At PIAAs, State High Wrestler Urbas Missed Gold But Proved His Mettle
Casual observers of high school wrestling may think that State College senior Cole Urbas fell short of the mark when he placed fourth at last weekend’s PIAA championships. I’d say they should think again.
Sure, Urbas failed to capture a state title. But those who write off an athlete like Cole for “failure” at the state tournament would not only do a disservice to him but also to themselves. Dismissing his brilliant career would cost them a chance to appreciate the competitive rigors of Pennsylvania wrestling and a chance to see how the sport helped forge the character of this young man.
Urbas is unique among all athletes I have known. Standing at 6-foot-4, he towers above other wrestlers with his physical stature. And he’s head-and-shoulders above most because of his accomplishments. Athletically, he concluded his high school career with a 115-13 record and three state placings (third as a sophomore, second as a junior, fourth this year). Academically, he holds a 4.2 academic average that earned him admission to an elite program at an Ivy League school.
As for the excellence of Pennsylvania wrestling, that’s easier to grasp than most of the topics in Urbas’ AP calculus class. Every year, the Keystone State produces more NCAA qualifiers than any other state. And the overall quality of the Commonwealth’s grappling creates a hyper-competitive environment at PIAAs.
One man who gets it is Ron Pifer, a two-time state champ from Bellefonte High School who later served as a principal and head wrestling coach at State High. “There is a very slim margin between winning or losing,” says Pifer as he recalls old memories from the PIAAs. “Steve Bosak lost twice in the PIAA state finals and then went on to win an NCAA championship at Cornell. Dave Joyner won his state title on getting a penalty point.”
Urbas enjoys a relaxed moment at PIAAs beside State High assistant coach Bud Price. (Photo by Emily Rose)
HEARTBREAK IN HERSHEY
Urbas arrived in Hershey for the PIAAs with high expectations — his own and others — of winning the 195-pound title. Not only had he made the finals in 2018, but he had been absolutely dominant throughout the current season. He showed up in Chocolate Town with the very sweet record of 33-0, having claimed his third straight Northwest Region championship with a fall over Cranberry’s Brayden Crocker in the finals.
All went well in his opening PIAA match as he pinned Logan Green of Pennridge in 3:49. But then the towering State High grappler experienced a perfect storm in his quarterfinal bout: the combination of internal stress and an opponent who wrestled with speed and abandon. It was a Cole-fired battle when Cole Urbas met Northeastern High School’s Jameel Coles, holder of a record of 40-1, but Urbas was definitely tight. “I could see it in his warmups,” recalls his dad, Ed Urbas. “I could see his stiffness, rigidity. I could see the holding back.”
Things got tougher when the quicker Northeastern wrestler Coles secured the opening takedown. “I never felt like I was going to win the match after that first takedown,” says Urbas. “It was uphill.” Indeed, Coles used a reversal and a four-point takedown/predicament to claim an 8-2 lead at the end of two periods.
But then the State High athlete showed his never-say-die attitude, the kind of fortitude that young men gain from the crucible of wrestling. Urbas rallied brilliantly and got to within one point of Coles when the buzzer ended the bout at 8-7.
Immediately after that defeat, he had to somehow shake off the disappointment (“I was very emotional,” says Urbas) before consolations began one hour later. State College’s head coach, Ryan Cummins, was not surprised to see Urbas pin his opponent, Hampton High School’s Justin Hart, in that bout.
"He’s a mentally tough kid,” said Cummins. “He bounces back, he’s resilient.”
Added Cole’s younger brother, Lance, a sophomore with a bright future for State High’s wrestling team, “After his quarterfinal match he was really down; we all were. But he put it behind himself fast. I was really proud that he was ready to wrestle again, to keep fighting.”
Urbas continued to fare well in consolations, defeating his next two opponents by a combined score of 15-0 before losing his last consolation match to Thomas Jefferson High School’s Max Shaw. Anyone who doubts the competitive intensity of the PIAAs should note that Shaw finished his season at 38-1 in third place; Urbas concluded his at 37-2 in fourth.
Enjoying a post-season trip to Penn State’s Berkey Creamery are, from left, Lance, Ed the bicyclist and Cole. (Photo by Bill Horlacher)
The wrestling journey of Cole Urbas and his brother, Lance, began when the family got a flier in the mail that advertised youth wrestling. Their mom, Jennifer, didn’t know a lot about wrestling and so she said to Ed, “You should take the boys to that; it looks fun.” Her husband, a regular on North Allegheny’s state championship team of 1987, didn’t tell her all that was in store. But he thought to himself, “If this starts, it’s never going to end. You don’t just do it for something to do.”
