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Mitch Rupert on wrestling: Milton’s Preisch finally gets his validation

PITTSBURGH — A year ago, Pat Santoro sat in the hotel room of Ryan Preisch and had no idea what to say. His junior 184-pounder had just lost in the blood round of the NCAA Wrestling Championships for the second consecutive season and he had no idea how to console him.

Preisch broke the silence and looked at Lehigh’s coach and said “It’s not worth it.” Santoro has dealt with wrestlers who have said similar things before. He knows it’s only the emotion of the moment which drives athletes to that point. He reminded Preisch that the work is always worth it no matter the outcome.

Santoro reminded Preisch of that conversation Friday night at the same NCAA Tournament in which Preisch had his heart broken in the blood round each of the previous two seasons. Only this time they were able to laugh about it because Preisch had finally broken through.

In his fourth trip to the NCAA Tournament, the Milton graduate won that blood-round match. He left PPG Paints Arena as an All-American for the first time in his five-year collegiate wrestling career Saturday night. He climbed to the fourth-place spot on the podium in front of more than 18,000 berserk wrestling fans.

“I finally got the validation I’ve been looking for,” Preisch said. “Finally, the weight is lifted. I’m an All-American. I did it. It’s all worth it.”

Preisch has waited his entire career to live the high he experienced when he defeated Binghamton’s Lou DePrez on Friday night in the Round of 12. He was never satisfied with how each season of his high school career finished, including failing to make the finals of the state tournament his senior year.

He went 1-2 in his first NCAA Tournament as a freshman. Then he reached the blood round each of the next two seasons only to be turned away by Michigan’s Myles Amine and Illinois’ Emory Parker. Each time, Preisch found a way to speak about the disappointment afterward as if it were only a matter of time until he finally broke through.

On Thursday, after winning a pair of matches to reach the 184-pound quarterfinals, Preisch spoke with great perspective understanding an All-America finish would be a remarkable achievement, but not the moment which defines his life. With that attitude in tow, he wrestled free and easy against DePrez. He scored the only points of the bout with a reversal and a riding-time point to earn his spot on the podium.

“I wasn’t worried about him going into that match this year,” Santoro said Saturday. “His focus the last month of the season has been great. His focus since the EIWAs, he took that loss really well. He walked off the mat and said ‘I gotta get better.'”

This tournament was different for Preisch. Physically, he’s in as good a shape as he’s ever been. He suffered a torn rotator cuff in his first match of last year’s NCAA tournament. And since then he’s dealt with a torn hamstring and a torn ligament in his right elbow. But since his return in late December, he’s been as healthy as he’s ever been.

Santoro said jokingly that this is the longest he’s gone in his career without an injury, but it wasn’t really a joke. It was the truth. And Preisch wrestled like it.

His only two losses during his fourth-place finish were to former NCAA champion Myles Martin of Ohio State in the quarterfinals and then again in the third-place match. Otherwise, he was flawless.

He opened with a fall against Purdue’s Max Lyon. He beat returning fourth-place finisher Taylor Venz of Nebraska, 4-3. Then he went to work on top with a punishing ride against DePrez to earn that win. Then he beat fellow Pennsylvania product Dakota Geer in the consolation quarterfinals with an overtime takedown before dominating North Carolina’s Chip Ness in a 3-0 decision.

For the last three years, Preisch has felt like one of the best wrestlers in his weight class. He proved it over the last three days. Initially, after winning his blood-round match to finally take that 800-pound gorilla off his back, Preisch was stoic as he knelt on the mat. As he walked to Santoro in the corner, he saw a tear in his coaches eye and he couldn’t help but let loose of his emotions.

You want to know the measure of Preisch’s value to the Lehigh wrestling program, find the video of how his coaches, teammates and opponents reacted to him finally reaching that All-American status. Even Mason Beckman, who now coaches at George Mason but was a Lehigh teammate of Preisch’s for two years, squeezed Preisch in a bear hug and lifted him off his feet.

Preisch has lived the lowest of lows of the sport, continually falling short of his goals for nearly a decade. He dealt with injury after injury and found a way to wrestle through them. He sat in Santoro’s office on more than one occasion this year and told his coach wrestling wasn’t fun anymore.

But it all built to one giant crescendo which painted a smile as wide as Preisch’s broad, linebacker-like shoulders across his face. He no longer has to talk about how close he’s always been. He’ll never look back with an ounce of regret about sticking with a sport he loved but didn’t always love him back.

Preisch isn’t going to wrestle anymore. He’s already graduated from Lehigh and will join the work force when this semester concludes with the degrees he’s earned. So his last act as a competitive wrestler was stepping on the podium Saturday night to accept the award he so rightfully earned.

“Everything he’s worked for is the epitome of what Lehigh wrestling is about,” Santoro said. “It says a lot about him that every Lehigh fan and member of the team wanted to see him on the podium because they know how much he deserves to be there.”

Mitch Rupert covers wrestling for the Sun-Gazette. He can be reached at 570-326-1551, ext. 3126, or by email at mrupert@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Mitch_Rupert.

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