Mid-week match was prep for Shore’s O’Connor

HUGHESVILLE — Hunter O’Connor took a loss Wednesday night in Jersey Shore’s final dual-meet of the season. It was a loss he was OK with taking because he knew it was preparation.

The junior 182-pounder took Wednesday’s match with Shikellamy’s Josh Krieger as a warm-up, an opportunity to get into the right mindset to compete at Saturday’s District 4 Central Sectional tournament at Hughesville. Krieger is a state-ranked 182-pounder in Class AAA who is big, strong and quick.

Well, after that loss Wednesday, O’Connor looked plenty prepared Saturday at sectionals. The junior captured his first sectional title with three falls, including a 54-second fall in the final. He was the only wrestler at the Central Sectional to win a championship with three falls.

“I wanted to wrestle him to get me prepared to wrestle (Warrior Run’s Christian Wachter),” O’Connor said. “Wachter’s a tough kid and I knew he was going to be tough to wrestle. So I wanted to wrestle Krieger to see where I stood against good guys.”

O’Connor never spent more than 3 minutes, 25 seconds on the mat Saturday, turning the 182-pound bracket into his own personal amusement park where everyone got a free ride to their back. The junior returning state qualifier pinned Benton’s Lucas Acornley in 1:56 in the quarterfinals. He followed with a fall in 3:25 over Montgomery’s Chris Mangle in the semifinals before beating Wachter with a fall in 54 seconds in the final.

It was the kind of performance O’Connor said can drive him through the District 4 tournament this week where he’s the No. 2 seed. Earning that gold medal was about proving his run to states a year ago was no fluke. It was about showing the rest of the district that he’s not the underdog competitor he was a year ago, and they need to be concerned about him.

Maybe no wrestler in the district had a quieter 24-win regular season. In the midst of a rough team season for the Bulldogs, O’Connor was the shining light. He was the wrestler who picked up six team points for the Bulldogs 19 times.

“You always want to go into the next week with a head of steam,” O’Connor said. “So I don’t want to be having bad losses going into the next week and then losing again. I want to be on a roll and keep going.”

O’Connor is going to have to keep that roll going to be competitive in a tough 182-pound weight class. He’s the second seed this week behind Southern Columbia’s Gaige Garcia, a returning state fifth-place finisher who moved up to 182 after wrestling much of the season at 170.

But the challenge doesn’t end there. He’ll also need to deal with sixth-ranked Andrew Shedleski, Lewisburg’s returning state qualifier. He’s on the side of the bracket of returning district qualifier and North Section champ Tyler Devonshire. And you can’t forget about Wachter, 22-win Joe Rodriguez of Milton, 24-win Clay Green of Towanda, Mangle and his 24 wins, and Bloomsburg’s Jake Mattive and his 25 wins.

The challenge is just what O’Connor likes, though. As much as his match with Krieger on Wednesday was preparation for the postseason, O’Connor looks at the next two weeks as preparation for a hopeful return trip to states.

“It’s a tough weight. These are the top tier guys and you know if you can compete with them, you can compete with anyone,” O’Connor said. “And having those tough guys with you, if you make it to states, it’s going to help you wrestle those tough guys down at states.”

O’Connor’s indoctrination to the state tournament a year ago was quite overwhelming. He lost by technical fall to eventual fourth-place finisher Jared McGill of Chestnut Ridge, and then by fall to Tri-Valley’s Dawson Schwalm in the consolations.

But the goal for O’Connor a year ago was reaching the state tournament. And he wrestled his butt off for three weeks to find his way to Hershey. But that has only increased his goal for this year. He wants to be on the podium in Hershey this year and Saturday’s sectional championship was just the first step.

“This is a challenge, and I love challenges,” O’Connor said. “It makes me push for a certain goal. And when you reach that goal, it makes you want more and more.”