Burrell, Kiski Area wrestlers ready to ignite rivalry again
By: Doug Gulasy
Thursday, January 10, 2019 | 9:09 PM
A business trip will keep Josh Shields away from his customary spot on the Burrell wrestling team’s sidelines for Friday’s home nonsection match against Kiski Area.
But the Bucs’ sixth-year coach expects to spend his Friday night in Las Vegas not in a casino but glued to his phone and computer, following updates on the match and likely unable to stay still — or quiet.
Why such passion about a nonsection match that ultimately means nothing in the standings or for either team’s playoff fate? Because it actually means everything — or, if not everything, at least a lot.
Burrell and Kiski Area enter their annual nonsection grudge match at 7 p.m. Friday as the top-ranked teams in their WPIAL classifications (Burrell in Class AA and Kiski Area in AAA) and the prohibitive favorites to add another championship to already-crowded trophy cases. Burrell (4-1) has won 12 consecutive WPIAL Class AA championships, Kiski Area (5-0) the last two in Class AAA.
Then there’s the schools’ proximity, about 10 miles, and the fact the wrestlers frequently cross paths at clubs like the Mat Factory in Lower Burrell.
“It’s kind of crazy, two schools as good as they are that are right next to each other,” Shields said. “This area is fortunate to have that.”
The popularity of wrestling locally, especially at long-established programs Burrell and Kiski Area, means many of the current wrestlers at both schools followed the rivalry growing up, attending matches and picturing themselves on the mat one day.
“It’s crazy what Western Pennsylvania can bring, how close everyone is together but how great the teams are,” Kiski Area freshman Enzo Morlacci said. “It’s a great thing to see.”
Since 1997, Burrell and Kiski Area have combined for 18 WPIAL championships — 14 for the Bucs, four for Kiski Area — plus Burrell’s 2009 PIAA team title. Three times — 1997, 2017 and 2018 — they won the WPIAL championship in the same season.
They also have a combined 11 individual state champions since 1997.
“One day a year, we’re against each other. The rest of the time, we’re for each other,” Kiski Area coach Chris Heater said. “It’s cool. I’m glad they’re the AA champs, and I’m glad we’re AAA. But it’s fun. I think we both benefit from that.”
Shields and Heater attempt to load up their schedules with difficult opponents and tournaments in hopes it will benefit them come the WPIAL and PIAA playoffs, and the coaches consider this match part of that strategy.
“We’re just competing, and through good competition, you make kids better,” Shields said. “Us having to wrestle them, it makes me a better coach, and these wrestlers, too. That just pushes everyone to be as good as your neighbor, so to speak.”
The teams even got an early taste of the rivalry last weekend as several of their wrestlers matched up at the Westmoreland County Coaches Association tournament — including the 160-pound final, where Kiski Area’s Jack Blumer beat Burrell’s Austin Mele.
Kiski Area holds a seven-match winning streak over Burrell, including a 40-25 victory last season. This match marks a rarity for Burrell every season, one of the few times the 12-time defending champion Bucs are an underdog thanks to Kiski Area’s numbers.
“Being an underdog to them in a match like this, that’s why we have them,” Mele said. “A great team like Kiski, it really pushes us and really shows us what we need to work on. No disrespect to any other team, but beating up on a smaller team doesn’t really help us for our goals in the end. You can’t get any better than this in the WPIAL.”
Burrell especially is motivated given the match is taking place in the Bucs’ home gymnasium, Mele said. The match typically draws a large crowd, and the smaller space inside Burrell’s gym likely will ensure a packed house Friday.
“It’s going to be really cool to experience what the atmosphere is like,” Morlacci said. “Honestly, the atmosphere, it’s going to be crazy … it’s going to be packed.”
Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Doug at email@example.com or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.