Mom and Dad Urbas did register their boys for wrestling and Ed remembers saying to them, “We’re going to wrestling practice tonight!” And he’ll never forget the response he got from Cole, 6-years-old, and Lance, 4-years-old: “What’s wrestling?”
Indeed, Ed and his little guys went to State College’s old Fairmount Avenue school that evening and found their way to the mats in a gnarly basement that could have provided a backdrop for “Rocky.” Although Lance wasn’t quite sure about this new activity, Cole loved it right away. Not just the wrestling but also that sport’s inevitable companion. That’s right, dodgeball.
Alas, skinny Cole wasn’t anything special on the mats. “The best thing I can tell you,” says Ed, “is that he was not good. He was not good his first year, he was not good his second year, he probably wasn’t good his third year. It wasn’t until age 9 or 10 that he got to the average point. So I’d just say, “Hey, it’s not about the competition; it’s about having fun and learning to be tough and making friends.”
Slowly but steadily, Cole began to show some real potential. By eighth grade, says his dad, “He finally grew into his body.” He qualified for the Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling tournament, made his way to the semifinals and ultimately paced fifth. Then, in ninth grade, he fought his way into State High’s varsity lineup and posted a 17-8 record. Amazingly, he came within an eyelash of competing at the PIAAs, losing 4-3 to a senior in the regional bout where a win would have sent him to Hershey.
Seventh-grader Cole Urbas claims a victory for the State College Junior High team in 2014. (Photo by Jennifer Urbas)
COMMITMENT & SACRIFICE
As the Urbas boys grew in skill and in wrestling appetite, Ed guided them in gradual steps of increased commitment. During their middle school years, they wrestled only from November to February and participated in just one summer camp. But as they moved into high school, they increased their off-season wrestling (including freestyle) and added more camps, more weightlifting and extensive involvement with clubs — especially the M2 Training Center, operated by former Nittany Lion star David Taylor.
Although Lance had to skip wrestling this year because of a football injury, Cole pushed himself through an rigorous weekly regimen: high school workouts five afternoons per week plus Saturday morning; club workouts three nights per week; weightlifting two to three times per week; and of course, competing at high school events or open tournaments. Even on a snow day when school was cancelled, he would find a place to lift weights, practice or both.
Some people might criticize the intensive approach to a sport as “over the top.” But to Cole it was simply a matter of following the challenging course that he chose. “It’s just like breathing,” he says. “It’s just life.”
Ed and Jennifer reflect on the sacrifices and rewards surrounding their sons’ wrestling careers. (Photo by Bill Horlacher)
Those who speak of wrestling’s challenges normally mention cutting weight, but that was not among the sacrifices made by Cole or Lance. Ed remembers gaining 17 pounds in just three days after his 1987 high school season, and he says, “I was not going to let these boys cut weight. We lift weights year round so they have the strength to wrestle a weight class up.” Cole actually must eat extra — 4,600 calories per day via six meals — so his naturally lean body won’t get too light for him to effectively compete.
Though the Urbas boys don’t cut weight, they have made many other sacrifices along with their parents. Going on a family vacation during spring break? Not a chance — that’s when PIAAs are held. Sleeping over at their buddies’ homes? Yes, but only during part of the year. “I don’t let that occur during wrestling season,” says Ed, “because you usually don’t get a solid night’s sleep and then your body is compromised and you get sick.”
How about the boys going on vacation with a friend’s family? It depends on the schedule. “Last year,” recalls Ed, “during the Fargo Nationals in July, Cole’s buddies called him from the beach and they were having a blast. I could see it was burning him on the inside. And that was a tough one for me because I really do want them to have fun.”
Ten-year-old Cole poses for a 2011 photo with Penn State superstar David Taylor. (Photo by Jennifer Urbas)
DOING IT HIS WAY
Cole Urbas scores high in categories like discipline and hard work, but that doesn’t mean he’s some kind of robotic figure. Quite the contrary. As I discovered in a recent conversation with the three Urbas men, he’s all kinds of fun. A silly grin combines with a pair of thoughtful eyes, and you get the feeling you could discuss anything with Cole… from Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to old Three Stooges movies.
As a State College High School alum (Class of 1970), I found myself thinking, “He’s such a great representative of our high school.” And I’m not the only one to think that way. Chris Weakland, State High’s athletic director, says this: “He never has an aura of being somebody bigger than who he is. He maintains a humility and a hunger to be a better student, to be a better friend, to be a better teammate, to be a better wrestler.”
