HERSHEY — The last time Pete Ventresca sat matside on the final day of a tournament in Hershey was nothing like this.
It was 28 days before — a short time in the grand scheme, a long time if you are one of the wrestlers traversing the postseason grind — the third day of the PIAA Class AAA Duals at the Giant Center on Saturday, Feb. 7.
Ventresca’s Boyertown team took a quarterfinal setback to District 7’s Belle Vernon, but bounced back in the consolation by beating District 2’s Scranton later Friday night.
It set up a third-round consolation meeting with Parkland, one of District 11’s premier programs and one Boyertown is no stranger to — the Trojans dealt the final blow to the Bears’ season in the same round the previous year.
Boyertown could have loved the setup after 13 bouts. Anyone that likes drama must have.
With the Bears trailing by four (30-26), the final weight class was 220, which just so happened to be manned by their two-time PIAA silver medalist, junior prodigy Jordan Wood.
It was the perfect setup.
But only on the surface.
For all his talents, Wood was only recently returning from offseason shoulder surgery, which held him out until Jan. 30, his first match coming in the second round of the District 1-AAA Duals.
The movie directors would have sent Wood into the circle, watched the referee smack the mat and sent everyone in black and red into a state of euphoria.
Ventresca isn’t a movie director. He is a wrestling coach … a level-headed, steady one who has guided Boyertown to the top of District 1.
He’s also someone willing to make a difficult, maybe controversial, certainly commendable decision to not win at all costs, but instead put the safety of one of his wrestlers first.
“At the time it was tough,’ Ventresca said. “But sometimes, you have to save a kid from himself. Jordan wanted to wrestle badly, but I didn’t want him to go out there and force something and get hurt and go backwards.
“It was the right choice.’
The choice was to hold Wood from going all-out when only a technical fall or pin would do, and forfeit the decisive match to Parkland’s Omar Haddad, a highly-respected upperweight in his own right, and hand the Trojans a 36-26 victory to end the Bears’ run in state duals.
Ventresca made the tough call to protect not just Wood, but the rest of his wrestlers who would have continued to exert themselves through the rest of the tournament. A win over Parkland would have only earned them a meeting with Bethlehem Catholic, which lost just 30-26 in the semifinals to the current gold standard in Pa., District 7’s Franklin Regional — not exactly a walk in the park getting to the bronze.
He was also taking the long view, knowing the individual tournaments awaited.
Ventresca always knew it was the right decision.
The call was certified over the weekend.
There aren’t any guarantees whether Wood would have re-injured himself or not.
What is guaranteed is that Wood’s name will always be on the list of PIAA champions after he became one Saturday night by winning the 220-pound title in Hershey, stopping two years of silver heartbreak his first two seasons.
“Tears of joy this year,’ Wood said after blanking South Western’s Seth Janney, 4-0, and standing atop the PIAA podium for the first time.
The competitor in Wood still wishes he could have faced Haddad during the duals tournament. But a gold medal around one’s neck doesn’t hurt for perspective.
“It was probably the right choice. They were looking out for my safety. I may not have been 100-percent ready, so from a coaching point of view that was the right thing to do,’ Wood said. “I still wish I could have wrestled it, though. I still wish they would have sent me, but if I would have gotten hurt I would have regretted it.
“The decision was focused on, in one month you’ll be back here (in Hershey for the individual PIAA tournament). You’ll probably get to see him (Haddad) again and you can get your state title. And it happened.’
Indeed, Wood got his shot at Haddad and won 3-2 in the semifinals, the closest match of his title run.
For a coach, there isn’t nearly the microscopic pressure in an individual tournament: Prepare your student-athlete, send him out and let him perform.
“You don’t have to make moves, you don’t have to be strategic. It’s all about the individual and these kids went out and produced. I was very pleased,’ Ventresca said after seeing the Bears place fourth in the AAA team standings and go 5-for-5 in medalists.
On a night filled with monumental moments, there were few better than the emotional celebration of Wood after the buzzer sounded in the final and the heartfelt embrace with his coach.
A month ago, instead of winning at all costs, Ventresca put his kid first.
This time, the kid put himself first.