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NTL WRESTLING: WITH NUMBERS UP AND A LOT OF YOUNG TALENT, ATHENS' BRADLEY UPBEAT HEADING INTO 2023-24 SEASON (2023-12-19)

By TIM BIRNEY
Valley Sports Report
ATHENS — The Athens numbers are high, there’s an influx of young talent, and longtime coach Shawn Bradley is emitting a positive vibe heading into the 2023-24 season.

“We’re up around 30, which is awesome,” said Bradley. “It’s the most we’ve had in a quite a while.

“Our junior high coaches (Jeremiah Bailey, Dustin Bishop, and Rick Morgan) are doing a great job … they got a bunch of kids out, and the kids are working hard,” he noted. “Hopefully, we keep that going.

“We have three seniors, a couple juniors, a lot of sophomores, and three freshmen in the line-up,” added Bradley. “It’s a good mix, and we have a couple kids right behind that could push those kids as we move forward.”

Bradley expects freshman Matthew Schneider to start at 107, freshman Zaine Campbell at 114, senior Mason Vanderpool at 121, and sophomore Connor Garrison at 127, with senior Josh Courtney at 133, sophomore Karson Sipley at 139, and sophomore Sean Peters at 145.

In the top-half of the line-up, sophomore Cooper Robinson fills the 152-pound slot, with freshman Connor Davidson at 160, junior Keegan Congdon at 172, sophomore Jonathan Timm at 189, junior Caleb Nason at 215, and senior Josh Nittinger at 285.

Bradley said his team has some quality depth.

“We had wrestle-offs, and usually they’re done in 25 to 30 minutes,” he said. “This year, we had more than 30 matches; that’s a good thing.

“We had some kids work hard this summer,” noted Bradley. “That’s one benefit of football, we had a lot of kids in the weight room, so the strength is a little bit better for the wrestling team.

“We have some young kids who are really good,” Bradley added. “Hopefully, they push the older guys, and the older guys follow suit, and we peak when we need to.”

Bradley said there are several Wildcats to keep an eye on this season.

“Our two big guys — Josh (NIttinger) and Caleb (Nason) — are definitely guys to watch. Those are guys shooting to get to States this year,” he said.

“Cooper (Robinson) is a stud if he wants to be,” noted Bradley. “Karson Sipley had a really good summer, and Hayden Mercer had a really good summer.

“Then we have some freshmen, but they are really great athletes.

“Zaine Campbell has wrestled a lot, he’s going to surprise some people,” added Bradley. “And, Connor Davidson is just a freak athlete — he’ll surprise some people, too.”

Bradley’s main focus is preparing his guys for the PIAA Championships, but with a full line-up he’s hoping to compete in the District 4 Duals.

“You always like to say we can compete in the District 4 Duals, but for some reason we always find a way to mess it up somehow,” laughed Bradley. “Even when we finished fifth or sixth at the state tournament twice, we still ended up flubbing it up at District Duals.

“A lot of things have to click. You have to have depth — other kids have to be able to step up when kids get dinged up.

“It would be great to see these guys at least get to Milton, and get some extra matches in against some tough competition — District 4 is really tough,” added Bradley.

The Wildcats already hosted the Jarvis Tournament, and finished second. As usual, they have a tough tournament schedule ahead of them.

“We’re going to the Southern Tier Memorial, instead of IUP, this year,” noted Bradley. “We’ll see some good teams up there.

“Our toughest tournament is the Coal Cracker … last year, we had two matches there Saturday and went home. Hopefully, we’ll do a little better this year.

“And Bedford is the best AA tournament in the state,” Bradley added.

Bradley is looking for improvement from the Wildcats in all areas in 2023-24.

“We took a step back last year … I’ve coached here for 25 years, and it’s one of the only times we haven’t had someone wrestle at Hershey,” said Bradley. “It would be nice to get a couple kids to Hershey, and I think we have the kids who can do it.

“Dual meet-wise, it would be great if we could make it to Milton, and then give ourself a chance.

“Overall, hopefully, we have some growth, and the kids improve both on the mat and as people,” added Bradley.

Athens will compete in Class AA this year at States, but in 2024-25, and ’25-’26, the Wildcats will jump to Class AAA. Bradley, who wrestled at Athens, competed in Class AAA during his high school days.

“It’s a little bit different now than when I was in school,” he said. “We went through the Northeast Region (Bethlehem), and there were three teams (Nazareth, Easton, and Northhampton) ranked in the top 10 in the country in our region.

“Now, we go through the Northwest Region, which is District 6 and District 9, so it’s a little bit different competition, but it’s still tough.

“We haven’t been there, so it’s tough to say … it might be easier to get to States, but once you’re there it’s a meat grinder,” added Bradley. “You have five Regions, and every match is a dogfight; that’s just the way it is.”

AROUND THE NTL
“Towanda has a really nice team,” said Bradley. “A couple of years ago, that team may have been the best junior high team in the state. The next couple of years, they are going to be really tough.

“Canton has some good kids back, they have a coulee of hammers,: he noted. “You always have Wyalusing … and Williamson beat us last year. There are some good teams in the NTL.

“Last year, we didn’t have a state place-finisher out of our league,” added Bradley. “Hopefully, we can change that this year.”

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IN PHOTO: Athens coach Shawn Bradley (right), and former Wildcat standout A.J. Burkhart during the Jarvis Tournament earlier this season. … PHOTO BY MATT PATTON.

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