BY JEFF FALK
HERSHEY – It is one of the most elusive prizes in all of Lebanon County sports. When you consider how many the locale has captured over the years, it really puts a certain historic perspective on how difficult it is to earn a state wrestling medal.
That alone makes Colin Leonard a rare breed, because yesterday he joined that exclusive club.
On Saturday afternoon at Hershey’s Giant Center, during the final day of the annual PIAA Class AA Wrestling Championships, Leonard did more than simply settle for an eight-place medal in the 126-pound weight class bracket. The Northern Lebanon junior dropped a 12-1 decision to Jeremy Hanford of Warrior Run in their seventh-place bout.
“Today was important because I finally broke through the threshold,” said Leonard. “I’m a place-winner in the state of Pennsylvania. No one can take that away from me. It’s nice now knowing I can get here, and I did what I wanted to do. I really wanted seventh, but I’ll take what I can get at this point.
“Let’s put it this way: It’s a great feeling being up there,” continued Leonard. “But I wanted to get higher. I wrestled good enough to be on the podium, but I wanted to get higher. You’ve got to take what you can get.”
“You’re proud of him. You’re happy for him,” said Northern Lebanon head coach Rusty Wallace of Leonard. “It’s not everyday you get a medal on the state podium. We don’t have that many in the history of the program, you’re talking less than ten. Next year your goal can be to come back and win. Talent-wise, he’s good enough to win it.
“It’s just another chance to compete,” Wallace continued. “The only difference is if you win your last match or lose it. It’s another chance to gain experience here. Every little bit is fuel you can use going forward.”
Against Hanford, Leonard fell into an early hole and spent the entire bout exploring different ways to dig out of it.
Hanford parlayed a take-down 20 seconds into the match into a three-point near-fall. and a 5-0 lead heading to the second stanza. Leonard may have been caught a little off-guard by Hanford’s early volley.
“I went for something,” said Leonard. “He (Hanford) went under-hook and took me to my back. He overpowered me a little bit.
“My first thought was: ‘I need to get to the bottom, get to my feet and get something going on my feet’,” added Leonard. “But I struggled to do that. When I got down 5-0, I was a little shocked. I had a couple of things running through my mind. I got rocked one time. But when I got down, I knew I had to do something.”
“He was just a little out-gunned,” said Wallace. “That kid was on him from the get-go. We never really found our rhythm. We never fell into that groove.
“At that point, you just want to keep wrestling,” Wallace added. “You go hard for the whole match. You try to create situations where you can score points. You don’t worry about the score and keep wrestling.”
Hanford added to his lead with a second-period escape and take-down. It was 10-0 in the third period when Leonard managed to come up with an escape.
“I’ve just got to continue to work hard in the off-season,” said Leonard. “Put in the hard work in the wrestling room and then try to find the best competition. I want to make my teammates better so we can have more guys on the podium. It’s amazing to be in the position I am right now. It’s going to drive me to work harder.”
Overall, Leonard went 2-3 at the PIAA Championships and 48-9 this season.
As a group, the five Lebanon County competitors who qualified for states were a combined 3-11.
“It’s a bunch of different emotions, all at once,” said Wallace. “You can’t say it’s a long season, because we never stop. But this is what you’re shooting for. There’s probably not another sport that’s so emotional, because it’s so personal. You get these kids when they’re five- or six-years-old, and you watch them grow up. You’re proud of who they’ve become.”
“For this season, the highlight for me was being in the wrestling room with my teammates,” said Leonard. “Having a good time getting here and being part of a team. We’re all like a family.
“Right before my match, I’m getting texts from my teammates saying, ‘Good luck,’” continued Leonard. “We like to joke around with each other. It’s fun being a part of a team, and it’s nice having a state medal. Only getting eighth makes me feel like I want to get better.”
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