On average, Jackson Gray eats three apples a day.
“I love apples. The yellow ones, especially,” he said of the Golden Delicious variety. “I think they taste good and are healthy.”
Of course, the fruit has kept the doctor away. But the Mt. Lebanon High School senior just may have great genes as well. His grandmother, Connie McCarty, is 92 years old.
Gray will put his genetics and healthy habits to the test at the Giant Center during the PIAA wrestling championships. He began his quest for a state title Feb. 22 when he went after his third section title.
A top four finish in the WPIAL and Southwest Regional tournaments, which will begin Feb. 27 at Canon-McMillan, will earn him that trip to Hershey for the state finals set for March 5.
“All I want to do is place at states,” said the 145-pound wrestler. “I know the weight is tough, but if I keep wrestling well, I can beat those guys that beat me this year.”
Heading into sectionals, Gray was 29-5. To avenge his defeats, Gray said he must match his opponents’ intensity.
Wrestling is a family tradition of sorts for Gray, who began competing at 6. His father, Chip, was a standout at Lebo in the early 1980s before competing for two years at Edinboro. His siblings, Turner and Kevin Kinyua, enjoyed success at Lebo before wrestling at American and Mercyhurst universities, respectively.
“My father was a youth coach,” Gray said. “I was all excited to wrestle. I remember that I wore my brother’s singlet to bed the night before my first practice. I really wanted to be like my older brothers.”
On Feb. 10, Gray pinned Davis Luedtke of Mars in 30 seconds for for his 100th career victory. On senior recognition night the following evening, Gray pinned Jake Patterson from Fox Chapel in 2:34 to exceed the milestone.
Before the Mars match, Gray said he was “nervous” throughout the day.
“Once I got out there on the mat though, I was ready to go,” he said. “When I got the pin, I was really excited.
Gray said he was proud to join Mt. Lebanon’s century club, which includes only Pitt wrestler Kellan, current Blue Devil Luke Stout as well as Nate Hoaglund, who now wrestles at Penn.
“I’m only the fourth one,” Gray said. “So, that’s really exciting. It definitely was a goal, but I knew it was going to be hard because as a freshman I only started half of the year.”
Gray worked hard to reach his objective. In addition to practicing every day, he puts in a morning workout. On Sundays, he practices at Quest against opponents like North Hills’ Sam Hillegas, who has has won two state championship.
“Guys like that have made me the wrestler that I am,” Gray said. “They have taught me a lot.”
Gray supplements his work sessions with time in the weight room. He lifts at least two times a week and maintains a strict diet.
“It’s hard particularly at the beginning of the season because it’s always around Thanksgiving and Christmas,” said the 17-year-old son of Bev Gray. “I’ve gotten used to it though. I’ll have a Chick-fil-A milkshake after states.”
Lebo coach Marc Allemang said Gray’s achievements so far are impressive.
“While he is still working towards his goal of qualifying and medaling at Hershey, Jackson has wrestled well his entire career. He has beaten a lot of talented wrestlers,” Allemang said. “He is a very focused kid and lives a good life.
“Jackson has been a big part of our team success these past two years,” he added. “You can count on him to wrestle hard and often times to pick up bonus points for us.”
Gray maintains a 4.1 GPA, and is a member of National Honor Society. He also performs community service through mission trips.
“Jackson is a good student. He works hard in class. He’s a great wrestler and a great person,” Allemang said of his wrestler who has a scholarship offer from Ithaca.
Gray also prides himself on being a role model for younger wrestlers.
“Mt. Lebanon wrestling has been my whole life. It’s been very important and means a lot to me. So I want to be a good role model for the younger guys. It can be scary, but I’ve been through it so I can help them get around those tough spots,” he said.