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Local Wrestlers Win Gold in Hershey

In adherence to the well-known saying, ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,’ the fruit lying in the backyard of Denny and Jennifer Harer’s home can be identified as ‘golden delicious!’

The couple’s offspring, sons Conner and Brandt, were the talk of Hershey and the state’s wrestling fans when the Montgomery duo walked away from Chocolate Town with gold PIAA medals draped around their necks. Conner, a senior, won his third consecutive state title with a hard-earned 4-3 decision over Cael Weidemoyer of Faith Christian at 160 pounds. Sophomore Brandt, a second-place finisher in 2023, stood atop the podium at 133 pounds, winning an intense 2-1 overtime victory over Bishop Mc Devitt’s Camden Baum.

Seeing his sons take PIAA gold as both their father and coach has been a most memorable season for Denny. An outstanding high school wrestler himself, he surpassed three hundred coaching wins and was enshrined in District IV’s wrestling hall of fame.

“When they are competing, I know them from both roles and am pretty good at knowing what they need to do. It can be challenging. There has to be a good balance. As a coach, when practice is over, you need to know when to shut it off. Then, when you go home, it becomes Dad time, and you don’t talk about wrestling.”

The wrestling family bond was on full display as the brothers achieved a dream of winning state titles together.

“We’ve dreamed of this since we were five to seven years old,” Conner revealed. “When Brandt won his match, my heart lit up. All the nerves calmed before my match because I was so happy for him.”

“There has always been competition between the two,” Denny Harer explained. “It’s insane. There have been fistfights and stitches in their head, but it’s clear how much they love each other. When Brandt won his gold medal, Conner was crying. He was going to be wrestling in three matches. We took him to the locker room to calm him down and get him back on track for his match. They are not only brothers, but they are also best friends.”

Conner’s three-peat capped a dominant high school career, breaking both the Montgomery and District IV record for career wins (191), capturing four sectional and regional titles, and completing two undefeated seasons.

Conner is heading to Rutgers University to wrestle collegiately and views his senior high school season as “the perfect year. This was my last ride, and I was able to do it with my brother.”

Brandt’s win not only erased his disappointment of last year’s second-place finish, but he did so with a perfect 54-0 record, surpassing 100 wins, putting him in position to chase down Conner’s current record.

“I’ve always dreamed of 100 wins, and now that I have 100, I’m going to try and get 200!”

In reaching the high school wrestling pinnacle, the Harers have shown dedication to their sport.

“Conner showed an interest in wrestling early, but we kept him off, and he didn’t start until he was seven,” Denny added. “Brandt started at five. We couldn’t keep him off the mat.

“They wrestle a lot throughout the year. They are also kids, so they do a lot of other stuff. They fish, they hunt, they ride four-wheelers, they hang out with their buddies. During the summer, they train for about an hour three times a week. Then they do what teenage boys do.

“In the days leading up to Hershey, we didn’t change anything regarding preparation. We kept it the same and the same patterns. Their mindset was gold medals or bust, and that is what they continued to work towards.”

Asked about their dietary regimen, the brothers differ.

“The boys are totally different when it comes to their diets. Conner details everything. He writes down what he eats and how he feels after he eats it. If it doesn’t make his body feel good, he won’t eat it again. At the state tournament, the weight limit for Conner was 163, and he weighed in at 158. Brandt is just the opposite. He will eat about anything, including peanut butter and jelly.”

While the road to Hershey has long been the destination in the Harer household, it’s been something they have done together.

“For Jennifer and me, it has been a journey. It is not always about accomplishments. It is about the journey. The boys have been successful in what they have achieved, but it is the journey to get them there that has made memories that will last forever.”

Year after year, Northcentral Pennsylvania produces some of the best wrestlers in the country, and 2024 was no different. Warrior Run sophomore Reagan Milheim and Central Mountain senior Luke Simcox both took home state gold in Hershey. Milheim won a 3-1 decision over Mason Barvitskie from Southern Columbia, winning the PIAA Class 2A 145-pound class. Not only was Milheim’s victory dramatic, but it was also redemptive, as Barvitskie had beaten Milheim earlier in the year. Milheim’s coach, Jeremy Betz, was also named PIAA Class 2A Coach of the Year, making Reagan’s victory a bit sweeter still. This is not the Milheim family’s first trip to Hershey. Reagan was a runner-up state champ in 2023, and his brother Cameron, an accomplished wrestler in his own right, took 6th this year at 152 pounds, his third state medal.

