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Mitch Rupert on wrestling: Tough competition is beneficial for South’s Gardner

Bobby Gardner doesn’t shy away from competition. He can’t afford to. The South Williamsport sophomore 106-pounder knows how loaded his weight class is at the district and regional level, so he can’t bypass any opportunity for six hard minutes on the mat.

That’s why there was no hesitation is moving up a weight class Thursday night to take on Bloomsburg’s Jake Leonardo. It’s all part of the plan to help Gardner reach the state tournament in two months.

“I like running into a kid that will give me a fight, get in a scramble and even beat me,” Gardner said Thursday night. “It makes me better and it makes me want to be the best.”

That last part about being beaten might be most shocking, but Gardner has been wrestling long enough to know those losses are what will make him better. The three losses he’s taken this year in 14 matches equals the number of losses he took all last year in 32 bouts, and two of those came during the district tournament when he was dealing with sickness and wasn’t full strength.

But the quality of those three losses are what matters most. One came to Wyoming Area’s Jaden Pepe, the undefeated top-ranked 106-pounder in the state, 12-5. And the other two have come to Meadowbrook Christian freshman Cade Wirnsberger, who is ranked fifth, by a combined two points. Gardner is currently ranked seventh in the state by PA Power Wrestling, but is the fourth-highest ranked wrestler in the state from the Northeast Region, behind Pepe, Wirnsberger and Montoursville’s Branden Wentzel (fourth).

And just to add to that already brutal gauntlet of a weight class in the region, Warrior Run’s Kaden Milheim is ranked eighth in the state, Benton’s Chase Burke is 13th, Tunkhannock’s Owen Woods is 14th, Canton’s Isaac Landis is 16th, Troy’s Seth Seymour is 17th, and Lackawanna Trail’s Max Bluhm is 19th. Northeast Region wrestlers make up 40% of PA Power Wrestling’s Top 25 at 106 pounds. And of those 10 ranked wrestlers, only eight will qualify for regionals.

“That weight class is a gauntlet and he works his tail off day in and day out,” South Williamsport coach Eric Gerber said. “There’s never a time where we have to be on him about his work ethic. He keeps his head down and is a very quiet individual and keeps chugging away. Every day he knows he has to continue to build for the end of the year because his goal is to be in Hershey and we’re trying to help get him there.”

So that’s why Thursday night, with the dual well in hand, Gerber sent Gardner up a weight class to face Leonardo, a former district qualifier. The weight discrepancy didn’t make a difference to Gardner or Gerber. Assistant coaches Tyler Watts and Eric Caschera give Gardner someone heavier to roll around with every day in the practice room. And the last time Gardner wrestled in the Bloomsburg Middle School gymnasium, it was in the 113-pound championship match against Wirnsberger at the season-opening Darren Klingerman Invitational.

Of Gardner’s 14 matches wrestled this year, eight have come against state-ranked opponents. Leonardo wasn’t one of those state-ranked opponents, but he represented a solid wrestler who is likely to be a factor at the Central Sectional and District 4 tournament come February. If Gardner wanted six hard minutes, he definitely got it.

But he showed a tenacity and a fearlessness in attacking Leonardo which has pushed him into the Top 10 in the state rankings. He was constantly moving forward, constantly trying to score points and constantly pressuring his opponent. Late in the bout as Gardner sprinted back to the center of the circle on a re-start waiting to put the pedal to the medal again, Leonardo took his time, using every second he could to try and catch his breath. Gardner finished the bout with a dominating 9-3 victory.

Gardner spent the summer months wrestling and qualified for USA Wrestling Junior Nationals in Fargo, North Dakota, where he finished as an All-American in both Freestyle and Greco-Roman. He took seventh in Freestyle at 100 pounds and eighth in Greco-Roman. He was the only District 4 wrestler to finish as an All-American in both disciplines at Junior Nationals last year.

That success has translated into the high school season where he looks more confident on the mat and wrestles with such conviction.

“Going out there helped me realize every time I step on the mat, it’s just another match,” Gardner said. “It’s not like any match is any big thing.”

Gardner has already wrestled a season’s worth of tough matches in just the first month, which is just fine with him. He understands the benefits even if it has caused him to take a more losses. But that’s exactly why the Mounties added the Tunkhannock Tournament to the schedule this year, not just for Gardner, for but the rest of a young, but talented team as well.

