Delco contingent brings experience to Hershey

HERSHEY — The three All-Delcos have been here before.

Reaching the palatial Giant Center is indeed a reward in itself for the countless hours of training, practice and competition that can be overwhelming for a teenage athlete trying to reach the pinnacle of his sport.

That Karon Lucas-Tillery of Penn Wood and Garnet Valley teammates and best friends John Dambro and Michael Marino completed the journey back to the PIAA Class AAA Tournament, which begins here Thursday at 4 p.m., is testament to their passion and commitment to be the best.

Twenty-nine athletes from Delaware County began last weekend with a chance to make this trip, yet only this trio of seniors’ medal hopes remain alive.

Their coaches welcomed the chance to reflect on the divergent roads that delivered them to the spot affectionately known as the Sweetest Place on Earth.

“When they come in as freshmen they think they know what it’s going to take to be successful,” Garnet Valley coach Rocco Fantazzi said of the ninth-graders he’s welcomed into the fold over the years.

“It’s tough to get them to understand that it may take two or three years to make it to this level. It definitely takes them time to buy into that realization. But both guys bought in and reached states as juniors. Now they’re seniors and seasoned veterans.”

Fantazzi recalled a particular match in Dambro’s sophomore year when he went up against a ranked opponent and basically changed the course of his career.

“An assistant coach decided to put him out there and (Dambro) didn’t back down, he didn’t give the kid any respect and wound up getting his second big win in two weeks,” Fantazzi said. “Since that point on, we saw he was buying into the program.”

Dambro has amassed a 111-36 career record, is 38-3 this season and is headed to Hershey on a 30-match winning streak that includes his third consecutive sectional title, the district championship and last weekend’s Southeast Regional crown. His last loss, which came Dec. 28 against one of the top wrestlers from Virginia, was the only time he’s been pinned in his career — compared with his 56 career wins by fall.

Dambro will open the 170-pound bracket against Central Mountain junior Gavin Caprio, the third-place finisher from the Northwest Region with a 35-6 record.

“Johnny doesn’t have all the accolades, but this is his second time to states and I know he’s determined to medal this time around,’ Fantazzi said.

Marino, Garnet Valley’s other contender, just happens to be the program’s all-time winningest wrestler with a 144-30 career mark and could become the first Jaguar to medal twice at states.

Marino’s 36-7 record this season is a bit deceiving, taking into account that he suffered six of those losses by wrestling “up” at 126 pounds. Since dropping to 120 pounds, Marino has gone 9-1 and made an inspirational run through wrestlebacks last weekend to take third at regionals.

“That decision (to wrestle at 126) was in his mind from the start of the season, partly for the betterment of the team and also to allow his brother (120-pound freshman Matt Marino) to get into the lineup,’ Fantazzi said.

“I can’t say enough good things about Michael,” the coach continued. “He’s an excellent representative of what Garnet Valley wrestling is all about.”

Like his teammate and best friend, Marino’s lone career loss by pin came this season on the same day — Dec. 28 — against a wrestler from out of the area.

Marino will look to add to his 43 career falls and capitalize on his experience when he opens the 120-pound bracket against Shippensburg freshman Chandler Olson, the 30-4 runnerup from Southcentral Region.

Lucas-Tillery, Penn Wood’s three-time sectional champion who finished runnerup at last weekend’s regional, has produced a statistical oddity this season in going 29-3. His three losses have each come one month apart — which Patriots coach Dan Madonna sees as a good sign.

“Hopefully he got his one loss for March out of the way last Saturday,” Madonna said with a laugh.

The ascendant career of Lucas-Tillery, who transferred from Upper Darby after his freshman year, has produced a 105-28 mark and brought nothing but smiles to Madonna.

“Karon’s work ethic is off the charts,” the coach said. “The first thing I remember about him was his first match as a sophomore, when he was out of shape. We talked about it and then he went out and just worked and worked and worked until he turned the corner. The last two summers he went all around Pennsylvania to wrestle with a touring team, and he even got some of our younger guys to follow him around.”

Lucas-Tillery knows that he has to control his emotions — and his nerves — to cap his career with a successful run in Hershey. Madonna believes that the senior’s three losses this season — to Coatesville’s 220-pound regional champion Mike Boykin along with another regular-season loss to Springside Chestnut Hill Academy’s Des Johnson and last Saturday’s 5-1 setback in the regional final to Jordan Wertz of Boyertown — have prepared Lucas-Tillery for this stage.

“The moment’s never too big for Karon,” Madonna said. “He’s got a great idea of what he wants to do before a match and, nine times out of 10, it’ll work. I know last year he came away from states really disappointed, so I know he’s coming in this time expecting to win.”

Lucas-Tillery opens the 195-pound bracket against Shippensburg senior Dylan Herb, who was the Southcentral Region runnerup with a 31-2 record and is making his first trip to the state tournament.

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