The Giant Center is the current home of the PIAA state wrestling tournament.
By John Gillis
Beginning with its inaugural event 75 years ago, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) state high school wrestling tournament has been held in a wide variety of venues, and today is held in the state-of-the-art Giant Center in Hershey.
On March 18, 1938, the PIAA hosted its first state high school wrestling tournament in the Recreation Building on the campus of Penn State University. The PIAA asked Penn State University head wrestling coach Charlie Speidel to serve as tournament director. In that inaugural tournament, 78 wrestlers in 10 weight classes representing 27 high schools competed for state titles.
Among the participating teams that year was Clearfield High School, under the direction of legendary coach Art Weiss. In 1991, Weiss received the ultimate recognition that can be given to anyone involved with high school sports or performing arts activities when he was inducted into the National Federation of State High School Associations’ National High School Hall of Fame.
|PIAA Executive Director Robert Lombardi.
After nine years in the Recreation Building, the tournament was held in four different locations over the next five years, before returning to the Recreation Building in 1952.
After 17 years in the Recreation Building, the tournament shifted back and forth from that facility and the Farm Show Arena in Harrisburg for 10 years before landing in a new permanent home.
In 1979, the PIAA moved the tournament to Hersheypark Arena in Hershey, which it called home for the next 24 years. In 2003, it moved to its current site ‑ the opulent 10,500-seat Giant Center.
Opened in 2002, the aptly named Giant Center contains 306,000 square feet of space in the main arena and the ceiling is an even 100 feet high. In addition to the 7,700 seats in the lower level and the 2,800 seats in the upper level, the Giant Center offers premium seating in the form of 688 club seats and 40 luxury suites. It is home to the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League, and it also hosts concerts, WWE wrestling and other events.
However, for the high school student-athletes participating in the PIAA state wrestling tournament, the Giant Center provides an outstanding venue unmatched by anything that they likely will compete in during their high school careers or beyond if they are fortunate enough to compete at subsequent levels.
“The Giant Center has an exceptional staff that makes the ‘Road to Hershey’ and hosting of the PIAA wrestling championships a goal for every Pennsylvania wrestler,” said PIAA Executive Director Dr. Robert Lombardi. “There is nothing like being on the floor of the Giant Center facing your opponent with the eyes of the whole state upon you. It is one of the best tournaments we have from both statewide and national perspectives. The quality of the tournament from top to bottom is fantastic.
“Hershey has been awarded the bid for the wrestling championships based upon the package they have put together that is mutually satisfying. The tournament is televised statewide on the Pennsylvania Cable Network.”
The task of administering the PIAA state wrestling tournament is indeed a challenging one that requires a huge team effort from many knowledgeable and experienced individuals. One such longtime tournament administrator is Tom Elling, who is considered to be one of the pre-eminent experts on Pennsylvania high school wrestling. Elling was a standout wrestler at Moshannon Valley (Pennsylvania) High School and Lock Haven (Pennsylvania) State Teachers College (now Lock Haven University), coached wrestling at Lock Haven (Pennsylvania) High School, and is the author of the 356-page “Tom Elling’s Pennsylvania Wrestling Handbook.”
“I have been an administrator at both the Hersheypark Arena and the Giant Center,” Elling said. “I started as the official team scorer and evolved to financial manager to director of operations ‑ a fancy name for running the computer that produces the bout sheets and the advancement of the wrestlers in the bracketing.
“The Giant Center is spacious. It can hold six mats, whereas the Hersheypark Arena could accommodate just four. There is not a bad seat in the Giant Center. Both the Hersheypark Arena and the Giant Center are ice hockey facilities, so it has been a challenge over the years to prevent the mats from getting cold and hard. Things have evolved, so that has not been a problem. Appropriately, I am located in the penalty box. But, it affords me an up-close view. I can take photos and still run the computer. The biggest advantages of the Giant Center are its size and its functionality. We use the jumbotron to post results almost in real time. There are also much better lockers and showers in Giant.
| Tom Elling
“Through Dr. Bob Lombardi, we have also established a ‘Legends of Wrestling’ table in the foyer. A lot of the former coaches and wrestlers show up there for photos and autographs and just to chat with fans.”
Elling also has longtime memories and experiences in the Recreation Building.
“We in Pennsylvania call it ‘Rec Hall,’” Elling said. “It’s on the campus of Penn State University, and it’s still the site of the two-time NCAA national champion Nittany Lions’ dual meets. It was large enough to hold a big crowd, and that crowd was close to the mats. The newer facility [Bryce Jordan Center] at Penn State is much larger and the fans are further removed. It [Recreation Building] was a special place to take my Lock Haven wrestlers because of the tradition. My only state champion ‑ the late John Eichenlaub ‑ won his title there. He was a member of the first Dapper Dan Classic Pennsylvania team to wrestle in Pittsburgh against the USA all-stars. [Olympic champion wrestler] Dan Gable was at the very first event.”
According to Elling, there are several reasons why the sport of high school wrestling in Pennsylvania is so special.
“I think it is tradition,” Elling said. “The coaches are top-notch. The wrestlers are very aware of their status and standing across the country. It's kind of like the ‘New York, New York’ song ‑ ‘If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere.’
“The Pennsylvania fans are special, too. They understand the rules and they applaud all of the efforts of the wrestlers. Everybody there seems to know who is who across the state. That wasn't totally true in my coaching days.”
Over the years, many outstanding teams, coaches and wrestlers have competed in the PIAA state wrestling tournament. Among Elling’s choices for the top programs are Canonsburg Canon-McMillan High School, North Allegheny High School, Easton High School, Clearfield High School, Lock Haven High School, Waynesburg High School, Washington Trinity High School, State College High School and Central Dauphin High School.
As far as the top Pennsylvania high school wrestling coaches are concerned, Elling cited Weiss, Gus DeAugustino of North Allegheny High School, Steve Powell of Easton High School, Dave Crowell of Nazareth High School and Brian Hills of Reynolds High School.
“The PIAA has had 10 four-time state champions,” Elling said. “I would rank Cary Kolat of Jefferson-Morgan, Mike Johnson of Lock Haven and Jeremy Hunter of McGuffey as the top three wrestlers of all time, with a tie between Ty Moore of North Allegheny and Jerry Maurey of Clearfield for the fourth spot. Kolat and Johnson were undefeated in their careers; Johnson was never taken down in four years.”
John Gillis is the associate director of publications and communications of the NFHS. If you have any comments or articles ideas, please forward them to Gillis at email@example.com
||Exterior of the Recreation Center at Penn State.
||Interior shot of Recreation Center.