The excitement that comes with the advent of a new scholastic wrestling season always includes the anticipation of the next generation of stars and seeing them compete for the first time at the varsity level. Freshman state champions are a rare occurrence in PA – only 36 have been crowned out of 1222 total champions since the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) began hosting the state wrestling championships in 1938. In recent years, freshmen have come in more ready than ever to compete with upperclassmen and we have seen some make an impact not only in Pennsylvania but on the national scene. Below we take a look at at a Fab Five of freshmen who will represent PA (PIAA or National Preps) and have the ability to end the season in the national rankings.
Beau Bartlett, Wyoming Seminary
Projected Weight: 120/126
Beau Bartlett enters high school after finishing his career as the consensus top-ranked junior high wrestler in the country. Competing for one of the nation’s top-ranked squads, Bartlett will face a formidable schedule including the Walsh Ironman, Powerade and dual meets with Blair Academy, Bethlehem Catholic, and Delbarton.
After moving from Tempe, AZ across the country to PA in seventh grade, Bartlett captured the USA Wrestling Triple Crown in 2015. He began his eighth-grade season in fine fashion by defeating fellow phenom, Jesse Vasquez of California, to capture the FLO Kickoff Classic. Bartlett was able to compete against high school competition at times last year when competition rules would allow, and went undefeated in varsity competition. In January, he made a huge statement, capturing the Eastern States Classic title at 113lbs by defeating a nationally ranked senior, Tommy Cox, 12-5 in the finals. Beau captured a Pennsylvania junior high state title in March and then finished his junior high career with a Cliff Keen folkstyle title by beating Missouri’s Josh Saunders.
Bartlett showed his mettle against top competition by finishing eighth in freestyle at the UWW Cadet world team trials in June. He recorded wins over nationally ranked competitors in Florida’s Joey Silva and Malcolm Robinson of Virginia as he prepared to enter his freshman year at Wyoming Seminary. Bartlett should be considered a favorite to capture a National Prep title and finish the season ranked in the top ten of his weight class nationally.
Gaige Garcia, Southern Columbia
Projected weight: 160/170lbs
The son of three-time PA state champ, Mike Garcia, Gaige has blitzed junior high competition over the past two years. Garcia is no less promising a prospect than Bartlett, though he may not have the national reputation yet.
Winning his second straight PA junior high title in March, Garcia pinned his way through the tournament including a finals victory over returning champion, Dorian Crosby. A few weeks later he duplicated the feat, pinning his way to an NHSCA National middle school crown.
Garcia is also a standout football player and has racked up over 1000 yards at running back this season for the undefeated Tigers, one of the top small school squads in PA. Unfortunately, pulling double duty means Garcia has been unable to test himself against older competition in the off season.
Southern Columbia gets a late start to the season and Garcia may not see any national level opponents until the Tigers compete at Escape the Rock in mid-January. Although it is always difficult to project upper-weight freshmen, he is an elite athlete and should contend for a state title in PA’s AA division.
Sam Hillegas, North Hills
Projected weight: 113/120lbs
Sam Hillegas is one of the most decorated youth wrestlers in Pennsylvania history, having won six consecutive PA junior titles, the last two at the junior high level. Hillegas also added a Super 32 middle school championship to his trophy case in 2015.
In the spring, Hillegas began his preparation for high school at the Northeast Regional, capturing a Cadet freestyle title defeating two Fargo All-Americans on the way, King Sandoval (National Prep third place) and Joe Klock (PA State seventh place). He followed this up by competing at the UWW Cadet world team trials in June. Although he did not place, Hillegas defeated nationally ranked Zurich Storm (PA) in the tournament.
This fall saw Sam compete at two events featuring national competition. At the Journeymen Fall Classic, he finished fifth after dropping a tight decision to PA state medalist Patrick Gould in pool action. Hillegas held a late four-point lead on Gould before succumbing to a bout of “freshman-itis” – giving up a five-point move in the final 10 seconds. At the Super 32, Hillegas dropped a blood round match to nationally ranked Bethlehem Catholic wrestler Ryan Anderson. On the top side, he dropped a tight match to NJ state medalist Lucas Revano, a loss he later avenged in the consolations.
North Hills competes in PA’s tough Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic League (WPIAL), so Hillegas will be tested early and often in his freshman season. He projects to finish on the medal stand in PA’s AAA division and may contend for a state title if he finishes the season at 113.
Gerrit Nijenhuis, Canon-McMillan
Projected weight: 145/152lbs
Gerrit Nijenhuis is another multiple PA junior title winner, having won PA junior high championships in 2015 and 2016. Nijenhuis also added Super 32 and FLO National middle school championships, as well as a Tulsa title during his eighth-grade year.
Nijenhuis showed very well at this fall’s Super 32, his first event at the high school level. He defeated nationally ranked FL state champ Jake Brindley 3-2, before bowing out of the tournament following close losses to a pair of state runners-up in NY’s Matt Grippi and Isaiah Luellen of Kansas.
Canon-McMillan is another WPIAL team and Nijenhuis will face top competition throughout the year. The Big Macs will make appearances at Beast of the East, Powerade, and Escape the Rock before a grueling postseason. Although competition in Pennsylvania at a middle weight is difficult for a freshman, expect Nijenhuis to make an appearance on the medal stand in Hershey at the AAA state championships.
Cole Handlovic, Bethlehem Catholic
Projected weight: 113/120lbs
A relative of two-time PA state champ Kegan Handlovic, Cole is not as credentialed as the four freshmen listed above, but won a MAWA Eastern National title this past year after finishing third in the PA junior high state bracket that was won by Hillegas. Handlovic also finished 8-0 at the prestigious McDonogh Duals, recording bonus victories in seven of eight matches.
This summer Handlovic notched a pair of impressive wins over NY’s Satoshi Abe and PA state medalist Geo Barzona while competing at 116lbs at the Bison Legend Duals.
Bethlehem Catholic is also one of the top teams in the country and will compete at the Walsh Ironman and Beast of the East in addition to dual meets with Wyoming Seminary and the top teams in PA’s competitive District XI. Handlovic will benefit from the daunting schedule and will be a top threat for a medal at the AAA state championships.
Ten others to watch:
Andrew Cerniglia, Nazareth
Caleb Dowling, St. Joseph’s Catholic
Aurelius Dunbar, Mercersburg Academy
Connor Kievman, Wyoming Seminary
Gage McClenahan, Bald Eagle Area
Jonathan Miers, Easton
Luke Nichter, Chambersburg
Cole Rees, Erie Cathedral Prep
Ed Scott, Dubois
AJ Tamburrino, William Tennent
Next issue: A look at the Top 10 teams in Pennsylvania for 2016