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All-Delco Wrestling: Sun Valley’s Ryan Catka didn’t allow one loss to get him down

Sun Valley's Ryan Catka, right, is shown competing as a junior competing at 195 at the 2020 state tournament. (Nate Heckenberger/ForMediaNews Group)

ASTON — Sun Valley senior Ryan Catka experienced it all, all over again at the PIAA Class 3A state wrestling tournament in Hershey.

The thrill of victory. The agony of one damaging defeat.

For the second straight year Catka finished third in states, fighting his way back through the consolation round, this time at 215 pounds. Four of his opponents shared the medal stand, including the champion, fellow senior Jacob Lewis of Cumberland Valley, who defeated Catka in the semifinals.

Sun Valley’s Ryan Catka, with his bronze medal from states. (Pete Bannan/MediaNews Group)

It wasn’t the storybook script Catka hoped to write before his ship sailed off into the sunset to Annapolis and the Naval Academy, where he will wrestle and serve God and country.

But Catka recorded the best finish of any Delaware County wrestler in the COVID-challenged season, and considering the comeback at this year’s single-day state tournament, he displayed a courageous example of grit.

Ryan Catka is the 2021 Daily Times Wrestler of the year. If you’re keeping count, it’s the fourth straight year that either he or his brother Hunter have taken home the honors, big bro winning state titles twice over his three seasons at Sun Valley.

Ryan wanted to hang another gold on the family mantle.

“My goal was definitely first place,” Catka said. “When I lost (in the semis) it was definitely really frustrating. But as my coach always said, it’s really how you bounce back. You’ve just got to come back with a vengeance. That was my thought, focus on the next matches.”

Catka leaves a winning legacy at Sun Valley, where he wrestled four years, although his sophomore season was derailed after two wins by a knee injury. He registered an 87-14 career record, going 59-4 (.937) and winning district championships his last two seasons.

Catka completed his senior season with a 19-1 record, the campaign abbreviated by COVID issues. He was 40-3 as a junior.

“He definitely became his own man this year,” Vanguards coach Tom Ellis said. “He was able to step out of Hunter’s shadow. But last year taking third in the state as a junior is no easy accomplishment. He probably would have been a state qualifier and a possible medalist his sophomore year if he wasn’t injured. He was always that good. It just so happened that his brother was the No. 1 recruit in the country and people tend to notice that. But Ryan definitely made his own name for himself.”

Stepping out of his older brother’s shadow was a double-edged sword for Catka, right there with the new rules for competition to keep participants safe from COVID. In addition to requirements to wear masks, District 1 wrestlers for the most part had reduced seasons.

READ: All-Delco Wrestling: Haverford freshman McFarland made history at Super Regional

Catka lamented the loss of tournaments like the Beast of the East, the top-shelf competition he’d use to determine how to improve his strengths and weaknesses during the season. Instead of hitting states with 30-plus matches under his belt, he was barely in double figures. The wrestlers in District 1 faced similar limitations while the western portion of the state basically wrestled as much as in years past.

“It was unique,” Catka said. “I think all my matches before postseason were not very long and not the best competition, so I felt a little bit unprepared not having the tournaments we had in the previous seasons.”

To get sharp, Catka relied on his wrestling contacts as much as he could, including Joey Milano of Spring-Ford, the state champ at 189 pounds. Every little bit helps and training or warming up with the top-ranked wrestler at 189, as well the No. 1 guy in the pound-for-pound rankings in District 1 by Pa-Wrestling.com was an assist. Catka finished fourth in those pound-for-pound ratings and first at 215.

Catka also worked out with Malvern Prep’s Nick Feldman and Caden Rogers, and Martin Cosgrove of Camden Catholic. Still, something was missing. He knew there was a big difference between workouts and matches.

“All this season I was like, ‘Man, I really wish I had my brother here to work out with and train with,’” Catka said. “So, I definitely missed him this season. But it was also nice to kind of be my own wrestler and kind of make a name for myself.”

READ: The full list of All-Delco Wrestling teams

In Hershey, Catka beat Cole Weightman by injury default in the quarterfinals. Then surrendered a 5-2 decision to Lewis (26-1), disappointed in that he gave up positions he normally wouldn’t.

In the consolations, Catka defeated Carl DiGiorgio of Central Bucks West, 9-2, in the semis and Logan Harmon of Armstrong, 3-1, in the third-place bout. For the final time in his scholastic career, he walked off with a win.

“States is always the highlight of the season, just being there with your family and getting work done,” Catka said. “It’s always fun to compete on a bigger stage. And there’s the friends I made in the wrestling community. That’s always a highlight for me. I talked to my brother a little bit after states and he was just like, ‘stuff happens and you’ve got to move forward.’ I’ve got the next four years to keep growing as a wrestler. So, I’ve just got to put that stuff behind me.”

Ellis will miss seeing Catka break out his trademark blast-double takedown and armbars. For the first time in five years, there won’t be a Catka in the Sun Valley program unless younger sister Alena continues as manager. And oh, by the way, she wrestled in middle school.

Ellis has seen the program grow exponentially the past few years, a portion of the interest stoked by the success of the Catkas. Two police and fire company escorts through the streets of Aston Township honoring Hunter Catka’s two golds on the trip back from Hershey will do that.

“Hunter wrestled for four years, Ryan for three,” Ellis said. “Five medals in seven years out of the two combined, that’s probably one of the best brother combinations in Delaware County history. Hunter is the only two-time state champion in Delaware County. For his brother to bring home two thirds also is pretty darn special.”

Ryan Catka is special. And the best has yet to come for him.

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