HERSHEY — It wasn’t as satisfying as winning a state title last year. And it’s safe to say Hunter Catka is unlikely to get the champion’s police and fire escort home.
But what the Sun Valley junior did Saturday night in the consolation bracket of the PIAA Class 3A wrestling championships was a close second.
Make that a third.
On one leg, Catka claimed third place in the Class 3A state tournament at 220 pounds by crushing the guy who derailed his bid for back-to-back championships, Dorian Crosby of Erie Cathedral Prep.
Catka’s 9-0 decision wasn’t that close, as Crosby was determined not to be caught on his back.
“He beat me that first match but he’s obviously not better than me,” Catka said. “I think this affirms that. I think this closes the door on that.”
There’s no closing the door on the courage of Catka, whose left knee buckled in virtually every match. Assured by medical people and trainers that there was no risk of further injury, he wrestled through.
“People have to remember Hunter is only 17 years old,” Sun Valley coach Tom Ellis said. “It’s not like he’s a 32-year-old man with a mortgage, his knees hurt and he has to get up for work. We’re talking about a 17-year-old kid. I think he’s showed everyone how tough he is.”
Catka’s gnarly performance evoked memories of state tournament wrestling champions past. It was only a couple of years ago that Spencer Lee, with a torn ACL, lost his only high school match in his final bout right here at the Giant Center. Like Catka, he wasn’t going to surrender.
Like Lee, Catka always will remember this as the title that slipped away, regardless of the knee injury. Standing on the podium to the right of Catka was Nate Schon, the new champ. Catka defeated him last year.
“That’s cool, that’s good for him, I just thank God for the opportunity,” Catka said. “Sure, in my head I’m always going to have that, but I’m going to move forward, continue to do what I do and put this behind me.”
Catka wasn’t the only Delaware County medalist showing grit.
At 160 pounds, John Crawford of Strath Haven finished sixth, falling to Jake Richardson (Mars), 4-0, in the final. Richardson got the lead and stalled.
Crawford was riding high after a creative and electrifying pin in the quarterfinals had clinched a medal. His slow starts caught up when Clayton Ulrey (Lower Dauphin), the runner-up at 160, beat him 14-5 in the semis.
Crawford got caught on his back in the consolations but exits with “nothing but good memories.
“That feeling on the wrestling mat in the fifth-sixth match was really cool,” Crawford said. “I’ll take that experience with me. And (the quarterfinals), that was like the most excited I’ve ever been after a high school match. It was for a medal.”
Crawford is taking the head gear with him to wrestle at Franklin & Marshall University. The captain will be missed by Panthers coach Anthony Gilliano, who was in his corner for 90 career victories. The Panthers became a winning program largely because of wrestlers like Crawford.
“I’m going to miss his leadership,” Gilliano said. “He sets the tone every day in practice. When we’re telling the kids let’s get on a run, let’s push hard, he’s the one saying, ‘can we run steps, can we do this, can we get after it.’ He’s always pushing the pace and wanting to get better. I don’t think he realizes what he’s done for Strath Haven as a whole.”
In the seventh-place match at 285 pounds, super sophomore Coltin Deery of Garnet Valley built a 3-2 lead but Kyler Wuestner (Upper Dauphin) rallied to win 5-3.
Deery had 32 pins, a school record, and by finishing eighth, he’s the youngest in a long of accomplished Jaguars wrestlers to medal.
“Coming from 25-15 to 41-8, it’s awesome,” Deery said. “It was a great season. There was a lot of hard work put in. I’m happy I’m out here with all these great wrestlers. I took eighth but it only goes up from here. That’s a good thing.”
Twenty years from now, when Catka tells his kids about the state title he didn’t win, and how he wouldn’t let it define him, he might even mention in passing how his knee constantly locked up. How he could have defaulted but instead evaluated, and continued to trudge the road to the podium.
“His mom asked me after his quarterfinal loss yesterday, ‘is he going to wrestle the next match?’” Ellis said. “I just smiled and said, ‘YOU couldn’t tell him that he can’t.’ We knew. We already knew he was going to wrestle. I think this was just a character test for Hunter. Entering this year, he was ranked No. 1 in the state. Then he got knocked off the mountain. Either you keep falling down or you climb back up. And he chose to climb back up.”
The PIAA ran the participation numbers off the scoreboard before the finals. There were 3,570 wrestlers registered in the state this season. A total of 280 reached the states, including 28 in the finals. Just 14 champions were crowned.
The Delco contingent didn’t get gold.
But against those odds they showed true grit.
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