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Hepler’s solid freshman campaign didn’t end the way he had envisioned it, but he was still very proud to have earned a medal in his first high school season.
“I’m feeling good and I’m really happy with my medal, but I’m a little disappointed at the same time,” said Hepler shortly after his final bout of the tournament. “Things can go any way on any given weekend – throw all of our names in a hat and it’ll end up different every time.”
The seventh-place finish was even harder to swallow when Hepler realized that Bethlehem Catholic’s Jake Riegel finished first. Hepler beat Riegel two weeks earlier in the District 11 championship finals.
“He was better than me this weekend, but that just makes me want to work harder to get the gold next year because I know I’m so close,” he said.
Hepler started the tournament with an 8-4 decision over South Park’s Dallas Bulsak, a third-place finisher from the Southwest Region. Hepler was the only local wrestler to win his opening round bout, a foreshadowing of the overall disappointment that the area would experience in the tournament.
After his initial victory, Hepler lost an 8-3 decision to Riegel in the quarterfinals. He then won his first consolation bout 10-2 over Reynolds’ Gage Bayless. That victory ensured Hepler would earn his first state medal, but his next match determined just how high that medal would be. Against Lancaster Catholic sophomore Joe Lobeck, Hepler dropped an 8-3 decision, putting him into the seventh-place match versus Brockway’s Ryan Carlson.
Hepler and Carlson finished the first period tied 0-0, after Hepler fought off a deep Carlson shot with 10 seconds left in the frame. Hepler won the toss in the second period and chose to start on bottom. The decision paid off, as he was able to convert a reversal and ride Carlson out to end the second period with a 2-0 lead. Carlson started the third period on bottom and quickly escaped. Hepler finished the scoring – and cemented his seventh-place finish – with a two-point takedown on a nicely executed sweep single that made the score 4-1.
As with most well-motivated athletes, Hepler isn’t planning to rest on the laurels of his highly successful freshman campaign. He said he’ll take a little time off, but it won’t be long until he’s back in the wrestling room training to improve on this season’s finish. In addition to his Tri-Valley workouts, Hepler said he trains in Benton and Bucknell with “state-quality kids.”
Teammate Caleb Bordner knows all about state-quality wrestlers. He trains with them too and he’s been one himself for the past three seasons. After eighth and sixth-place finishes in his freshman and sophomore seasons, Bordner once again left Hershey with hardware – this time a seventh-place medal.
“I’m feeling great, and I’m happy that I medaled, but I want to do better,’’ he said. ‘‘I know I can do better and I know what I have to do to get there.’’
Bordner opened the tournament against Redbank Valley senior Willis Gruver, the same opponent he faced in last year’s opening round. And just like last year, Gruver knocked Bordner into the consolation bracket sooner than anticipated, this time with a 4-1 decision.
The Tri-Valley junior bounced back in his first consolation bout, pinning Mount Union’s Sage Moist in 2:41, setting up a do-or-die bout with Fort Leboeuf’s Jarrette Carter. Bordner got the best of Carter, beating him 6-3 to ensure his third consecutive PIAA medal.
Bordner followed his victory over Carter with a loss by fall to eventual fifth-place finisher Triston Law from Forest Hills. That loss put Bordner in the seventh-place consolation bracket, where he squared off with Gruver for the second time in the tournament, third time overall.
This time, Border prevailed. As with Hepler’s match a few minutes earlier, Bordner finished the first period in a scoreless tie, and just like Hepler, Bordner won the second-period coin toss and chose to start on bottom. He scored a reversal from the bottom position and rode Gruver for the remainder of the period to enter the final frame up 2-0. Gruver chose bottom to start the third, but Bordner was tough on top, eventually turning Gruver for two near-fall points to take a 4-0 lead. Gruver escaped and Bordner gave up a tactical stall point at the end of the period, making the final score 4-2 in favor of the Bulldog.
“I wish I could have beaten him earlier in the tournament, but it was nice to get revenge and finish my season with a victory,” Bordner said. “I already have an eighth-place medal. I really didn’t want another one,” he added.
Like Hepler, Bordner isn’t going to relax for long. He’s already planning to get back into the wrestling room – he too practices at Benton – in preparation for a heavy summer schedule.
“I do the Disney Duals and Virginia Duals and I’m going to go to Fargo (N.D.) this year,” Bordner said. “I’ll take about a month off, but then I’m going to start freestyle training for Fargo.”
Fargo hosts the annual ASICS/Vaughan Junior & Cadet National Championships, the United States’ most elite Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling tournament.
Tri-Valley co-Head Coach Dave Boltz said he was proud of Hepler’s and Bordner’s accomplishments, but said he wished the team could have come home with more medals. Tri-Valley sent five wrestlers to the tournament – pretty impressive considering the team struggled to field a competitive dual meet squad all season due to a severe lack of numbers.
“We started the season with 16 kids, but some dropped off and others just weren’t willing to put in the work,” Boltz said.
Boltz added that he’s involved with the Benton club and runs the Tri-Valley wrestling room several days a week in the off-season.
“Hopefully the success that some of our guys are having will get more kids interested in the program,’’ he said. ‘‘We do real well with the kids we have. We just need more of them to really kick things up a notch.’’
All five of Tri-Valley’s state qualifiers are back next year. Bordner, Harner and 152-pounder Anthony Snyder will return for their senior seasons. Chase Schaeffer (138) will be back for his junior campaign and Hepler will be only a sophomore.
The other local qualifiers also will return next season, as all of them are juniors or younger.
UDA’s 113-pound Coy Campbell will be back for his senior season, hoping to earn his first state medal.
Line Mountain’s 113-pound Cameron Newman entered this year’s tournament with high hopes after finishing fourth at 106 in 2013. After an 0-2 record at Hershey last week, he will work toward capturing his second state medal in his final season next year.
Williams Valley sophomore 106-pounder Willy Girard went 0-2 in his first appearance in the state tournament, but he’ll be looking at improving that next year in his junior season.
With all this talent returning, plus a fresh set of faces coming into high school from junior high, it appears the local wrestling action will continue to impress and provide ample opportunity to bring home hardware from the PIAA championships.