Simcox of Central Mountain beat Pierson Manville, State College, 4-1 to clinch his second consecutive state PIAA Class 3A title by winning the 145-pound class. This was the second time in two weeks that these athletes faced each other. The prior match took place at the Northwest Regional championship in Altoona, where Simcox beat Manville 1-0.

I was able to catch up with both the Milheim and Simcox families to discuss their seasons leading into Hershey, as well as their thoughts on tournament highlights.
Reagan Milheim interview:

Dave: Did you ever think you would win a state wrestling title as a sophomore?

Reagan: Yes. I set out this year with a state title in mind after taking silver last year in my freshman season.

Dave: What was your thought process going into this season?

Reagan: My thought process going into the season was to use every match as an opportunity to prove myself and what I’m capable of.

Dave: Was your training any different this year compared to last year?

Reagan: My training was really wasn’t different than any other year. I’ve been training year-round wrestling for six years or so. So, I just focused on getting better at wrestling at each practice.

Dave: The championship match was a 3-1 decision. What were you thinking going into the final period? Did your previous loss to Barvitskie factor into your strategy?

Reagan: In the third period, I knew I needed to get off the bottom quickly because Mason is very good on top, and in the past, I’ve struggled to get out of that position with him. After I escaped, I was looking for opportunities to score. I got in deep, close to the edge, and we got called back. With 20 seconds or so left, I got to another leg attack, got into a scramble, and came out on top with 2 points.

Dave: Did you think any of your matches would be that close?

Reagan: I don’t really think about how close matches are going to be going into the match. At the state tournament, everyone is tough, or they wouldn’t be there, so I just know I need to wrestle to score points.

Dave: Were you always confident about a win, or did you have any doubts?

Reagan: I wrestle every match confidently; I think that’s what sets me apart from a lot of my opponents.

Dave: How did it feel to be the first champion from Warrior Run since 2006?

Reagan: It feels good to know I ended the drought, and I plan to keep adding more.

Dave: Tell me about your thoughts as Reagan wrestled throughout the regular season.

Aaron and Trisha Milheim: Reagan was really fun to watch wrestle throughout the season. He works hard year-round on his wrestling. He’s dedicated, does the right things in his life, and has a winner’s mindset. Honestly, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’s as confident as he is when he walks on the mat. He did take a few losses during the season, but he didn’t let them faze him from his goal. They actually probably helped him focus on a few things to change in future matches.

Dave: What was it like watching Reagan in Hershey? Were you nervous, excited, both?

Aaron and Trisha Milheim: As his parents and a coach, watching Reagan in Hershey was great! As a family of multiple wrestlers, we’ve been to the state tournament multiple times and knew what to expect. In fact, Reagan was in the state finals last year as well and came home with a silver medal. It was really awesome to see him achieve his goal of being a state champion this year with our whole family there. Between all six of us, there was a combination of both nerves and excitement.

Dave: Did you have any doubts about Reagan’s success in winning the state title?

Aaron and Trisha Milheim: Reagan is focused; he’s a competitor. There are a lot of things that go into being prepared to compete at the state tournament, and Reagan lives that life. There were a lot of very accomplished wrestlers in his bracket that he would have to beat to accomplish this goal, but we had no doubt that he was capable; it just came down to him being able to execute. He’s known locally for not showing a lot of emotion and rarely cracking a smile during competitions. Watching him let out his emotions at the end was the best part.

Dave: You’ve raised other accomplished wrestlers. Please tell me about them.

Aaron and Trisha Milheim: We actually have four children: three sons who wrestle and a daughter who is proud of her brothers and has her own successes. Our oldest son, Kaden, placed 3rd twice at the state tournament. He is currently a freshman at American University on a wrestling scholarship, majoring in finance. Cameron, who is a junior in high school this year, is also a 3-time PIAA state medalist. He is also committed to wrestling at American University on a full athletic scholarship and plans to major in business with hopes of going into sports management.

