State High Wrestling Alums Looking to Bright Future for Little Lion Program
It wasn’t exactly the outcome that Coach Ryan Cummins wanted on Jan. 26. Although he knew his State College High School wrestlers were facing a strong rival in Central Dauphin, the former Penn State wrestler and captain was hoping for a closer outcome than 45-25. It was tough to lose by 20 points, especially with so many State High wrestling alumni in attendance.
But Cummins is wise enough to know there’s a brighter future for his program. The alums who gathered for State High’s inaugural Wrestling Alumni Event — which included attendance at the Central Dauphin dual meet — also know that. And their vision for the future was boosted a bit by the last match of the day.
It just so happened that 120 pounds was the final weight class for the dual meet. And just by chance, that bout showcased State College’s Owen Barr, a freshman who is distantly related to State High’s foremost coaching legend, Homer Barr.
Barr would not have been in the lineup without an injury that was suffered by a State High regular. But the ninth grader showed his moxie by posting an 11-3 major decision. His effort was especially meaningful to alums like Dave Guss, Dan Guss, Dave Thiel and Len Rockey — all of whom were varsity regulars under Coach Homer Barr, the man who led State High to 64 straight dual meet victories from 1957 to 1962.
Said Rockey, himself a former Little Lion coach, “He did well. He’s a little stud. He goes after his opponent, and that’s the way Homer would have wanted it.”
Added Cummins, “He looked great; really tough on his feet. He’s got a bright future. We’re excited to have him.”
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Regardless of the encouragement provided by watching a Barr on the State High mat, the 30-plus alumni at the event know that a lot of hard work will be required to return State College to a position of wrestling prominence. Even if the Lions win their last two dual meets as expected, they will still finish with a 7-8 record — well below the win-loss ratios of the past.
Shouldn’t State High be stronger in wrestling, based on its history? Couldn’t State High be stronger, by taking advantage of the excitement generated by Penn State’s collegiate dynasty?
Former Little Lions study the action between State High and Central Dauphin. From the right are Len Rockey, Dave Thiel and Dave Weber. Photo by Bill Horlacher.
A DAD AND A BOOSTER
Ed Urbas is one who sees the hope of the future and who is willing to work for its fulfillment. The father of two current Little Lion grapplers, Urbas serves as president of the wrestling booster club and he led the alumni gathering. He appealed to the alumni to become more involved with the current program — by sharing their experiences with the kids and by assisting with finances to help the team purchase video equipment and upgrade its weight training facilities.
Urbas was a member of North Allegheny High School’s state championship team of 1987, so he has a taste for triumph. And he’d like to help his sons enjoy much of what he experienced.
“I didn’t want to look back and say, ‘Could I have done more?’” explains the local businessman. “I didn’t want to look back and say, ‘I could have done more for my youngest or I could have done more for my oldest.’ As a dad, you will do anything to help your kids achieve their goals.”
Urbas believes good things are on the horizon for State High’s wrestlers. “I think the program has a very bright future,” he says. “I think they can be very competitive at the Mid Penn level; competing with the Cumberland Valleys, Central Dauphins and Mifflin Counties. They need to make some additional changes in the way they structure weight lifting programs, and I know they are talking about that. And the parents need to find the fine line between pushing their kids and helping them make a commitment.
“There’s so much support for it (wrestling) here in State College,” he says. “There’s an historic passion; there’s an opportunity to go and practice with Penn State (through clubs like David Taylor’s M2 Training Center). You’re not going to get any better coaching or motivation in the country. How can you not take advantage of that?”
ALUMNI LEND SUPPORT
Even though the alumni presence didn’t bring victory over Central Dauphin, the attendance by former champions and well-known coaches had to leave an impression. “We’re here, showing support,” said Rockey. “And it has to matter. People matter. I used to tell wrestlers, ‘When you’re out there, you have to care so much about your family, about who you are and how you are.’ ”
No doubt, one of the biggest impressions was left by Ron Pifer — not actually a State High alum but a major figure in State High wrestling. Pifer captured two state titles while wrestling for Bellefonte High School in the late 1950s, and he placed second at the 1961 NCAA championships for Penn State. He coached State High with great effectiveness from 1966 to 1976 and from 2001 to 2004, in addition to his duties as teacher, administrator and principal. His two sons joined him at the alumni event and got a special thrill in seeing their names displayed on the wrestling room’s new honors wall. Scott Pifer placed fourth, second and first for State College at the PIAA state championships from 1981 to 1983; Jeff took fifth place in 1986.
Though he’s now in his late 70s, Ron Pifer reminded everyone of his zany personality by donning a lion’s head during the match with Central Dauphin. (Said Jeff with a big grin, “He’s been embarrassing us for years, why should he stop now?”) But the senior Pifer also offered some serious input on the future of Little Lion wrestling.
