Hemifield’s 2021 PIAA state champ Briar Priest (top) wrestling at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania, against Seneca Valley’s Dylan Chappell (bottom) in the 132-pound state finals. Photo courtesy of Marc Billet/Tri-State Sports & News Service. First appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Five years ago, Mark Kaczanowicz had the idea to put on a standalone high school wrestling event for local Pennsylvania grapplers.
In an ideal scenario, it would function as a two-part event. There would be a preseason or “kickoff” event before the start of the wrestling season, and then a second event following the PIAA postseason, a “last hurrah,” if you will.
Well, this Saturday, May 8, 2021, at Kiski Area High School in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, the first annual “Stand Your Ground” card will take place. Wrestling will begin at 4:30 p.m., and up to 300 fans will be allowed in the venue.
“For the seniors, the goal is to give them one last shot at a match before college,” Kaczanowicz said. “And for the underclassmen, this is the chance to make a statement heading into next year, to get some more college exposure, and it’s a chance to compete against a quality opponent that they haven’t wrestled yet.”
Last year, following the 2020 PIAA postseason, Kaczanowicz, an assistant varsity football coach at Burrell High School in Lower Burrell, Pennsylvania, was finally ready to put on the inaugural event – then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. Coronavirus brought society, including high school sports, to an abrupt pause.
Today, roughly a year removed from the 2020 shutdowns, the world has cautiously opened up, and people are adjusting to the new normal. Thankfully, a successful 2021 PIAA high school wrestling season, complete with 26 individual state champions across Class-2A and Class-3A, is in the books.
Due to the coronavirus, the 2021 Pennsylvania wrestling season was unlike any other in the PIAA history. Student-athletes had far fewer matches on their season schedule, and there were two additional postseason qualifying events before the individual portion of postseason play at the Giant Center Hershey, Pennsylvania. In other words, it was harder to earn the title of state qualifier than ever before.
This year, only the top-8 competitors at each weight got to compete on those red and white mats that have become synonymous with the Giant Center. Other years, there are 20 wrestlers per weight vying for PIAA gold in Hershey.
Given the moderately unfair and somewhat unconventional nature of the 2021 PIAA campaign, Kaczanowicz knew that this event was needed now, more than ever before.
“I’ve always wanted to put on an event like this,” Kaczanowicz said. “And since it didn’t get done last year, I figured this was a perfect time, given a lot of kids didn’t get the full amount of matches they normally would. And mix that with kids looking at colleges that didn’t get as many looks because of their lack of matches. I just thought it was the best time to do it.”
After putting out a tweet intended to gauge the level of interest in such an event, Kaczanowicz knew almost instantly that he should proceed to the planning phase.
“Within about an hour, I knew it was gonna work because of the number of messages, responses, and direct messages on social media that I received,” Kaczanowicz said. “I received probably close to 100 messages, either me reaching out to them or them reaching out to me.”
Two of those conversations were with Matt Keibler, the assistant wrestling coach at Kiski Area High School, and John Peterman, the school’s athletic director.
“When I first posted that I was looking for a venue, within five minutes, I get a phone call from Matt Keibler, the assistant wrestling coach at Kiski. And he said that John Peterman, their athletic director saw the tweet, and he’s very interested. I called Peterman, an hour later, we had a nice conversation. And within five days, we had Kiski booked,” Kaczanowicz said.
Filling the participant pool was equally well-received by the Twittersphere.
“Obviously, I knew I wanted high-level wrestlers, and I wanted kids that wanted to compete,” Kaczanowicz said. “I know that sounds cliche. Everyone wants to compete, and they say they want to do it. But when you have kids messaging you and twice a day, saying ‘Hey, get me on the card,’ I liked seeing that.”
“I had a few names in my head going into planning process for the card. And then from there, I just tried to pair names with each other and got some feelers out there,” Kaczanowicz continued.
Those feelers resulted in a star-studded 16-bout card which includes two youth-level bouts and one women’s match.
On the youth side, Kiski middle schooler Marco Hutcherson is the main attraction. The Young Guns star has a Pennsylvania state championship, a Reno Worlds title, and age-group Pennsylvania state championships in both freestyle and Greco-Roman to his credit.
The remainder of the card primarily showcases athletes from the famed PIAA District 7, otherwise known as the WPIAL. That said, the event also features entrants from other districts as well. Malvern Prep’s Reed Fulmer and Bellefonte’s Jude Swisher are the non-WPIAL competitors getting on the Stand Your Ground card. There is also a healthy dose of Kiski grapplers who will get one last chance to scrap on their home mat.
The main event will be between two nationally-ranked wrestlers. The defending 132-pound Class-3A PIAA state champ, Hempfield’s Briar Priest, will battle Bellefonte’s Swisher, who took third in the state the same bracket this past season. However, the pair did not wrestle one another at the state meet back in March.
There is also a myriad of other equally distinguished Keystone State grapplers on the card, many of whom will be suiting up for Division I programs next year.
While most other standalone high school wrestling cards that have occurred across the country since the COVID era began have been in freestyle, that will not be the case on Saturday. At Stand Your Ground, every match utilizes traditional PIAA high school folkstyle rules.
“The plan was always to do folkstyle,” Kaczanowicz said. “There’s a lot of freestyle stuff in the summer already, and that I just wanted to keep it folkstyle. That’s the next path for these wrestlers who are getting into college wrestling, so I wanted the event to be what I thought would be the best for them. Folkstyle was the answer, in my opinion.”
While the rules will follow the customary PIAA rule book, the weight classes will not. It is well into the offseason, and Kaczanowicz didn’t want severe weight cuts. As such, the chosen weight was mutually agreed upon by both wrestlers in advance.
While Kaczanowicz was involved in virtually every aspect of the planning process for the inaugural event, he was by no means the only person involved inproducing his event, which Kaczanowicz says took about three months to plan from start to finish.
“By no means did I do this by myself,” Kaczanowicz said. “Vince DeAugustine, the Shaw family, Matt Kiebler, John Peterman, the entire Westmoreland Sports Network team, and countless others helped out. There are so many people and sponsors who helped, and I can’t thank them enough for all they’ve done.”
At this stage, the planning is complete, and Kaczanowicz is ready to host the event that has been an idea in waiting for nearly five years now. If you can’t attend Saturday’s event in person, tune into the broadcast on Westmoreland Sports Network. Kris Smith and Jeff Shaw will be on the call.
“I truly enjoyed every aspect of putting this together,” Kaczanowicz said. “I don’t regret anything about how I planned it. I’m sure I’ll learn in the future, for the next events, what I can do more efficiently or better. But I am very confident about what we put together. And I’m just excited.”