When Mifflinburg -- everyone's pick to repeat as Heartland Athletic Conference-Division I champion and challenge for the District 4 Class AA title -- opened the season with a pair of losses under a new head coach, Wildcats fans might have wondered if their team's recent run of success had run its course.
The Wildcats have a star-studded cast but, for a variety of reasons, the lineup has had some holes. But after losses to a solid Warrior Run squad and another to HAC-I member Jersey Shore, first-year coach Al Fluman's team has won three in a row and there appears to be no panic at the Union County school.
Although the coaches and wrestlers knew they would turn it around, one who was taking no chances was senior captain Ty Walter.
"I've really tried to step up a lot this year as far as being a captain and a leader," said Walter, after bumping up two weight classes to get a closing technical fall in a win over visiting Shikellamy on Thursday night.
"There are days in practice where every kid on the team hates me because practice is over and I make them run extra sprints, and I'm on the guys about their weights not (being) good and they're running the day of the match. I'm on them about keeping their weight down," he said.
Walter added, "It seems like I'm being a jerk sometimes but, really, I'm just trying to get us in shape and, I think, come (District 4) duals, we can surprise a lot of people. We haven't had the good results yet but our team is finally starting to come around and be where we need to be."
Both Walter and Fluman pointed to the tough early schedule (which included the always rugged King of the Mountain and Power Ade tournaments) as having something to do with the rocky start, but also something that is beginning to pay dividends.
"We had a really tough schedule to open up, and it's a lot different having a different coach in the room," Walter said. "It's not a step down or a step up; it's just different. I think that was a big issue at the beginning of the year. Our guys weren't used to wrestling the way the coaches wanted us to now. The coaches were teaching one style and we were wrestling another.
"Now I think everything is starting to really come together, and the results are starting to look up a little better than they were in the beginning," Walter added.
Fluman never lost faith in his team and knows they are on the right track. He expects the Wildcats to make a lot of noise before the season ends in two months.
"We're down a couple of guys right now due to some circumstances, including illness," he noted.
But, Fluman added, "I feel the team has definitely picked up the pace. They are where they wanted to be and are doing what they need to be doing and definitely wrestling in tournaments like King of the Mountain and Power Ade, especially, I think that was kind of the turning point, at least for right now. We've still got some work (to do) but they've been impressing me with their intensity of late."
FAMILIAR FOES: Arguably the most entertaining bout of Mifflinburg's win over Shikellamy came at 132 pounds where a couple of long-time workout partners, the Wildcats sophomore standout, Cole Walter, Ty's brother, and Braves junior Tristan Paul locked up.
After a scoreless period, Paul escaped for a 1-0 lead in the second, but Walter took him down and Paul escaped with 1.3 seconds left to knot it at 2-2 going into the third. Walter escaped and scored the winning takedown with 1:37 left for a 5-2 victory, his first over his Shikellamy rival.
Shikellamy coach John Supsic said, "You got your money's worth in that one. Both, I thought, were a little tentative in the beginning just because they work out together quite a bit in the off-season and it's one of those things (where) they know each other pretty well, what they're going to do before they ever do it."
MORE TROUBLE WITH NUMBERS: Another Valley program steeped in tradition is struggling with numbers. Line Mountain has wrestlers for only 10 of the 14 weight classes after some of its starters did not come out this season.
The Eagles fell this week to a team with similar problems. But Tri-Valley, coached by former Eagle and Bucknell Bison Ty Rothermel, is making the best of things, thanks to the luxury of five returning state qualifiers, including a pair of place-winners.
Rothermel, whose current school (he still lives in the Line Mountain district) usually graduates fewer than 70 students a year, said that 10 is the number he started with; it had nothing to do with injuries or wrestlers giving up.
"It's a shame on both ends to see the low numbers and I don't think anybody has the answer, "Rothermel said. "We all try hard to get numbers, but when it all comes down to it, we work with the ones that want to work."
He added that he is proud that, despite the handicap, the Bulldogs are 5-1 and lost by just five to Palmerton. The Bulldogs have three criteria wins.
n Sports editor Harold Raker covers high school wrestling for The Daily Item. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.