Washington wrestling crowned Eastern Plains champions

Published 1:54 pm Monday, January 26, 2015

DAVID CUCCHIARA | DAILY NEWS HIT THE MATS: Senior Chris Coogan is one of head coach Chris Penhollow’s senior leaders on a team full of youth.

HIT THE MATS: Senior Chris Coogan is one of head coach Chris Penhollow’s senior leaders on a team full of youth.

BETHEL — After losing three of the team’s top wrestlers to graduation, the 2014-2015 season was supposed to be one centered on reconstruction, learning and finding an identity. Filling six of the weight classes with freshmen and sophomores, along with a new head coach in Chris Penhollow, a learning curve was expected and struggles seemed imminent.

Instead, disappoint never materialized, negated by the sterling performance of the Washington wrestling team’s youth. And after another stellar outing on Saturday, the Pam Pack enters the last week of the regular season with a 27-1 record and a defacto Eastern Plains Conference championship.

It’s a title enveloped by storylines regarding the team’s new head coach, who spent the last three years rebuilding Farmville Central’s program from the bottom up. Last week, for the first time since leaving for Washington, Penhollow had to face his former team — Friday in a regular season meet and Saturday at the Eastern Plains Conference Duals.

“We went there Friday and it was their senior night and I have to be honest, those seniors were the freshmen I recruited to restart that program from scratch four years ago, so it was a little tough, emotionally, being on the sideline,” Penhollow said. “We obviously wanted to win, but those are the kids I worked with for three years. You get attached to them, you love them, but at the same time, you want to win.”

A little extra motivation to beat their former coach resulted in a competitive match, but Washington, capitalizing on its ability to fill every weight class, came through with a 45-34 win. Appropriately enough, the following day at the conference meet, the Pam Pack would line the mat during its third round bye, cheering on the Jaguars, who were fighting for a potential playoff seed.

Carried by crucial pins from freshman Austin Koonce, sophomore D.K. Credle and freshman Andrew Ferguson, as well as a pair of early forfeits, Washington defeated North Pitt in Round 1, 45-33, before gearing up for a rematch against Farmville Central in the second round.

This time, a few adjustments made by head coach Mike Taylor resulted in three Jaguar pins over Pam Pack wrestlers, but Washington’s talented crop of lightweights was the difference in a 44-27 win. The 2-0 start to the day placed Washington in striking distance of a conference title, one which would come down to a third round match between, appropriately enough, Penhollow’s former team and the host, North Pitt.

With a Jaguars win, North Pitt would drop to two losses and be eliminated from title contention, handing the championship to Washington. A Panthers win would force a virtual conference championship match against Washington in Bethel today.

“I told Mike (Taylor), ‘Do me a favor and knock North Pitt off so Tuesday doesn’t mean anything for us,’” Penhollow joked. “He shuffled stuff around and ended up beating them by one point. All my kids were lined up on the mats, cheering for Farmville.”

North Pitt was pushed to two losses, finishing the day 2-2, while moving into a tie for second with Farmville Central. Now, the roles are reversed with the postseason fate of Farmville Central falling in the lap of the Pam Pack. Today, with a win over North Pitt in an otherwise meaningless regular season match for the champions, Farmville Central and North Pitt will end the 2014-2015 campaign tied for second place and, more than likely, a coin flip will decide playoff qualification.

But the fittingly symbiotic relationship between the two schools doesn’t end there. Considering Penhollow’s move from Farmville to Washington, fate may also have played a role.

A graduate of Washington High School, Penhollow wrestled on the last Pam Pack team to win a conference championship (1985 and 1986). Twenty-nine years later, he’s navigating the same program to the title.

“We’ve been on quite a roll and practices have been loose and a lot of fun. They knew going in how much it meant to me, considering it’s been so long since we last won a conference championship at this school,” Penhollow said.

“I talked to the kids on the bus that morning and told them to be excited for the opportunity set in front of them. Some of the seniors on this team have been wrestling for four years now and have never gotten a conference championship.”

Following Washington’s final regular season dual match today, the team will host the Eastern Plains Conference individual championships on Saturday, as wrestlers like Jacob Smith, Credle and Neill Jennings compete against the area’s top competition. Senior Kyle Krajewski remains out due to a probable concussion sustained at practice almost two weeks ago.

“Being healthy and filling every weight class gives you the best fighting chance,” Penhollow said. “As soon as we get Kyle back, according to protocol, it would be a huge help for us. I hope we get him back, but we need to look at it like we’re not.”