For Quakertown’s Collin Gaj, wrestling truly has been a family affair.
Gaj recently claimed gold at the PIAA state wrestling championships at Hershey’s Giant Center in the Class 3A 145-pound bracket. He was the first Panther to reach the top spot at the podium since Pat Flynn achieved the mark in 2007.
The sophomore finished the season with an unblemished 49-0 mark (30 falls) when he upset two-time state champion Mac Church of Waynesburg Central with a 5-1 decision. Teammate junior Mason Ziegler was the runner-up in the 121-pound weight class by a 4-0 deficit to Williamsport’s Cael Nasdeo.
Gaj hasn’t forgotten his roots.
“My biggest influence has been my family,” beamed Gaj, who has a 94-7 career record with 54 falls. “I don’t think anyone was happier for me than my dad. My parents (Bryan and Jen) have done a lot for me to get to this point in my wrestling career. They’ve both sacrificed their personal lives to take me to practices and tournaments.
“I’m beyond grateful to have such a great family that loves and cares about my goals and successes.”
Gaj also has been appreciative of the support from head coach Kurt Handel and his staff.
“The coaching staff at Quakertown is truly something special,” he added. “I have never seen a staff of coaches who care more about a group of kids. Every time I step on the mat, I know they have my back.
“Everyone gets nervous, and I think that’s part of being a competitor. It comes down to how you deal with the pressure, and my corner always helps me calm my nerves. Winning the Escape the Rock tournament was a good feeling, but this just feels a little bit sweeter.”
Ziegler, who finished the year with a 45-5 mark with 26 falls (117-15, 65 falls for his career) credited his father, Dan, for his rise to the top.
“The biggest influence on me has been my dad,” said Ziegler. “He helps me with everything physically, mentally and technically.
“It was a great experience to be in the finals, and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like that. I thought my opponents were tough, but I wasn’t anxious when I wrestled them.”
Handel has relished the family atmosphere, and support for one other. His team finished sixth overall in the Class 3A bracket. The previous week, Quakertown finished first as a team in the South East Class 3A Regional.
“This was a phenomenal weekend for us,” stressed Handel. “We just have a great group of wrestlers who really care about each other.
“There were a lot of ups and downs all year, but they never stopped working. As a coach, that’s all you can ask for. Collin and Mason reached the top of their class, and Mason lost a tough one. But these two guys have been working together since seventh grade.
“We had other guys like Calvin Lachman, Zach Borzio, Gavin Carroll and Ike Williams, who were very close to moving on to the final round.
“All of these kids have worked together. It was a great run this season, and we are only losing one senior (Borzio) in our lineup. These guys are young, and they will be hungrier next season.”
Other local wrestlers who medaled are Central Bucks West freshman Chris Dennis, who was sixth; Council Rock North sophomore Eren Sement (third, 127); Council Rock South junior Bekhruz Sadriddinov (fifth, 160); and Pennridge sophomores Colby Martinelli (third, 107) and Talan Hogan (sixth, 172).