Luke Simcox interview:

Dave: Did you ever think you would win back-to-back state wrestling titles?

Luke: I think you are always hopeful that you will win a state title. Then, when you finally win one, I think your ultimate goal is to go after another title. I knew this year would be difficult since I was wrestling up a weight class and going against some nationally ranked kids.

Dave: What was your thought process going into this season?

Luke: I really just tried to focus on getting better and improving my technique. I knew that I wouldn’t have to worry about my weight, so I just wanted to keep pushing myself to get better. Thankfully, I have a great support system with my Central Mountain coaches (Biff Walizer, Doug Buckwalter, Dylan Caprio, Mike Brown, and Steve Krouse) and my M2 Coaches (David Taylor, Mark McKnight, and Brad Pataky). I am fortunate to have some of the best teammates (Dalton Perry, Griffin Walizer, Aiden Kunes, Patrick Tarantella, and more) that I can train with each day in the mat room.

Dave: What was your training like this season?

Luke: My training this year was very different because of my shoulder injury, which really kept me from wrestling in all of the matches this season. I hurt it before King of the Mountain but injured it more during the Powerade tournament. After Powerade, I had to be selective about which matches I could wrestle. I really wanted to still be able to help my team out, so I only wrestled in the matches when my team needed me, and then I wrestled for the individual season as well. My coaches were great about only putting me in the lineup when needed. During my training, I had to focus more on technique and less on intensity. Our athletic trainer, Lindsay Dry, was really helpful, too. She would help me rehab my shoulder and try to strengthen it so I would be ready for the next competition.

Dave: The championship match was a nail-biter. What were you thinking when your headgear broke?

Luke: Actually, my headgear breaking didn’t really phase me. I was locked in and just focused on the match. I knew I had great coaches in my corner, and they would handle that part. At that moment, my only job was to focus on winning the match.

Dave: Did you have any expectations regarding your competitors?

Luke: I expected my matches to close. Pennsylvania is loaded with amazing wrestlers, and everyone is going after that title. I think most wrestlers will wrestle a little differently at States. I just try to focus on one match at a time and make adjustments when I need to.

Dave: How was your confidence level?

Luke: I think you have to believe you can win in order to win. I knew that it would be a very close match. Pierson Manville, who is a friend and M2 teammate, was ranked 1st in the nation for the entire season, so I knew it would be a tough match. Pierson and I have trained many times together at M2 and have been friends for many years. We were both aware of each other’s wrestling styles, so I think we both knew it would be a competitive match.

Dave: What was it like to have your hand raised?

Luke: Having your hand raised for your last match of your senior year is one of the best feelings. I knew I had trained hard since I was young, and it validated all of my hard work.

Dave: Tell me about your plans after you graduate. Career goals, major in college, etc.?

Luke, Next year, I will be attending and wrestling at UNC under head coach Rob Koll. UNC has an amazing coaching staff, and I am very excited to continue my wrestling career with them. I plan on mixing my love of athletics with law. I am excited for the next chapter to begin.

Dave: Tell me about your thoughts as Luke wrestled through the regular season.

Nichole Simcox: I thought he started the season really strong and confident. I knew he was wrestling up a weight class, but he welcomed the challenge and felt strong at that weight. I felt like he didn’t have to worry about cutting weight, so he could really just feel strong and healthy. However, my excitement changed in January when he injured his shoulder. I was anxious when he stepped out on the mat. I didn’t want to see him cause further injury to his shoulder, so I think that was always in the back of my mind.

Jesse Simcox: I thought he wrestled really well and was dealing with a couple of adversities. He chased the good competition and did all the right things, like dieting and lifting. After the injury, I saw him change his style of wrestling to compensate for it, but he dealt with it the best he could, and I was proud of him for everything he had to go through.

Dave: What was Hershey like this year?

