Pennsylvania breeds high school wrestling champions in places like Easton, Clearfield and Canonsburg.
Now, you can add Port Richmond and Father Judge High School to the list.
On Saturday night, Judge junior Joe Galasso captured the 138-pound championship at the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) Class AAA Wrestling Tournament at the Giant Center in Hershey. He is the first high school wrestler from Philadelphia to win a state title.
“It’s the toughest state tournament in the country,” Galasso said.
High school wrestling is not nearly as popular in Philadelphia as it is in suburban and rural areas of Pennsylvania. Often, city wrestlers don’t get their starts until high school. By that time, many of their counterparts already have a decade’s experience.
The PIAA has been holding wrestling tournaments since 1938. The organization also sanctions state championships in many other sports.
Philadelphia Catholic and Public League schools did not join until more recently. The Public League joined in 2004, the Catholic League four years later.
Together, they make up the PIAA’s District 12.
Galasso, District 12’s first wrestler to win a state championship, hopes others will follow.
“I’m hoping everybody in D-12 gets inspired and changes their perspective,” he said.
Galasso played other sports and participated in karate until he started to wrestle at age 9. He got his start with the Junior Falcons and Police Athletic League programs, and now he’s a state champion.
“It’s a really exciting time for Philadelphia wrestling, the Police Athletic League, the Junior Falcons and Beat the Streets (a youth wrestling program),” said Judge coach Jim Savage. “I’m happy for our program. Joe Galasso put our team on the national map. Every Philadelphia wrestler should want to be Joe Galasso.”
Galasso, 17, lives on Edgemont Street, on the same block as Savage, a former wrestler and coach at North Catholic.
“They breed us a little tougher there,” Savage said.
“We always argue who the toughest guy on Edgemont Street is,” Galasso joked.
Galasso quickly emerged as a top youth wrestler and soon sought out tougher competition. He recalls practices at one club in Voorhees, N.J.
“I got the living snot kicked out of me by older kids,” he said.
But, as Galasso soon found out, facing good competition makes for a better wrestler down the line.
When it was time for him to select a high school, Galasso chose Malvern Prep. As a freshman, he went 41-6 and placed fourth at 125 pounds at the National Prep Championships.
However, it was an exhausting commute. Galasso would start his day at 5:30 a.m. by catching the SEPTA Route 60 bus to Kensington and Allegheny avenues. He’d take the El to Center City, then a train and another bus to get to Malvern. During wrestling season, he wouldn’t get home until 9 p.m.
For his sophomore year, he enrolled at Judge. He went 43-6 and took fifth at 132 pounds at the state tournament.
In the off-season, he took his wrestling skills to another level.
“I practiced fundamentals to perfect them,” he said.
Savage saw a difference.
“One thing Joe Galasso has is no fear,” he said. “He is very confident.”
Galasso finished this season 45-1 to improve his career record to an astonishing 128-10.
The one loss was an overtime setback to Benton (Pa.) High senior Zain Retherford, a two-time Class AA state champion and Penn State recruit who won a gold medal last August at the FILA Cadet World Championships in Azerbaijan.
The road to Galasso’s state title was not easy.
“I had the toughest draw in the bracket. I beat three medalists,” he said.
Galasso won by a 14-4 major decision in Thursday’s first round, then posted a 5-2 quarterfinal victory on Friday against Council Rock North’s John Dutrow, a Drexel recruit who eventually finished third. Galasso scored a takedown with four seconds to go to win his Saturday morning semifinal matchup with Franklin Regional’s Josh Maruca, who finished fifth.
In Saturday night’s final, he squared off with Central Dauphin’s Tyson Dippery, a Rutgers recruit who finished second in the state last year and third the year before.
The showdown went into overtime, and Galasso recorded a takedown 16 seconds into the extra session to clinch the championship with a 3-1 victory. He shook Dippery’s hand, the referee raised his hand in victory and the new champion jumped into his coach’s arms.
Galasso accepted his gold medal and stood on top of a podium as dozens of cameras flashed. He posed for more pictures with the other champions before heading back to his hotel.
When he walked into the Holiday Inn bar, wrestlers, coaches and fans were watching a replay of the championships on the Pennsylvania Cable Network.
“They all gave me a standing ovation,” Galasso said.
On the mat, Galasso is focused on his opponent. He didn’t realize until watching the television replay how excited the 7,000 or so fans got at watching a state championship match decided in overtime.
“I heard everybody going crazy,” said Galasso, who received a congratulatory call from Judge’s president, the Rev. Joe Campellone, the next day.
Galasso, of course, wants to be a repeat champion, and he’ll compete in off-season tournaments. One of the biggies is the Super 32 Challenge: Battle for the Belt in October in Greensboro, N.C.
The teenager will also be lifting weights and traveling anywhere he can get a good practice.
One of his favorite workout partners is Kennard-Dale junior Chance Marsteller, a three-time state champion who has mats in a converted barn at his York County home. He has no problem traveling to Marsteller’s home, even though it’s almost in Maryland, because he knows it’ll be a productive practice session.
Colleges will really begin to notice Galasso now. A strong student with a 94 average, his wish list includes Cornell, Penn, Princeton, Lehigh, Bucknell and North Carolina.
“Joe is just a tremendous kid. He’s worked extremely hard and really cares about his grades. His personality is infectious. I’m happy for him,” Savage said.
Galasso is grateful to his parents, Joe and Renee, for taking him to so many tournaments and practices over the years.
Next March, he hopes to win another gold medal. The work already has begun.
“I want to be staying on top of my game,” he said. “If I’m not at wrestling practice, I’ll be in the gym lifting.” ••
Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215-354-3034 or firstname.lastname@example.org