BY JEFF FALK
HERSHEY – The truest test of a competitor doesn’t come in the face of victory or the thrill of a personal accomplishment. It comes during times of adversity and crisis, when everything is on the line.
The PIAA wrestling postseason is all about character.
Resiliency, thy name is Colin. Colin Leonard.
Friday’s middle day of the annual PIAA Class AA Wrestling Championships at Giant Center was an up-and-down emotional roller coaster for Leonard. But when it matter most, Leonard had plenty of character from which to draw.
The Northern Lebanon junior went 1-2, but that win – a bounce-back pin from an excruciating early morning loss – assured him of a state medal. Leonard will wrestle for seventh-place hardware in the Class AA 126-pound bracket on Saturday at 2 p.m., when the state wrestling postseason concludes.
“I would’ve said coming in that if Colin would’ve left without a medal, it would’ve been a disappointing tournament,” said Northern Lebanon head coach Rusty Wallace. “The difference between second and sixth is one point some days. To leave here with a medal as a junior is a great thing. I’m super happy for him. He works hard. He wrestles 12 months a year. He deserves it.
“I just feel like I could’ve done more and placed higher,” said Leonard, who’s making his third straight appearance at states. “But I got the main thing I wanted – a state medal. On the back of the medal it doesn’t say ‘the quickest pin’ or ‘the best wrestler’ or ‘the one who worked the hardest’. It just has a place.”
But one couldn’t help but think what could’ve been, in light of Leonard’s heart-wrenching 3-2 loss to Athens’ A.J. Burkhart in the morning’s quarterfinal round. With Leonard protecting a late 2-0 lead, Burkhart notched an escape with ten seconds left in the bout and then scored the winning take-down with five seconds remaining.
Leonard had assumed his 2-0 lead with a reversal 30 seconds into the third period. The bout had been score-less up until that point, thanks in part to Leonard’s ability to ride Burkhart out during the entire second period.
“He had a little bit of a brain lapse,” said Wallace of Leonard. “You’ve got to wrestle for six minutes. You can’t wrestle for five minutes and 55 seconds. If you do, someone’s going to take advantage of it. Now it’s about experience. Next year your goal can be to win it.”
“I wrestled 5:50 of that match,” said Leonard. “I got tired with 17 seconds left in that match. I was really upset. That’s when I knew I had to come back and do what I came here to do, and that’s place.
“I stood straight up,” continued Leonard. “I thought there was less time left than there was. And I wasn’t sure he (Burkhart) got that take-down.”
But in the 90 minutes Leonard had between the quarterfinals and the third-round of consolations, he regroup nicely.
Leonard came back to deck Valley View senior Brandon Judge, 17 seconds into the third period of their consolation match. In that one, Leonard executed a five-point move with 15 seconds remaining in the opening period.
“It was just a lot of mental preparation,” said Wallace. “A lot of times kids lose in tournaments like this and can’t recover. We have prepared for that. We’ve been at tournaments where our best kids don’t win. You’ve got to have a short memory. He didn’t dwell on the loss.”
“It was 15 minutes after the match that I forgot about it,” said Leonard. “You can’t change it now. It’s in the past. I lost and had to wrestle back. We’ve been battle-tested from tournaments. We want to get the best matches we can, so we can come here and place at states.”
Yet Leonard’s evening bout with Upper Dauphin’s Bronson Garber, in the fourth-round of consolations, didn’t go as well.
Leonard experience difficulties generating offense and fell 4-0, and into the seventh-place match. Garber logged a take-down 20 seconds into the opening period and supported that with a second-period reversal.
“He came out a little flat,” said Wallace. “In this tournament, you’ve got to be ready to go. He got behind early and it’s tough to come back.
“He’s (Leonard) a super nice kid,” continued Wallace. “He’s very responsible. Great in school. He’s kind of like a gym rat. He wants to be good. He’s always had the ability, but the mental aspect is something we worked very hard on. I think something clicked for him. I don’t think he had a loss since Christmas, going into regionals. He’s a kid you’re happy for when he has success.”
“I feel I could’ve done a lot better in this match,” said Leonard. “I came out flat-footed. I felt I looked sloppy. I was making a lot of mistakes. I wasn’t aggressive. When I’m not going forward, that’s when I make mistakes.”
Leonard is now 48-8 on the year.
For Leonard’s senior teammate Blaise Bressler, Friday morning marked the end of a season and the end of a career.
In the second round of consolations at 160 pounds, Bressler, 49-8, was blanked 3-0 by Shaun Gates of Burrell. Bressler just couldn’t get anything going offensively, after surrendering a take-down 25 seconds into the first period.
“He wasn’t 100 percent,” said Wallace of an illegal slam Bressler endured in Thursday’s first round of consolations. “But at the state tournament in March, everybody here is either banged up or sick. You’ve got to block it out, six minutes at a time. He showed up today. He wrestled hard. He felt good enough to go. It wasn’t for a lack of effort. It just wasn’t meant to be today.”
This particular tournament also represented the seventh straight year that Northern Lebanon qualified competitors for the PIAA Championships.
“In our area, it was you wrestled all year and hoped to get someone to states,” said Wallace. “We’ve been blessed the last couple of years to have some good student-athletes. We don’t take it for granted. It’s high school sports and it goes in cycles. You goal as a coach, you want to take kids and make them the best versions of themselves.”
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