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Urbas’ personality is his freedom to be himself. Ask his parents, his brother or Coach Cummins to mention Cole’s funniest little quirk, and they’ll all describe his napping at a wrestling tournament. As his dad describes it, “He will bring his blankets along to a tournament and he’ll take a nap with his Pillow Pet—a brown stuffed dog with a tongue and little fluffy paws.” As Lance puts it, “It’s funny to see this huge, 195-pound pretty-much-man in a dark corner of a room, cuddled up with a Pillow Pet while all these wrestling whistles are going off nearby. He doesn’t care what other people think about him; he just sticks true to himself.”
Ed Urbas celebrates after a 2008 youth tournament with Lance, 6, and Cole, 8. (Photo by Jennifer Urbas)
THE REAL GOAL FOR COLE
Although Cole was certainly shooting for a state championship, he and his family members all stressed repeatedly that they had a bigger and better objective in mind. And he verbalized that again while talking to his dad after the quarterfinal defeat in Hershey.
The conversation began with a comment from Ed: “You know there are a lot of great wrestlers who come here and don’t become state champions.” And Cole replied with his perspective: “Well, Dad, being a state champ would be really great, but we didn’t get into this for me to become a state champ. We got into this to learn to be mentally tough and to learn how to deal with life.”
Urbas is not the only great wrestler to appreciate his sport’s character lessons. There’s something that’s both humbling and exhilarating about performing in the middle of a mat with a tough opponent and no teammates to blame for defeat. The following three state champs from State High were more than ready to offer their encouragement to Cole as he shrugs off his Hershey experience and preps for college.
Dave Joyner, PIAA heavyweight champ in 1967, who later became an All American football player at Penn State, a second place winner at the NCAA wrestling tournament and an orthopedic surgeon. Winning the title was extremely exciting in the moment and continues as a testament to my coaches all through high school. I feel fortunate to have had great coaches then and beyond to guide me and help establish a work ethic and a “never give up” attitude. They also established the ethical pursuit of goals that was, and is, the foundation for all things. Looking back, there hasn’t been a day go by when those lessons of ethics, commitment and work haven’t made me a better person. I lost many times early in my career and with learning from those defeats came victories. I have suffered defeats in life, as well. Wrestling is a metaphor for life and I learned that while you may go down seven times, what really matters is that you get up an eighth time!
John Sefter, PIAA heavyweight champ in 1974, now an orthopedic surgeon in State College. Winning the state wrestling title was a huge boost to my confidence which propelled me forward into the challenges of college and beyond. Meanwhile, a completely different emotional and educational experience comes from the invaluable lesson of picking yourself up after a wrestling defeat. Other than my faith in God, the ability to persevere after a loss is the most important learned lesson in my journey through life.
Scott Pifer, PIAA 119-pound champ in 1983, son of Ron Pifer and now a firefighter in Fairfax County, Virginia. I could have possibly been a four-time state champ, but I can also tell you that I could have walked away from high school never having won a state title. You do a lot of work to get yourself ready but a bad call, a bad day or a good day on the other guy’s side can change the whole thing. When you come away with a win it means a lot to everybody in your circle because it takes so much commitment to getting you there. But it’s more about the process than the end result. I feel bad that Cole didn’t win, but obviously he learned to work hard and to get rewards that go well beyond wrestling. And he’ll carry those with him for the rest of his life.
AND HE’S OFF TO PENN...
So, where to now for Mr. Cole Urbas? The combination of his wrestling prowess and academic strength brought lots of collegiate opportunities. Penn State talked to him, of course, and offered a non-scholarship opportunity to wrestle. And he heard from State High alum Rob Koll, a PIAA and NCAA champ who is Cornell’s head coach. Pitt came calling and so did North Carolina State — the campus home of former club wrestling friends from Lewistown, Hayden Hidlay and Trent Hidlay. But the University of Pennsylvania captured Urbas’ heart because of its presence in Philadelphia, its excellent coaches and its elite bachelor’s program within the Wharton School of Business. Says Ed, “Never in my life did I think I would have a son who would even be considered for the Wharton School of Business. They accept 2 percent of their applicants.”
Although he’ll be focused on his academics and his later-in-life direction, Cole remains hungry for future wrestling challenges. One of eight Penn recruits who will arrive in Philly next fall, Urbas says his class would like to help the Quakers move up in their league (the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association) and in the NCAA tournament. And, to be honest, he wouldn’t mind earning an NCAA individual title.
Urbas will certainly leave State High with a sense of accomplishment and the best wishes of his teammates and coaches. “He’s a great kid,” says Cummins. “He’s put in a ton of work, and he’s definitely getting out of it what he’s put into it. Now he gets to go to Penn and wrestle. It doesn’t get much better than that. High school wrestling is done, but now he moves on to college and we couldn’t be happier for him.”
Cole Urbas after claiming the fourth place medal at the 2019 PIAA Championships. (Photo by Emily Rose)