Quartet leads Sun Valley revival into Regionals

ASTON — When Tom Ellis took over the Sun Valley wrestling program in 2012, he found it in shambles. The Vanguards could barely field a team, forfeiting matches at a time.

“We were the black sheep of the Ches-Mont,’ Ellis remembered with more truth in his voice than disdain. “We had a poor record (3-15, 1-5 in the league). We were hardly winning at all. We were the black sheep that no one wanted around.’

The same holds true now, although for the opposite reason. Sun Valley (11-5) is by its own standards historically good. This weekend four Vanguards, Steve Okoorian (33-4 at 170 pounds), Alex Elliott (25-3 at 160), Sean Donohue (33-7 at 132), and Christian Bateman (32-10 at 138) will wrestle at the PIAA South East AAA Regional Tournament. The school has never sent more than three wrestlers at once. It’s all part of Ellis’ plan.

“We expected to have four in regions,’ he said from Sun Valley’s wrestling room this week. “The level of success that we’re holding ourselves to now is much higher than in years past. What ever way you want to look at, we’re putting Sun Valley wrestling back on the mat.’

The Freudian slip only reinforced Ellis’ and his team’s commitment to turning the program around. Earlier this season, the Parent’s Booster Club made a banner to commemorate Sun Valley’s three 100-win wrestlers.

“We showed up one day and hung it up so that Sean, Steve, and Alex walked in and saw it and said, ‘ Okay,”said Ellis.

The motivation worked. By the end of the regular season, all three senior captains had breached the century mark. Okoorian and Elliott each won league titles. The latter became the first Vanguard to claim a district championship since 1987, when he earned a 5-2, decision over Upper Moreland’s Dom DeLaurentis on Monday.

“It was definitely a good feeling, because it hasn’t happened in so long,’ said Elliott. “I couldn’t have done it without the coaching staff. They bring in real good wrestlers all the time. All the work they make us do, it paid off.’

The trip to regionals is Elliott’s third straight. Okoorian qualified for the second straight year, although all four — including Donohue and Bateman — spoke as if they’d been there before. When asked how they’ll prepare for the grueling two days at Oxford High School, they offered terse answers.

“Clear your mind and stay healthy,’ said Okoorian.

“Keep doing what we’ve been doing,’ said Donohue. “It’s what got us here. It’s what’s going to get us to the next level.’

“Watch a lot of film,’ Elliott added.

“The records are 0-0,’ Bateman preached. “You don’t worry about anything.’

Confidence has permeated the group. Much of it comes from within, where the four battle daily.

“We have so many guys in here that can bang,’ Okoorian said, a compliment of the highest regard when uttered by someone in gold and blue.

Ellis, tired of rosters in the singles, fostered that competitiveness by resurrecting the school district’s youth program. Aston AA went dormant some eight years ago. Now it’s a feeder system for Ellis, who spends most weekday evenings coaching both the high school and the youth teams.

“This past year was the most successful by far. We have a great group of kids,’ Ellis said of Aston AA as the youngsters filed into the room around him. Some offered high fives, which the coach gladly delivered. “It reminds me a lot of Alex, Steve, Sean, and Christian when they were younger.’

If that bar seems high, that’s the way Ellis and his wrestlers want it. Bateman, a sophomore, already understands the daunting task of following three 100-win seniors.

“They’re like my role models. I look up to these guys,’ said Bateman, whose 53 career wins suggest that he’ll join the century club soon enough. “They’re always pushing me every day, making me better. I look up to them like brothers.’

They still have at least one more weekend together. A couple trips to Hershey and the state tournament — or four — would make a perfect end for a group that Donohue called, “family.’ They eat dinner together after practice every night. They watch wrestling movies on the weekend — “so Foxcatcher,’ joked Okoorian. They love Sun Valley and they’re not afraid to show it: Okoorian and Elliott have matching Vanguard griffin tattoos on their legs.

Donohue does not, although his sentiment is the same.

“I don’t want to be anywhere else but in this room,’ he gushed. “With the coaching staff and all the guys I bang with every day, it’s just unreal.’

• • •

In all, 24 wrestlers from Delaware County advanced to the Class AAA South East Regional at Oxford. And of the two dozen, 13 are underclassmen.

Garnet Valley also had four wrestlers headed to the regional in Matt Marino (120), Nick Pulitti (126), Pat Rowe (152) and Mark Peters (160). Colin Cronin (33-1 at 132) heads the Upper Darby contingent that also includes Jacob Mejias (113) and Josh Yeboah-Gyasi (220). Cronin is seeded third, while Yeboah-Gysai is the fourth seed at 220.

Chichester, Haverford High and Radnor are sending two wrestlers each to the regional. Tom Myers (35-0) of Radnor won the District One Class AAA West title last week and is the No. 2 seed at 170 pounds. Myers will be joined in Oxford by teammate Zak Taylor (31-3 at 182). Half the 182-pound field is made up of Delco wrestlers. The other guys in that weight class are Lawrence Aikins of Ridley (25-5), Joe Pyfer from Penncrest (29-3) and Chester’s Dan Sullivan (25-10).

Sophomore Chris Smarkola (24-7 at 126) is the other Chi wrestler in the field, while Haverford has Vince Tavani (30-5 at 106) and David Tustin (30-15 at 152) looking to move on.

Interboro’s Eric Thomas (33-2) is the only other wrestler seeded in the top four in his respective weight class. He is No. 2 at 138.

Cardinal O’Hara’s Mike Lewis is the lone Delco wrestler who qualified for the Class AAA North East Regional at Liberty High School. The senior is 17-6 at 145 pounds. Meanwhile, Archbishop Carroll has nine wrestlers in the Class AA North East Regional at Wilson (West Lawn) High School.

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