FRANCONIA >> Most eyes were on the center mat.
Sure, there was plenty of drama in the championship finals at the South East AAA Wrestling Regional Saturday at Souderton High School.
But for the highest stakes? Mat No. 3 was the place to be.
There’s glory in a top-of-the-podium finish, a spot 14 of the region’s finest ascended. But by the medal round, those 14, their fellow finalists and every third- and fourth-place finisher had already achieved their season’s top objective: to qualify for the PIAA Championships.
The 28 individuals on mat No. 3 weren’t as fortunate. Those 28 were left to scrap for fifth place and, most importantly, the last of five qualifying places for next week’s state tournament.
Win and you’ve achieved your ultimate goal. Lose and your season’s over.
How’s that for stakes?
Every sport has its elimination games. But wrestling alone manages to find an unparalleled brightness of the spotlight: one-on-one, six minutes, dream vs. dream.
Not only that, to find yourself in that match means you lost your last outing in the consolation semifinals. Instead of nursing your wounds you get a couple hours to compose yourself, reclaim your confidence so you can step back on the mat and put everything you’ve done in the last three months entirely on the line.
“You have to overcome all those thoughts in the back of your mind: What if I don’t get it? What if I don’t wrestle the best I can?” Methacton senior Brendan Marion said. “You just have to hope all your training and how hard you’ve worked — ever since I was 5 years old I’ve been working up for this moment — will carry you through.”
Methacton’s Marion found himself carrying the dream of two. And Boyertown’s David Campbell in many ways always takes the mat for two.
Marion and Campbell were among the nine Pioneer Athletic Conference wrestlers relegated to the high stakes fifth-place match. The two, plus Owen J. Roberts’ Cole Meredith (138), Boyertown’s Chris Berry (152) and Upper Perkiomen’s Jacob Folk (160) came through when it was all on the line, making plans for themselves Thursday when the PIAA Championships open at the Giant Center in Hershey.
Earlier on Day 2 of the region’s final hurdle on the way to Hershey, Marion was set to follow close friend and classmate Bryce Reddington onto the mat.
Reddington entered the day 35-0, a champion at 145 at the Pioneer Athletic Conference and District 1-AAA West levels, and on his way to a third trip to the state championships. Thirty-seven seconds into his semifinal with Coatesville’s Brent Windle that was all in the past.
Reddington suffered a broken leg, his season — and scholastic career — cruelly ended just when it was reaching its crescendo.
It left Marion to carry the torch for the two of them.
“It lit a fire in me,” Marion said of seeing Reddington injured. “We’ve been friends ever since we were born. My dad and his dad grew up together on the same street so pretty much since birth we’ve been friends.”
Marion beat Owen J. Roberts’ Jason Zollers 9-2 in the second round of consolations — the round where his junior campaign ended — but fell to Pottsgrove’s Ryan Finn, 3-2, to be relegated to the do-or-die fifth-place match.
Bidding for his first trip to Hershey, Marion found Reddington in his corner, fresh out of the hospital and ready to toughen up and inspire his friend.
“He gives the hardest high-fives ever — I kind of don’t like giving them to him because they hurt so much — but then he said, ‘Go out there and let’s get this. I can’t get it so you’d better go get it,’” said Marion, whose face is filled with the cuts and scrapes that exhibit how grueling the wrestling season is. “That really inspired me to go out there and do what I did.”
Marion pinned Pennridge’s David Blanchard in 2:48, the smile on his face matched only by the one on Reddington’s as they embraced right as Marion came off the mat.
“It’s everything I dreamed of,” Marion said.
He earned his way to a place he’s prepared for for years, thanks largely to Reddington.
“I’ve been up to Hershey a couple times to stay with (Bryce when he was competing in states), to get that experience of going up there in hopes of that one day I might be there and already have the feel for it,” Marion said.
David Campbell didn’t need to dream of states — he was there as a junior last season when he went 38-13 and was fourth at regionals. Everything had gone to plan in the postseason — he won the 120-pound bracket in the PAC and District 1-AAA West — until running into eventual finalist Aidan Burke of Council Rock North in the quarterfinals Friday night, a 7-3 setback.
Instead of stumbling, Campbell got a lift from twin brother Jakob, the eventual regional champ at 126.
“My twin brother helped me so much. We’re always together, supporting each other all the time,” David Campbell said. “After my match that I lost, we took a walk and talked about some stuff. He’s the reason why I’m a state qualifier.”
Campbell needed consecutive wins Saturday morning to even think about the medal round. He got them in the form of a 10-0 major of Kennett’s Logan Reigel and 6-1 win over Council Rock South’s Ben Radner, before taking a 5-3 loss to OJR’s Luke Resnick (Campbell had won their previous two meetings in the postseason) to find himself in the regional round of death for the second time.
“My sophomore year, I lost that match to go (to states). It was devastating. You have these goals — even as a little kid — of making it to states and next thing you know you’re on the wrong end of it,” said Campbell. “It’s not that your whole year has gone to waste, but all your dreams are crushed.”
That wasn’t going to happen again. Campbell capped his Saturday rally with an 8-1 win over Pottsgrove junior Chase Banyai to ensure the connected careers of he and brother Jakob weren’t split apart before the final chapter.
“I had goals of getting to the finals and winning, but I knew it was going to be a tough tournament — it always is — so I’m just really blessed to have the training partners I have and trusting in my training and coaches to get into states,” said David Campbell, who enters states with 124 career wins.
Reddington (who officially placed sixth after his injury default and two medical forfeits), Pottsgrove’s Banyai, Upper Perkiomen junior Jared Kuhns (113) and OJR freshman Antonio Petrucelli (132) weren’t as fortunate as the other five from the PAC.
Owen J. Roberts’ Meredith was so close to being in the aggrieved group, down 3-2 in his medal match with West Chester Rustin sophomore Tyler Kaliner with under 30 seconds to go.
The Wildcats sophomore didn’t have past experience to call upon like Campbell — he went 8-10 as a freshman and went 0-2 at 145 at the PAC Championships — so he opted to go with what got him there: all-out aggression.
“I knew it was going to come down to the last period, the last minute and I knew that if I kept my head, wrestled hard and pushed the pace as much as I could it would come down to hopefully me winning,” Meredith said.
He blitzed Kaliner in the closing moments, hit a takedown literally 10 seconds away from the end of his season and emerged 4-3 in the most thrilling of the fifth-place matches to earn a PIAA place alongside teammates Nick Duliakas (1st at 195), Ryan Resnick (2nd at 160), Luke Resnick (3rd at 120) and Dan Mancini (3rd at 145).
He’s a different wrestler than in his rookie year — “I found my drive,” Meredith said of his rapid ascent — but that’s not to say he hasn’t surprised himself.
“This was my goal, to make it to states, but it was not really where I saw myself. I saw myself here at regionals,” Meredith admitted. “I did not see myself at Hershey, but I’m more than happy I made it.”
It sure beats the alternative, more than he can even imagine.
Austin Hertzog is a sports editor for Digital First Media and PAPrepLive.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AustinHertzog.
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