Nichole Simcox: There are so many heightened emotions in Hershey, so I think it’s hard to really enjoy the moment until the final whistle blows in the last match. We are so fortunate to be surrounded by so many great people. We were there not just watching our own child, but we were watching and rooting for all of the wrestlers from Central Mountain. You end up having so many mixed emotions because you are excited for the ones who succeed, but your heart aches for the ones who aren’t reaching their goals. You just know that every single wrestler put all of their emotions, hard work, and sacrifices into their matches and battled hard to win that elusive State Title, so we wanted to see all of them reach that same goal.

Jesse Simcox: I always love watching Luke compete, win or lose. I am always nervous for Luke to compete as well, but the state tournament takes that to another level. I am a pretty emotional guy, so it makes it hard because I have coached many of those kids who were down there as well, and when some of them don’t do well, it’s hard; a rollercoaster of ups and downs and by the end of the weekend I am exhausted. Watching him win his 2nd state title was just as “sweet” as the first one. I am one of Luke’s biggest supporters, and he knows it, so watching him win was one of the best days of my life — twice!

Dave: Were you confident Luke would win the title?

Nichole Simcox: I don’t know if I had any doubts, but I knew the match could go either way. When you have the #1 nationally ranked kid (Pierson Manville) wrestling the #3 ranked kid (Luke Simcox), you know it is going to be a battle on the mat. Pierson and Luke have been friends for many years and have trained together at M2, so we knew it was going to be a rough match for both of them. Honestly, I think the best part was behind the scenes after the match when Pierson was joking around with Luke and Dalton Perry. All of these wrestlers battle from the start of the whistle to the final whistle of the match, but the friendships they create in between whistles are what stay with them for a lifetime.

Jesse Simcox: I had no doubts about him being capable of winning, but we know many guys in that bracket are also capable of winning as well. It’s the guy who puts the best tournament together on that given weekend. The guy who does all the right things from warm-ups and recoveries to eating and sleeping and all the other little things. He does it all right and has for a very long time when it comes to competitions, so I knew he was going to put himself in the best possible place to win.

Dave: I’m sure you are both proud parents. What was it like having both a son and daughter in the same grade and watching them flourish?

Nichole Simcox: Having two athletes that are both seniors keeps us very busy. We spend a lot of our time at wrestling tournaments or gymnastics competitions. Sometimes, we have to divide and conquer so both kids have one of us there to support them. I can count on one hand the number of athletic events that they didn’t have one of us there as support. We were both athletes, Jesse (wrestling) and me (soccer), so I think that we knew the underlying life lessons and values that sports can offer kids. Luke started wrestling when he was 3 or 4, so I knew I wanted Darbi to be able to start something she loved too while she was young. It didn’t take long to realize she had a calling for gymnastics. Giving them the opportunity to be successful meant that we also made a lot of sacrifices. It wasn’t just sports to us; it was a lifestyle.

Jesse Simcox: They are extremely supportive of each other, and it has been a blessing. They understand each other has their passions and always are at the others’ competitions when they can be. They also understand the commitment it takes to be successful and sometimes that they have to make sacrifices for each other. Nichole and I were going separate ways a lot of the time, and it was hard not being able to be at both places. However, watching them develop and grow over the years and putting themselves through uncommon situations that most teenagers are not willing to do is what makes them successful.

Dave: You also have an accomplished daughter who is into gymnastics. Please tell me more about Darbi.

Nichole Simcox: Our daughter, Darbi, is a 5th-year Level 10 gymnast at Dynamats Gymnastics in Muncy, PA. Level 10 gymnastics is one level below the Olympic level or the elite level. Unfortunately, PA only has three gyms that offer the elite program, so Darbi put most of her focus on training just to get better. Darbi is a 10x PA State Qualifier, 7x Region 7 Qualifier, and 3x National Qualifier (1x: Level 9 Eastern Nationals, 2x: Level 10 DP Nationals). Through this great sport, she has been able to travel across the US to compete in places like Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Louisiana. Darbi is undecided about where she will attend college, but she does plan on continuing her gymnastic career while obtaining a degree in criminal or abnormal psychology.

by Scott Lowery & Dave Bellomo