'Cats take school record 8 qualifiers into Central tourney
by Don Seeley, Pottstown Mercury Sports Editor
Posted on February 21, 2009
ROYERSFORD - Steve DeRafelo will admit his Owen J. Roberts team isn't quite yet ready to go toe-to-toe with Pioneer Athletic Conference rivals' Boyertown and Upper Perkiomen, or with a few other District 1 notables like Quakertown and neighboring Council Rock North and South.
But he feels the Wildcats have been making significant strides ... closing the gap, if you will.
"We're making headway," DeRafelo said earlier this week. "Every year, we seem to be getting a little bit better. I think we're creeping up.
"But I don't know if we're improving as quickly as those others, like Boyertown and Upper Perk, to the point where they are at right now. But our middle school team was pretty good again, and our youth program is really taking off. Things seem to be in place."
The Wildcats made as big a step as DeRafelo could have hoped for during last week's District 1-AAA Section Four Tournament, and in front of a partisan Boyertown crowd no less. They had an individual champion in Nick Fuschino, even a pair of runners-up in Jonathan Dempsey and Andrew Kinney.
And Scott Syrek, a state qualifier a year ago, bounced back from a second-round upset to place third.
But what DeRafelo was most proud of, and perhaps as surprised as anyone else, were the five other medalists - third-placers Jordan Stierly and Sam Funk and fourth-placers Jake Schell, Jordan Moser, and Danny Mongold - who gave him and the program a school-record nine qualifiers for today's District 1-AAA Central Tournament here at Spring-Ford High School.
"If you would've told me we would've had that many in the beginning of the season, yes, I absolutely would've been surprised," said DeRafelo, whose entourage dwindled to eight earlier this week after Mongold was forced to pull out because of a concussion.
"We're a fairly young team despite having a few tough seniors. We have mostly freshmen and sophomores, and only one junior. And when you have a young team like that, and your guys get beat up early on it's tough to gauge at times how you're going to do. You just don't know if some of them are going to throw the towel in or not."
And OJR took its share of hits early on at the Bear Duals and in the Keystone Classic.
"We did get beat up, whacked around a bit," DeRafelo explained. "I think our schedule is kind of brutal, and when some of your kids get man-handled you wonder if they're tough enough mentally to deal with it, with the losses. You wonder if they're tough enough mentally to bounce back."
DeRafelo, like a lot of coaches, saw a wrestler here and there disappear. There were even a few from a year ago who chose not to even show up on Day One this season.
"You kind of expect that in a way," DeRafelo said. "But we tell our kids that if they do keep coming back, if they continue to work hard in our practice room, that all of it - combined with the kind of schedule we wrestle - will make them better. They'll be okay.
"I think we showed that at the (Section Four Tournament), too. I think we proved we have some talent, that we're a pretty darn good .500 team (after finishing the dual meet season at 7-7)."
Schell, of course, may have been the big surprise. The freshman 119-pounder is only in his third season of wrestling, and his 10-12 record isn't exactly going to turn heads. But he's in districts today. And much the same can be said about Moser, who has battled through an injury and surgery to get to 8-3 at 135.
Mongold may have been one of OJR's most improved middleweights and was 17-13, but after suffering a concussion a couple of weeks ago and getting knocked around at sectionals, both doctors and DeRafelo felt it best to pull Mongold rather than risk more serious medical problems.
Stierly, one of the few seniors in the lineup and invaluable as a leader in the practice room, is 20-10 heading into today's opening rounds at 145. And Funk, a sophomore who questioned whether he wanted to continue wrestling after a slow start, is now 15-13 at 171 and a district qualifier as well.
And none of those efforts overshadowed those from Dempsey, Kinney, Fuschino, and Syrek ... but they were, as DeRafelo mentioned, the surprises you enjoy.
"We worried about losing some kids early on, but we're very happy with who we've had all season," DeRafelo said. "They've worked hard."
DeRafelo - a graduate of Great Valley, where he was a state qualifier in 1988 - is only the third OJR head coach since the school started wrestling in the mid-60s under Fred Foller. Howie Sage, who followed Foller, guided the Wildcats for 35 years and compiled a 262-284-8 career mark, is still is part of the program as an assistant. DeRafelo is 40-39 overall in seven seasons. ... "One day last week we had both Fred and Howie in the (practice) room with us," DeRafelo said. "That was pretty cool."
PACKING A PUNCH
In addition to Owen J. Roberts' entries, the Pioneer Athletic Conference will also be represented by 13 wrestlers from Boyertown and Spring-Ford.
Minich is 34-4 and one of the entire district's super sophomores on the mats this winter. Malfaro is 35-5 and determined grab the gold medal he won two years ago as a freshman after slipping to fifth here last February. Pellicciotti owns a district-best 39 wins and hopes to pin down his second straight district title. Heffner, who had a promising freshman season undermined by injuries last year, is 25-5 thus far, with two of those losses at the Beast of the East Classic.
The host Rams' fivesome is led by Section Four champions Tim Miller (125) and Justin Franiak (285). They'll be joined by section bronze-medalists Tom Boring (119), Kyle Duffy 135) and Matt Kreuger (160). Miller (28-6) and Franiak (24-8) are both seniors, while Boring, Duffy and Kreuger are all sophomores.
Today's District 1-AAA Central showdown includes the top four finishers from Sections Four and Six. Great Valley, which swept the Section Four team title, has a tournament-high 12 qualifiers, one more than Conestoga, which won the team title at Section Five. Owen J. Roberts, Boyertown, and Garnet Valley are next with eight each, followed by Downingtown West, Penncrest, West Chester East, and West Chester Henderson with seven each.
Unionville (six); Spring-Ford (five); Avon Grove, Downingtown East, Kennett, Oxford, and West Chester Rustin, four each; Lower Merion (two); and Coatesville, Marple-Newtown, and Strath Haven, one each, round out the district card.