammates Liam McGinley and Nate Miller. McGinley (17-8) earns a first-round match with Green-Pond's Ayden Smith (10-0).
For Miller (20-6), the post-season is like the movie Groundhog Day. Each time out he's wrestling Bishop McDevitt's Riley Robell (25-0). Robell pinned Miller in sectionals and regionals. Somehow they missed each other at districts.
Class 3A Western Regional
At Altoona, the 113-pound class is an absolute meat grinder with a returning state champion and two state runners-up in the field of eight. The champion, Latrobe's Vince Kilkeary (21-1) and one of the runners-up, Cedar Cliff's Aiden Lewis (16-1) meet in the first round.
Manheim Township's Kamdyn Williams (17-0) is bracketed with the other runner-up, Cathedral Prep's Jacob Van Dee (11-0), and would meet him in the semifinals, providing Williams defeats Penn Trafford's returning qualifier Troy Hohman (22-2) in their opener.
In a tournament chock-a-block with minefields, beyond 113, six weight classes stand out.
At 120 Township's Josh Hillard is one of six state medalists and/or qualifiers. Hillard (22-1) draws North Alleghney's Dylan Coy (25-1), who lost to Manheim Central state champ Will Betancourt last year in the quarterfinals. Also in Hillard's side of the bracket is Chambersburg's Karl Shindeldecker (19-0), a 2019 state runner-up, who defeated Hillard in the region semifinals last week. In the top half of the draw Waynesburg Central's Mac Church (22-2), a returning bronze medalist, takes on Dover's two-time state qualifier Mason Leiphart (20-1). Lane Aikey (5-0) of Bellefonte was seventh last year.
At 126 Franklin Regional senior Carter Dibert (30-0), a two-time medalist and former state champion, is the class of a bracket that includes Township's Aliazer Alicea (20-3), who meets state qualifier Owen Woolcott (12-5) of State College. In the bottom half of the bracket Central Dauphin's returning medalist Matt Repos (22-1) will likely face returning champion Ethan Berginc (28-4) of Hempfield Area (Dist. 7) in the semis.
At 145 Octorara's Mike Trainor (23-4) draws returning champion Wyatt Henson (27-0) of Waynesburg Central, who also placed in 2018. In the bottom half of the bracket Hempfield's Reagan Lefevre (29-2) meets John Altieri (27-3) of Norwin, a returning fourth-place finisher, with Hempfield Area's two-time medalist Ty Linsenbigler (30-6) waiting in the semifinals.
At 152 Township's Kevin Olivarria (18-2) draws the unenviable first-round challenge of Alejandro Herrera-Rondon (33-0) of Seneca Valley. Fourth at 132 last year, Herrera-Rondon is a former two-time state champion, winning at 106 and 113. The heft of multiple state medals is in the lower half of the bracket with three-time placewinner Paniro Johnson (12-0) of Cathedral Prep, state runner-up Rocco Welsh (22-3) of Waynesburg Central and Connellsville's Jared Keslar (17-2), a returning consi finalist. Central Dauphin's Bryce Buckman (22-1) is a returning qualifier.
At 189, Penn Manor's Colt Barley is one of five state tourney vets, with nine appearances between them. Barley (19-1) opens with Bellefonte's two-time qualifier Ethan Rossman (19-2), and Hampton's three-time qualifier Justin Hart (23-4) is in their half of the draw.
At 285 Garden Spot's Dustin Swanson (21-4), an eighth-place finisher in 2020 at 220, opens with Hempfield Area's three-time qualifier and defending runner-up Isaiah Vance (30-1). In their bracket is Clearfield's Oliver Billotte (20-3), a returning medalist. Up top is returning runner-up and 2019 state champion Nate Schon (34-0) of Selinsgrove.
By contrast, 106 and 132 appear to be safe havens for Township's Kaedyn Williams and Solanco's Dom Flatt, and Lebanon's Griffin Gonzalez and Garden Spot's Garrett Gehr.
But appearances can be deceiving.
Flatt (18-4), the only returning state experience at 106, has a first-round match with Plum's Antonio Walker (22-2) while Williams (21-0) draws McDowell's Logan Sallot (9-2). It's not entirely out of the realm of possibility they could meet for the fifth time this season in the finals, although Seneca Valley's Tyler Chappell (31-2) and the winner of a first rounder between Williamsport's Cael Nasdeo (17-0) and Canon-McMillan's Andrew Binni (22-4) will have some say in that outcome.
The opportunity for Gonzalez and Gehr to cross paths is real. Whether it's for first, third or fifth, or not at all, is the question.
Gehr (26-2) pulls returning state runner-up Dylan Chappell (32-2) of Seneca Valley for his first round draw. Chappell lost to Will Betancourt in the 2020 finals at 120.
Gonzalez (29-1) has an opener slightly less daunting in Briar Priest (29-4) of Hempfield Area, Priest having lost to Chappell 7-5 in the WPIAL finals.
• Correspondent Dave Byrne covers L-L wrestling for LNP. Email him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter at @dbyrneman.