Wrestling, if anything, is grueling.
Walk into any wrestling room, such as the one at Norristown, and you're smacked in the face with the palpable waft of sweat and exhaustion.
Wrestlers, such as Brett Harner and Shane Springer, are by turns working each other over, their clothes drenched, amid the thick, thick air; rolling, locking, breathing hard.
If they can endure the grind, the rewards could be plentiful.
Harner's philosophy: "If you're a state-caliber wrestler, why not practice like it?"
He should know. Two years into high school, Harner, a junior, has two PIAA Class AAA medals, placing eighth as a freshman and fourth as a sophomore.
He's just one of two Pennsylvania wrestlers in the Class of 2013 to have medaled at states in their first two seasons. It's all well and good, but it hardly matters if he doesn't get any better. Harner would be the first to agree. This year, he's thinking much bigger.
"Right now, the goal is simple: a state title," Harner said. "That's the only thing I'm really looking at right now."
Harner through two seasons: 101 wins, 16 losses; 51 wins by pin; a 152-pound Southeast Regional championship; two District 1 North gold medals; and the list goes on.
This year, with Norristown sporting upper-echelon talent in several weight classes, Harner has perhaps the ideal practice partner.
Springer, a two-time state medalist himself, transferred to Norristown after three years at La Salle, where he was the state runner-up as a sophomore and took fifth as a junior.
Springer's Norristown ties run deep. He came up through juniors with Harner. His younger brother, Mike, is a sophomore on the team. His father, Chuck, is the director of Norristown P.A.L., a youth wrestling program.
"I don't think he transferred. I think he came home," said Mark Harner, Brett's father and Norristown's head coach.
Springer, who will wrestle at 170 pounds this year, is ranked No. 1 in the state by PA Power Rankings. He and Harner, at 160 this season and ranked No. 4, provide each other with a familiar if challenging training partner, the kind that can help them take those coveted steps up the podium in March.
"It's nothing new. I've wrestled Brett since I was 6 - I've hated it since then," Springer said with a laugh. "Why do I hate it? He knows me so well, and I know him so well. It's not really fun."
Turns out that's a good thing. It forces the two to work on new techniques and makes nailing their preferred moves in real matches easier.
Meanwhile, Norristown, last season's District 1 runner-up in team duals, touts several other standouts. State medalist Zach Fuentes should dominate at 108 or 113, Larry Gordon is one of the area's better 182-pounders, and Mike Springer is coming off a remarkable, 37-pin freshman year.
The schedule reflects the talent.
The Eagles don't have any nonleague dual meets; Mark Harner instead opted to take the team to several well-regarded individual tournaments, such as Beast of the East and Powerade, two of the toughest in the country.
"High-level competition can really improve your conditioning. No matter what I do in this room, the kids aren't leaving bloodied and battered," Mark Harner said. "You go to a tournament, they're bloodied and battered. When a kid gets done a tough match . . . it takes them 20 minutes to get their breath back."
It's the type of work that Brett Harner wants and needs. Last year, when he reached the bronze-medal match and lost, he was admittedly content.
"I kind of felt like, well I'm here," Harner said.
Improvements won't come without obstacles. Harner is battling a pervasive injury to his right knee.
Last March, he sprained his anterior cruciate ligament during the week of the state tournament. In September, he sprained his medial collateral ligament at a preseason tournament. He has dealt for years with chronic bursitis, causing flooding around the knee, which must be drained.
There's still much to look forward to. Ranked second in his class with a 4.67 grade-point average, Harner is garnering college interest from Harvard, Princeton, and Brown. Duke and Penn are possibilities, too. Springer is still unsure of what college will bring.
One thing he is sure about? State gold. Norristown's last champion was Ricky Springman in 1997.
"No one goes there and hopes to get fifth or third," Springer said.
Added Harner: "Keep trying to get to a higher level where I haven't been before."
It won't be easy. Good thing they have each other.