“We drove up here 12 hours to be part of this,” said the former Penn State star. “The wrestling program at State High and all the schools just means so much to me. State High has a tough, tough wrestling schedule. We have the local schools like Bald Eagle Area and Bellefonte, and then you go down and wrestle the Harrisburg area schools like Cumberland Valley and Central Dauphin. I think you could possibly have a 7-5 year and have a very good year.”
But if State College is to reach that level, or beyond, Pifer agrees with Urbas that the Penn State connection is vital. “I just think we need to feed off of it. I don’t know if people realize what kind of history they’re watching right now. To have four national champions in your lineup, that’s unheard of.”
From left are Ron Pifer and his sons, Jeff and Scott—all former place winners at the PIAA state tourney. Photo by Bill Horlacher.
SEFTER OFFERS INPUT
John Sefter, a state champion heavyweight in 1974 and now an orthopedic surgeon in State College, expressed his excitement about the alumni event. “The camaraderie and the fraternity in wrestling is fabulous,” he said. “You realize it stretches over many years, many generations. The big thing, for me, would be seeing Coach Pifer. And some of the fellows we looked up to — Davy Weber for instance (Weber was a 95-pound state semifinalist in 1965 who later wrestled at Penn State).”
Sefter offered a variety of suggestions for future State High success. “The big thing,” he said, “has to be encouraging the youth program and the junior high program. The feeder programs have to be crucial. I think they need a good weight room — a training room right next to the wrestling room so those kids can work out and then go right to a weight room where they can pump iron and get strong. It probably comes back to money; alumni could be helpful in that. They have the interest, the alumni do.
“With or without Penn State, the potential is unlimited. Because there’s a big student body here, and even kids in the local community who are home-schooled can come out for the wrestling team… We have to make wrestling attractive for the kids so they want to come out for it and stay out.
“I think overall that in State College, the athletes are relatively soft and we don’t have those real hard-nosed kids. I can think of the Pine Grove Mills kids in the late 60’s and 70’s, and of course the Suheys — real tough kids. One thing for sure is that the junior high and elementary school phys ed teachers can encourage the kids to come out for the sport and stay out, even when it’s tough.”
FEEDER PROGRAMS GROW
Given Sefter’s emphasis on feeder programs, he surely took heart in what Urbas told the alumni: the junior high program currently involves more than 40 kids and is flourishing under the leadership of Coach Aaron Pavlechko. The youth program has 77 (with six to 12 adults helping at each workout).
“The corner is being turned,” said the booster club’s president.
And then there’s another factor — not initially mentioned by Urbas — that is helping to boost State High wrestling. Urbas’ older son, Cole, is the standout wrestler on this year’s team, and he is demonstrating that the road to success is paved with dedication and hard work.
“Cole was an average wrestler through seventh grade,” says Urbas. “Average. Eighth grade was the first time he made it to the PJW (Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling) state tournament. And he just focused and focused and became better and better and better. And he made more of a commitment each year, and that contributed to his success.”
A NEW STATE CHAMP?
As a sophomore, Cole Urbas placed third at 184 pounds in the PIAA state tournament. Last year, he was second at 197 pounds. This year, will Cole become State High’s first champ since Matt Kocher in 2003?
Urbas currently holds a record of 26-0 with 20 pins. He is ranked first in the state and among the top five nationally at 197 pounds. And perhaps the best part of his success is that he will be attending the University of Pennsylvania next fall, not only to wrestle but also to pursue a bachelor’s degree from Penn’s elite Wharton School of Business.
“Never in my life,” says Ed Urbas, “did I think I would have a son who would even be considered by the Wharton School. But I have to tell you, he puts in the effort. As the other parents see these kinds of things, they realize, ‘He just stuck with it.’ And they see that these things are achievable.”
STRONG CORE RETURNING
Only three seniors will graduate from this year’s team. Coach Ryan Cummins will be happy to return a lineup core that includes Clayton Leidy, Jude Swisher, Lance Urbas (Cole’s younger brother, he missed this season with a knee injury), Bailey Weaverling and Owen Woolcott. And who knows? Maybe Homer Barr’s distant relative Owen will continue to develop and make a name for himself in the maroon and gray.
“I think the future’s great,” said Cummins as he reflected on the alumni gathering. “They laid down an awesome foundation for us, and we’re building little by little for the future. Our (roster) numbers are good, and guys are doing what they’re supposed to. We’re getting better, little by little. It’s baby steps right now, but it will pay off in the future.”
State High alums look for a bright future for the Little Lion wrestling program. Photo by Bill Horlacher.