It’s been a shaky series of seasons for the Elizabethtown Area High School wrestling team. After going 6-8 during the 2017-18 season, the Bears fell to 5-16 last year, struggling to compete against a stacked level of competition in the Lancaster-Lebanon League.
Having just 13 athletes on the roster didn’t help. And when there are 14 weight classes, the odds are already stacked before the matches even begin. Throw in a handful of injuries and numerous first-year wrestlers, and it’s no wonder Elizabethtown struggled.
“Part of it was a couple of years of only have six kids on the junior high team,” head coach Mike Sernoffsky said. “We’ve improved that, so as long as you’re willing to work, it’s gonna pay off. This is a physically demanding sport, and it can be emotionally draining. When you’re out there, you have no one to blame but you.”
There was a very real chance that things could’ve gotten worse numbers-wise this season for the Bears, considering that five seniors (Cam Olson, Javan Thomas, Zach Frank, Elijah Stackhouse and Tyler Lanza) graduated at the end of last year. Thankfully for them, that won’t be as big of an issue this time around. Currently, Elizabethtown has 19 wrestlers on the roster, with all but seven being new from the 2018-19 season.
“Long term, it’s gonna show other kids that don’t wrestle that anyone can do it,” senior Cole Rice said. “It’s a good sport that helps you get in shape and build bonds. There’s a good group coming up from elementary and junior high. It’ll help the program out.”
“We’re taking everything seriously,” junior Bobby Walters said. “We’ve gone a lot harder in drills. The coaches are giving a lot more resistance than they used to, which I think is just pushing everybody overall.”
“We’re definitely being a lot more strict with our practices this year,” sophomore Wyatt Mummau said. “We’re making sure that everyone is engaging with the actual sport. Everybody is doing their best to learn because we all want to be here.”
“We let the kids know the expectations right away,” Sernoffsky said. “We’re not dawdling around; we’re in here to work. We want the kids who want to be here. That’s not to demean anyone from last year. They had three different coaches in three years.”
Elizabethtown had to take its lumps at times last season, only having a handful of consistent results. Olson ended up being the lone wrestler to make it to districts; he had a 29-15 record in the 120, 126 and 132-pound weight classes. As such, this year could largely be a transitional one for the Bears, though that doesn’t mean their top guys won’t be able to make an impact.
Rice stands out, having finished with a 23-13 record in the 152 and 160-pound classes last year. While he was undefeated against section opponents during the regular season, earning a Section Two All-Star nod in the process, he didn’t do as well during the postseason, ultimately placing sixth in the 152 during sectionals.
“Obviously, I’m a senior, so it’s my last year,” Rice said. “I want to push to get better and do the best that I can. Part of it will be picking the right weight class. I’ve worked hard with the coaches to improve, so the goal will be districts.”
Mummau was the other 20-plus victory wrestler. He was 22-13 in the lower weight classes (106 and 133), good enough to be named as an honorable mention in Section Two. Like Rice, he took sixth in the 106 class at sectionals, as well as fourth in leagues.
“I’ve been watching videos from last year to try and look at what really needs attention in my performance,” Mummau said. “Instead of just going and working things that aren’t gonna help me, I’m trying to practice things that need to be focused on.”
Outside of those two, however, the results were much more mixed. Just three other wrestlers notched at least 10 wins, and one (Thomas) is gone. Another, Walters, is likely to improve. He went 14-20 in the 138, 145 and 152 classes, but a whopping 12 of those losses were by decision. It was a large leap from a 4-25 record during his freshman season.
“A lot of it is just being more offensive and making smarter decisions,” Walters said. “I lost a lot of points with locked hands and little things like that. I’m a lot more quick this year. I’m just more consistent.”
The rest of the team was up and down in limited action. Sophomore Skyler Nagel went 8-21 in the lower weights. Senior Kaidyn Heaps (3-10 in 145, 152 and 160), senior Ray Perez (3-29 in 195 and 220) and junior Carter Schach (4-4 in 106 and 113) are back this season after their first taste of varsity action last year. Fighting through that adversity should help all of them when they return to the mat.
“I love taking kids and watching them develop,” Sernoffsky said. “I think what they set their goals for and how they want to work is gonna make a difference. Having good practice partners goes into it. This isn’t a sport that you can work on in your backyard by yourself for an hour. You need physical resistance. Obviously having more kids in the room gives them more options.”
What has the program excited is the new blood. Juniors Kyler Heaps (Kaidyn’s younger brother) and Jacob Shue have joined the team; they’ll provide some much-needed bodies among the heavyweights. Sophomore Jadden Moore has transferred in from Columbia as well; though he went just 2-19 in the 152 class as a freshman, that experience should help him in his new home.
The remaining members of the roster have all risen up from the junior high team, which went 6-3 during the regular season last year. Five (Josiah Flores, Andrew Polizzi, Jake Rudy, Nicholas Smith and Trey Smith) are sophomores, while four (Cade Capello, Ryan Findlay, Aiden Robinson and Nathan Thomas) are freshmen.
It’s not a completely perfect situation for the Bears though. Aside from Rudy (a middleweight) and Polizzi (a heavyweight), the majority of the underclassmen come in at 138 pounds and below, so not everyone will have a spot right away, unlike last year. The team is also lacking surefire options at the 170 and 182 positions. But Sernoffsky, a Hall of Fame coaching veteran who has been with Elizabethtown for nearly 40 years, will have a chance to work his magic, and team captains Rice and Walters are ready to step up as leaders, with Mummau waiting in the wings as well.
“I feel like it’s just a duty I should have,” Walters said. “Cole and I have been with the team the longest, along with Wyatt. It’s just showing these young kids what to do. They have a lot of energy and a lot of willpower. When we’re running, they all go full force. It’s gonna feel good when they get to the higher levels.”
“We had a smaller team last year, so Bobby was understanding of what me and Cam were doing,” Rice said. “I don’t think it will be much of me teaching him how to lead. I think he’ll know what he has to do. The new kids like to push each other, and they listened really well. It seems like they’re excited to come up and help the team.”
“There’s a lot more lower weights this year, which is exciting for me,” Mummau said. “That means more variety in practice. There’s also the fact that we have more than two freshmen. We can work with them and teach them as we go. We’ve worked on improvements with their stance and how to get better setups.”
“It’s their attitude,” Sernoffsky said. “Sports are very mental, so a lot of it comes down to being willing to do what it takes. We talk about when to tell if someone’s broken in a match. Fatigue makes cowards of us all. If you can get to the point where you can beat an opponent by being in better condition than them, you’ve reached the next level. They can’t just coast. When you have to wrestle off for a spot, you have to compete and stay sharp.”
Elizabethtown’s goal is to be more competitive than last season, something that can easily be accomplished with enough hard work. Of course, the Bears would love a .500 record, as well as individual postseason opportunities. Eight wins will get the program to 500 overall wins as a team. With stable depth for the first time in a few years, things appear to be looking up.
“We have a fighting chance,” Sernoffsky said. “There were times when we’d have to pin everybody just to win, and there was enough inexperience where that was tough to do. It’s a tough sport. You try to eliminate as many excuses as possible. But it’s rewarding. We’ll go out and not worry as much about wins and losses. How you’re performing is the key. I can’t overemphasize how great our staff has been. I’m very lucky.”