It’s six o’clock on a hot Tuesday night in the middle of summer and more than a dozen wrestlers are drilling inside a wrestling room instead of doing other activities most high-schoolers normally do during the dog days.
“If you want to get better, be the best be at Hershey (PIAA Championships) you have to suck it up and come to these things,” said Crestwood star Dan Ritz, who qualified for the Class 3A Northeast Regional Tournament and will be trying to reach states for the first time this coming season as a senior. “You could be swimming and hanging out with your friends instead of being in the 90-degree room sweating.”
Ritz and nearly two dozen other grapplers from District 2 have been traveling all over the region — and eastern part of the country — this offseason as part of the D2 Mighty Ducks, an offseason team that helps keeps the wrestlers fresh throughout the offseason.
The Ducks were started about seven years ago when a group led by former Abington Heights standout Dan Pascale started traveling to offseason events. Mark Popple, father of former PIAA runner-up Josh Popple from Coughlin, and Bob Hawkins, father of current Coughlin standout Bobby Hawkins continued the program, which has come a long way from when it first began in the middle of the last decade and practices weren’t even held.
“We used to go down (to Virginia Beach) and be all out of shape,” said Hawkins, who has been an assistant at Coughlin the last several years. “(Wyoming Valley West coach) Drew (Feldman) has provided the room here and these guys are in great shape. They’re working as hard here as they do during the season. Not as often, but they’re working just as hard. It’s really, really come a long way.”
Hawkins also decided to keep the nickname that the Pascales came up with going strong, despite getting looks from vendors when he orders shirts for a wrestling team named after a popular hockey team.
“Even when I order T-shirts I get ‘are you sure that’s a wrestling team?’ but it kinda stuck,” Hawkins said.
The Ducks have participated in three tournaments this offseason and were at a popular summer event at Bucknell University on Saturday. In the previous events, they finished 16 out of 123 teams at the Virginia Beach tournament, finished 4-0 at the Delaware Valley event and was 4-1 at a tourney at King’s College.
Sure getting wins is nice, but stats aren’t the most important part to the of the group. The wrestlers will get in approximately 40-50 matches, if not more, which is like wrestling an entire season.
Traveling also helps the athletes get recognized. When they were at Virginia Beach, many grapplers caught the eye of a prominent Pennsylvania coach Tom Donnelly who invited them to wrestle in the AAU Disney Duals at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla. and be a part of the Keystone Brawlers. Bobby Hawkins, Wallenpaupack’s Chase Gallik and Jared Wehrmann, Abington Heights’ Matt Carr, and Dallas’ Connor Martinez and Ryan Monk participated in the event.
“I get emails all the time, I get letters or people coming up asking questions like ‘where you from, what weight do you wrestle,’” said Ritz, who was a regional qualifier last season and won two matches. “It’s actually cool getting noticed just because you’re on the Ducks.”
Ritz is still in high school, but there are wrestlers involved who have graduated and will be wrestling in college next season, including Martinez, Valley West’s Alex Tirko, Lake-Lehman’s Austin Harry and Coughlin’s Billy Poray.
“They always say ‘champions are made between March and October.’ That’s what these kids are working for,” Hawkins said.
With so many wrestlers from around the district involved, Hawkins said he’s thought about confronting coaches and other officials about getting more kids involved and maybe increase funding by getting more teams involved.
Right now, the club has been paying for entry fees through fund-raisers like a car wash, a tournament and sponsorships. That’s because in addition to tournaments, the club supplies singlets, shorts and shirts, and travel expenses like hotel rooms can get pricey, especially at Virginia Beach on a holiday weekend.
Looking at the roster, every wrestler on the Ducks has had success during the PIAA season.
Here’s some of the many accolades the Ducks wrestlers have piled up with their high school teams:
- Hazleton Area’s Chris Laseki was a regional qualifier as a freshman last season. His teammate with the Cougars, Jimmy Hoffman was a state qualifier as a freshman.
- Bobby Hawkins won a disrict title and finished fourth at regionals, while Poray won his first district title in 2014. Harry finished third at the PIAA Championships and has had one of the best careers in recent memory for a Wyoming Valley Conference wrestler.
- Tirko won his first district title as a senior in 2014, while his teammate Cody Cordes qualified for states by taking second at regionals. Gallik was one short of wrestling for a regional medal in one of the toughest weight classes in the state.
- Martinez, Monk and Abington Heights’ Carr all medalled at states in March, while Wyoming Area’s Charlie Johnson and Wallenpaupack’s Wehrmann qualified for the PIAA Championships. If not for an injury for the second straight year, GAR’s Zac Faust could have been a state qualifier as well, while Western Wayne’s Morgan Fuller is a defending district champ.
Delaware Valley, which has been one of the top teams in District 2 over the last several years, is also represented on the Ducks by Billy Pearn, P.J. Testino and Matt Wagner.
“It’s pretty much an all-star team. It’s the best of the best,” Ritz said. “I was on the Ducks last year and now I’m on it this year again just because I work hard and I consider myself one of the best in this district. We’re all district champs and state qualifiers here.”
Now, they all have the same goal of being more than just state qualifiers, and the offseason team is one way to help fine tune their skills and prepare them for the ultimate prize.