HERSHEY – “Luke hasn’t even looked at his medal yet.”, said Clearfield Bison Head Coach Jeff Aveni. “I told him he wasn’t allowed. When he finally looks down and sees it, full realization is going to set in. What he’s done is amazing.”
The Giant Center was filled with electricity in the air on Saturday night. It was an environment where the energy was high and the action was intense. The PIAA AAA State Championship Finals are always that way.
The high-octane energy of a few hundred fans in the Art Weiss Gymnasium is one thing: performing at your highest level in the Hershey Giant Center is another. It takes time to adapt to the Giant Center’s environment, and only those with nerves of steel are able to wrestle uninhibited with full mental clarity.
Luke McGonigal (35-1) thrives under these conditions. After losing in last year’s state finals, the Bison senior had one wrestling goal for the last 364 days: bring home the gold and become Clearfield’s 41st state champion.
“I took a note on poster board that said ‘I am the best wrestler in Pennsylvania and I will be a State Champ this year’” said McGonigal. “Every night I looked at it and said it out loud three times. I dreamed about it every night.”
McGonigal lost to State College junior Cole Urbas (29-2) last week in the Northwest Regional finals, and Saturday was his opportunity to even the score.
“I went out there in the regional finals and I was cruising through kids the whole season.”, said McGonigal. “When it got to the finals, I just expected to go out and win. It was a real eye opener to me that if you don’t go out and wrestle to win, kids will stand around with you and win 1-0. That’s what happened last week.”
The lesson was apparently well learned as McGonigal came to Hershey with one goal in mind: score points, and keep scoring more until you pin them. In his first match, McGonigal scored 16 points. In the quarter-finals, he scored 13. Then in the semi-finals, he won by fall in the first period. And when the bout started in the finals, McGonigal had a look on his face that meant business.
In the minutes leading up to the match, Coach Jeff Aveni said to Luke, “Believe in yourself. Be aggressive. You got this opportunity, so go out and do the things you’ve been trained to do.”
The ref blew the whistle and McGonigal attacked forward, weighing on Urbas’ head, and then he shot an outside right single leg. Urbas countered with heavy hips and rebounded.
Or so he thought.
McGonigal had perfectly set up one of his favorite moves that he has hit in practice all year. He used an under-hook and an over-hook with forward momentum and tripped Urbas straight to his back 19 seconds into the match. The crowd went wild!
After squeezing for about 15 seconds, Urbas seemed to recover to his knees, but McGonigal readjusted and cemented him to his back again. Then he stepped over and sunk in the boots.
After resettling multiple times, you could visibly see the life drain out of Urbas’ face, and with one more step-over, McGonigal finally got the fall he was looking for in 1:37.
Finalists rarely risk it big like McGonigal did Saturday night, but he felt he was on a different level and demanded respect. “I proved my point that I’m a different wrestler than everyone else.”, said McGonigal.
But McGonigal didn’t come off as arrogant with that statement. In fact, he attributed his success to his parents, to his Church, and he noted that academics, family, and God were all as important, if not more so, than wrestling. “I have a lot that I focus on.” he said. “My mom really motivates me to keep my grades up. I train, but I’m a 4.0 student and I have to go to church. I’m a Catholic.”
With Saturday night’s championship complete, Luke McGonigal finished his career with a 135-21 record, placing him second in Clearfield’s all time win list behind Matthew Kyler (136-13) and tied with Sean Owen (135-27). He bested Thomas Barger (134-31), and is also the 18th winningest wrestler in District 9 history.
McGonigal will continue his wrestling career at Lock Haven University this fall, and it’s going to be hard for the coaches to say goodbye to this outstanding young man. “It’s hard to say goodbye.”, said Aveni. “You grow with these guys for four years, and then you move on and new wrestlers come in the room. You see them from time to time, but you really just hope that you’ve developed a love for the sport in all your guys’ hearts in the way that I have for it.”
This is Clearfield’s fourth state champion since Head Coach Jeff Aveni and assistant coaches Brent Lykens and Andy Squires have taken over the program some 20 years ago. “You don’t ever forget your state champs.”, said Aveni with a beaming smile.
Nazareth claimed the team title by scoring 87 points with one state champion. In second place was Erie Cathedral Prep with 73 points. Clearfield finished in 17th place overall. There were 137 teams represented this year.
Samuel Sasso (47-1), a senior from Nazareth won the Outstanding Wrestler Award by pinning DuBois senior Kolby Ho (35-5) in the finals. The Northwest Region finished the tournament with four state champions, the second most in the tournament behind the Southwest Region’s five champions.