BY JEFF FALK
HERSHEY – The bright lights.
The big stage.
The appreciative audience.
Only this wasn’t some contrived drama. It was wrestling, as real as it gets.
It was a bleak day for Lebanon County competitors during Thursday’s opening of the annual PIAA Wrestling Championships at Hershey’s Giant Center. Had it not been for a couple of fortuitous forfeits, it would’ve been a disastrous one.
With a total of five state qualifiers – from three different local schools and across two classifications – in action, the County went a combined 2-8 in the prestigious event. The only saving grace for the locale were Annville-Cleona 113-pounder Matt Inman’s forfeit in the afternoon’s initial round of consolations at AA, and Cedar Crest junior 220-pounder T.J. Moore’s forfeit in the evening’s first round of consolations at AAA.
Surprisingly, three Northern Lebanon student-athletes – senior Colin Leonard, junior Brandon Breidegan and junior Nick Winters – saw their seasons come to an end when they each unceremoniously went two-and-out. The most disappointing exit was Leonard’s. A state medalist a year ago, Leonard’s splendid career was cut short by an apparent ankle injury in the first round of consolations.
“That was the first time that ever happened to us at this tournament,” said Annville-Cleona head coach Jerome Simon of Inman’s forfeit. “We caught a break. We lived to wrestle another day. We have an opportunity to come back and make something happen tomorrow. There’s nothing easy here. Any day you can advance is a good day.
“He (Inman) qualified last year and wrestled well,” continued Simon. “It can be a very intimidating environment. It wasn’t a nervousness. You just assume all 6,000 people are watching you, but in reality, only 50 are. Being relaxed is the most important thing. The competition is so high that a mistake will come back to haunt you. You’ve got to block everything else out.”
“This is the pinnacle,” said Northern Lebanon head coach Rusty Wallace. “Pennsylvania is the toughest wrestling state in the country, so this is the toughest tournament in the country. We see a lot of these kids at tournaments (during the year). When you get here, there’s some familiar faces.
“I wanted them (his wrestlers) to enjoy the experience of being here,” Wallace continued. “You just want them to compete to the best of their ability. You don’t want them to walk away saying ‘I wish had done this or that.'”
Inman, the fifth-place finisher out of the Southeast Regional, fell 10-2 to Reynolds’ Cole Bayless in his preliminary bout at 113 pounds. But when he reported for his first-round consolation bout, Inman was surprised to learn that his opponent, Andrew Best of General McLane, had been scratched because of an apparent concussion.
“His mindset going into his second match was he was ready to go,” said Simon of Inman, who will meet East Pennsboro’s Adam Jacob on Friday morning in the second round of consolations. “He was fired up. He was ready to wrestle. Now we want to carry that mindset over to tomorrow.”
Inman was very much in his match with Bayless, down just 4-2 in the middle of the second period. But Bayless posted the last six points of the bout to win going away.
Inman’s record this season now stands at 32-15.
“His goal coming in was to be on the (medal) podium,” said Simon. “His first match was a style problem, in that the other wrestler was long and lanky. When he did get deep in his shots, he couldn’t finish. But he was definitely disappointed after his first match.”
Leonard, a 132-pounder who entered the fray with a 37-6 mark and as the third-place finisher out of the Southeast Regional, was forced to forfeit his senior season with 48 seconds left in the middle period, when he was injured on a hard take-down by first-round-consolation opponent, Eli Tuckey of Biglersville. Leonard had surrendered the initial point of the bout seconds earlier, in the form of an escape.
“I feel bad for Colin,” said Wallace. “To end on an injury is tough. But it’s something we know too well. It’s a tough pill to swallow. But he’s going to wrestle in college.”
During a 10-8 setback at the hands of Phillipsburg-Osceola’s Chase Chapman in the first round, Leonard fell behind early and never led. He did pull to within 6-5 of the lead early in the third period, but Chapman scored four of the next five points to open a 10-6 advantage.
Leonard is the only Lebanon County wrestler to ever qualify for states four times, and he closed out his career with nearly 160 victories.
“Colin’s been a big part of our program,” said Wallace. “He’s a guy the younger kids look up to. He lives on the mat. He takes it to heart. You need guys like that to rub off on the other kids in the program.
“Last year was last year,” Wallace continued. “I always hate the word ‘defending’. You’re not defending anything. No one is ever going to take that away from you. Every kid here is phenomenal. You’ve got to show up and wrestle your best. There’s kids who wrestle their entire lives and never make it here.”
For Winters and Breidegan, qualifying for states was an accomplishment in and of itself. Both gained the type of experience that can not obtained anywhere else.
At 152 pounds, Winters’ season came to an end when he was pinned at the 2:07 mark of his first-round consolation bout with Cael Crebs of Montoursville. Winters had been relegated to the consolation bracket by a 13-0 loss to North Star’s Alec Supanick in the preliminaries.
The sixth-place finisher out of the Southeast Regional, Winters concluded his campaign with a 32-16 overall mark.
“I think it’s important to understand Nick Winters’ story,” said Wallace. “He was not a varsity wrestler as a freshman. He qualified for districts and went 0-2 last year. And this year, he qualified for states. That’s how much better you can get in a year. He’s my poster child for off-season stuff.”
Breidegan endured a tough 3-2 loss to Jimmy Gwyer of Beth-Center in the Class AA pigtails at 120 pounds, after recording the initial take-down of the bout. His season came to an end when he was decked by Amonn Ohl of St. Joseph’s at the 2:02 mark of their match in the first round of consolations.
Breidegan, the sixth-place finisher out of the Southeast Regional, went 36-16 in 2018-19.
“Brandon and Nick were a little out gunned,” said Wallace. “But they had phenomenal seasons. They got experience as underclassmen, and they got to see what it’s all about. That experience is huge. Now they don’t just expect to get here. They want to go a step further.”
During the Class AAA evening session, Moore, the third-place finisher out of the South-central Region, dropped his 220-pound opener, 3-2 to Paolo DiSanto of Plymouth Whitemarsh. Following a score-less opening period, Moore fell behind 3-0 in the second, and despite a pair of escapes, couldn’t make up the deficit.
But Moore moved on to the next round of consolations when Conestoga’s Paul Pelham forfeited. On Friday afternoon, Moore, now 37-9, will take on Dillon Ferretti of Hempfield in an attempt to keep his season going.
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