WINGATE - Bald Eagle's junior Jake Taylor has already gotten a taste of Hershey once, qualifying for the PIAA State Championship last year.
The taste was a little bittersweet.
"I know he wasn't exactly thrilled with the way his state tournament ended last year," BEA coach Steve Millward said. "Preparations for this year's tournament started last March, as he walked from the mat after his consolation loss."
Taylor found limited success, but took away something just as important as success.
"I want a chance at redeeming last year's performance," Taylor said. "I look forward to having the chance at competing for a state title."
Millward has seen the growth of the junior.
"Jake's approach to each match has been very calm and consistent," Millward said. "His ability to remain poised and focused throughout his matches certainly adds confidence in his wrestling. It allows him to concentrate on wrestling in the present."
For the present time, Taylor will get ready for his opening round match against Red Lion's Tyler Schell.
"Mentally, Jake has the approach to focus on one match," Millward said. "Physically and technically, he's put the effort into developing those areas for a long time. He just has to take the level approach that got him here. I haven't thought much about the 170-pound bracket. I know there are 16 tough kids at 170 and Jake happens to be one of the 16."
Sixteen tough kids indeed.
The top three wrestlers in the state reside in the top-half of the bracket.
Top-ranked Cody Wiercioch of Canon-McMillan is the likely quarterfinal opponent of Taylor - who is the third-ranked wrestler. Solanco's Connor Moran is the second-ranked wrestler and the path to the state finals would likely lead through him.
"I want to leave everything out on the mat," Taylor said. "I need to keep my offense going and not worry about the score. If I stay aggressive and wrestle smart, everything will take care of itself."
Joining Taylor in Hershey will be teammates Aaron Varner (195) and Nate Sharkey (220)
For junior Varner, the 195-pound weight class will begin with Devon Dhoble of Upper Dublin, ranked sixth in the state.
Varner and Bellefonte's Nick Shawley are on opposite sides of the brackets and likely wouldn't see each other until late in the tournament.
At 220, Eagle junior Nathan Sharkey also received a tough draw.
Sharkey will face Coatesville sophomore Mike Boykin in the opening round. Boykin has won 40 matches - with only one loss - this season.
"Aaron and Nate are excited and motivated," Millward said. "The reward for their work is exponential. All the extra workouts aren't so extra any more, they are fun."
Bellefonte's head coach Mike Maney knows a thing or two about the state tournament. In his time at Bald Eagle Area, Maney reached the top rung at Hershey. He knows what it takes to get there and what it means.
He sends a group of four wrestlers into the fire at the Giant Center.
"A lot of people set their goal to get to states," Maney said. "We know our four guys were going to get that. The goal is to place. All of them have the potential to leave Hershey with a medal."
Bellefonte senior Tom Traxler has been to Hershey before, and he has also experienced the podium stand.
"Tom has always risen to the occasion at the state tournament," Maney said. "I expect the same this weekend. He is looking to become Bellefonte's first four-time PIAA placewinner."
As a freshman, Traxler placed sixth at 112. As a sophomore, the Red Raider bettered his place, taking home fifth. Last year, he finished in sixth place again.
"Often times, guys will be satisfied getting to Hershey," Maney said. "I don't worry about that with Tom. He is a competitor. He likes to battle every day in the room. That approach is going to carry over well for him at Hershey. All the matches are going to be tough. Usually, in the first round, guys are timid. Tom knows he has to be aggressive, score the first points, and get on a roll early. He knows the environment and what to expect."
When looking at Traxler's bracket, he can expect a dogfight.
His preliminary opponent is Anthony DiEmidio of Pennsbury. The junior finished second in the Southeast Regional tournament.
If you look ahead, there is a possible matchup with Canon-McMillan's Conner Schram, who currently is ranked ninth in the nation by Intermat.
"Every match is tough," Maney said. "All the wrestlers there have earned their spot in Hershey for a reason. Tom has to wrestle his match, stick to the game plan, and control the things he can control."
Earlier this year, against Bald Eagle, Traxler became the ninth wrestler in Bellefonte history to reach the 100-win plateau.
He joins Robbie Weikel, Nate Lingle, Mike Reish, Tyler Fishburn, J.R. Brown, Shane Alterio, Mitchell Port, and Brad Grieb in this prestigious club.
Maney is hoping Traxler's leadership will help his teammates joining him in Hershey.
"I am sure the other guys will be asking Traxler about what to expect," Maney said. "Fortunately, for this group, they have been to big competitions. Whether it was in season (Powerade, King of the Mountain) or out of season - like Cadet and Junior Nationals, they have been there. I believe they are prepared for this tournament."
At 145, Leo Wortman will look to build off his recent Northwest Regional title.
"Leo needs to believe he can beat anyone who steps in front of him," Maney said. "He has the potential to surprise some people. He needs to believe in his offense and control the pace of matches. He has to be aggressive and not hold back."
Wortman opens the state tournament with Raymond Nicosia of Pocono Mountain East.
Returning state champion Mitchell Minotti of Easton is looking to defend his title and is located in the other half of the bracket.
"I believe Leo can end his career on the podium at Hershey," Maney said. "His journey isn't over yet. Getting to Hershey was a goal, but the journey ends on the podium."
Nicholas Shawley, fresh off his second place finish at the Regional tournament, will face Hunter Hatlee of Wilson in the preliminary round.
"Shawley is hard to wrestle," Maney said. "Any opponent will tell you that. Because of his style, he will give opponents trouble this weekend. A lot of people underestimate him. I am fine with this. Nick will need to wrestle, have fun and not think too much. I believe he was putting too much pressure on himself and thinking too much. We want to keep him relaxed and let it fly."
The top half of the 195 bracket is a tough draw for anyone. A potential second-round match-up awaiting the junior Red Raider is P.J. Steinmetz of Council Rock South, who is currently ranked second in the state.
Also in the top half is Central Catholic's Perry Hills. Hills is currently ranked first in the state.
"If Shawley is relaxed, he will be fine," Maney said. "He is a district champion and a regional runner-up, he deserves to be here."
Rounding out the Red Raider quartet is junior Garrett Poorman at 285.
"We want him to be aggressive," Maney said. "He has to set the tone from the first whistle. If he does that, he can compete with anyone down here. He spent this summer competing against some of the best in the country at Cadet and Junior Nationals in Fargo, N.D. He needs to control the offense."
Garrett Poorman will face Freedom junior Tyler Peerson in the first round.
Five wrestlers in the 285 bracket currently have one loss or none.
Wrestling at Hershey will start Thursday at 4 p.m.