Wrestlers and Teams to Watch
In alphabetical order
Matt Cimato, La Salle. The Drexel recruit is the early 145-pound favorite to win the PIAA title after taking bronze at 140 a season ago. With 124 career wins, he should surpass Joe Mazzi's school record of 148. Cimato went 52-4 as a junior. He's ranked No. 1 in the PA Power Rankings.
Josh DiSanto, Pennsbury. DiSanto has posted a remarkable 76-6 record through two years, losing to upperclassmen when the stakes were highest. Making the likely jump to 132 pounds, the junior will look to make serious runs at gold medals at major events.
Zach Fuentes, Norristown. Fuentes was 54-7 last season as a sophomore, surging to the bronze-medal match at states before suffering a major-decision loss. He'll jump to 113 this season.
Brett Harner, Norristown. Harner is one of just two wrestlers in the Class of 2013 in all of Pennsylvania to medal at states each of his first two years of high school. He led District 1 in wins as a sophomore (record of 56-8) and jumps from 152 to 160 as a junior. Chronic right knee problems are a concern.
Casey Kent, La Salle. Kent, who likely will wrestle at Penn in college, also looks to overtake Mazzi on the La Salle win list. He enters his senior season with a 126-26 career mark. Hampered by injury for much of his junior season (he still went 46-9), he has yet to show his best.
Corey McQuiston, West Chester Rustin. Hard-edged and workmanlike, McQuiston has one last shot at a state medal. He will wrestle at 120 a year after winning the 112-pound Southeast Regional. He has lost just eight times in two years and touts a 114-18 career mark.
Scott Parker, Pennridge. Parker showed serious potential last season as a freshman, wrestling to a 36-4 record and fifth place at the Southeast Regional. The next step is to qualify for the state tournament as a sophomore in the 106-pound division.
Billy Rappo, Council Rock South. As a junior last year, Rappo won the Class AAA state championship at 103 pounds. He went 43-2, also winning sectional, district, and regional championships. Preseason polls have Rappo ranked No. 1 in the state at 113 pounds, but it's more likely he will wrestle at 120.
Shane Springer, Norristown. Springer has medaled each of the last two years at the state meet, taking silver at 152 as a sophomore and fifth place last year at 160. He has transferred from La Salle to Norristown, where he will go at 170. He is ranked No. 1 in the PA Power Rankings.
Chris Yankowich, Germantown Academy. The senior, a Virginia signee, is a reigning National Preps champion, having won the 135-pound title. With realigned weight classes, he'll go at 138 or 145 for the defending Inter-Ac League champions. With a 94-37 career mark, he will easily surpass 100 wins.
Norristown (16-3 overall, 6-0 Suburban One American). In Fuentes (113), Mike Springer (138), Harner (160), Shane Springer (170), and Larry Gordon (195), Norristown has enough firepower to make a claim as one of District 1's best. But coach Mark Harner worries that his roster has some holes.
Council Rock South (20-4, 7-0 Suburban One National). The Golden Hawks lost some serious pieces, but South's program is one of the best in the state. Coming off a fifth consecutive District 1 North title, South hopes depth will help replace what it lost. Rappo will go for his second state championship, and Tim Riley (182) and P.J. Steinmetz (195) are other standouts.
La Salle (20-3, 8-0 Catholic League). Coach Richie Gebauer takes over for Pennsylvania Wrestling Hall of Famer Vic Stanley, who retired in March. Gebauer inherits a team that has won the last three Catholic League and District 12 titles. Explorers Matt Cimato and Casey Kent are Division I recruits.
West Chester Rustin (12-4, 7-0 Ches-Mont American). McQuiston (120), Steve Quinn (138), and Tyler Wood (182) are ranked highly in the state. Evan Harkins, at 132, also will be among the area's best. Rustin has won the last two Ches-Mont American titles and is the favorite for a third.
Owen J. Roberts (17-3, 9-0 PAC-10). The Wildcats boast top District 1 talent in various weight classes, including Adam Moser (145), Andrew Kinney (152), and Michael Lenge (170). OJR also welcomes two widely regarded freshmen in Derrick Gulotta and Demetri D'Orsaneo. D'Orsaneo won the 132-pound Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling state championship last year.
- Evan Burgos