Gardner has already posted wins over Milheim, Landis and Woods this year. It makes his book of things to work on before he sees them again this year longer and longer by the day, and that’s perfectly fine.

“Wrestling those close matches shows him being consistent with what he has to do can help maybe change some of those scores,” Gerber said. “We’ve got an idea of what those guys are doing and then you prepare for them from there. But as long as he’s doing what he needs to be doing, he’ll be in the hunt the whole time.”

FINDING HIS FOOTING

When James Batkowski finished off the overtime takedown to give him a win over state-ranked Isaac Kester of Central Columbia last weekend, he exploded to his feet and howled in celebration. If you needed any further proof it was a big win for the Montoursville freshman, well then you just weren’t paying attention.

It was a rough first month of the season for Batkowski. He failed to place at the season-opening Tom Best Memorial Top Hat tournament at Williamsport. He failed to place at the Powerade, going 2-2. And in between in the Warriors’ lone dual, he dropped a 7-3 decision to Kester. Batkowski entered last weekend’s Flynn Propane Duals at Towanda with a 5-5 record. He walked out at 9-6 after a four-win day, which included the overtime victory over Kester.

His only loss on the day was to state-ranked Eli Petruzzi of Port Allegany, and that loss came before the win over Kester, which seemed to ignite Batkowski’s confidence.

“The transition to high school is tough, especially being a freshman in a mature weight class,” Batkowski said. “But I go out and wrestle hard and wrestle with heart. I know some of these kids are going to be better than me and I have to go out and wrestle better than them for all six minutes.”

Batkowski has the unenviable task of being the last of three brothers to come through the Montoursville program. His older brother, David, was a two-time state placewinner for the Warriors who won 106 career matches despite missing a full season to injury. Middle brother Keith was also a two-time state champion who finished with 154 career wins and helped the Warriors reach the state dual-meet tournament multiple times.

But James is focused on forging his own path, and last week’s win over Kester was a good starting point.

“We saw from his reaction he was pretty excited,” Montoursville coach Matt Yonkin said. “It was a win I know he wanted. And wins like that will only boost his confidence and help him out.”

WRESTLER OF THE WEEK

Roger Learn, N.P.-Liberty, 106 pounds

It’s not too often you see seniors wrestling at 106 pounds, but when you consider Learn was wrestling at 106 as a freshman weighing under 80 pounds, well then it just makes sense. The Mounties’ senior put together maybe the best week of his career last week, going 6-0 to improve his record to 12-4 this year. Even as North Penn-Liberty struggled at the Flynn Propane Duals going 0-5, Learn won all five of his bouts, four with falls and one technical fall. He added another fall in a loss to Wyalusing on Thursday night to cap his week. The Mounties continue to count on him for points, and he delivered quite well over the last week.

CAN’T-MISS

MATCH OF THE WEEK

Hughesville at Warrior Run, Thursday, 7 p.m.

Both these teams are going to be on the bubble to earn a spot in the District 4 Duals, and with the cutoff date in just two weeks, this could prove to be one of the more critical duals of the season for both teams. Troy Charles has done a nice job in his first season leading the Spartans, and he’s got a young, exciting group. Freshman Caiden Puderbach is an underrated stud at 120 pounds who just knocked off regional qualifier Liam Goodrich. These two well-coached teams always put on an entertaining dual and their rabid fanbases should make the gym ear-splitting fun.

MITCH RUPERT’S WEEKLY RANKINGS

106 POUNDS

1. Branden Wentzel, Montoursville

2. Cade Wirnsberger, Meadowbrook Christian

3. Gino Serafini, Central Mountain

4. Cael Nasdeo, Williamsport

5. Bobby Gardner, South Williamsport

113 POUNDS

1. Scott Johnson, Muncy

2. Derek Keen, Central Mountain

3. Kaiden Wagner, Lewisburg

4. Bailey Ferguson, Canton

5. Kaden Majcher, Warrior Run

120 POUNDS

1. Carter Weaver, Williamsport

2. Caiden Puderbach, Hughesville

3. Braylen Corter, Central Mountain

4. Kayden Frame, Montoursville

5. Chase Crawley, Muncy

126 POUNDS

1. Jacob Blair, Muncy

2. Taylor Weaver, Central Mountain

3. Broc Lutz, Montoursville

4. Kai Felix, Montgomery

5. Gabe Andrus, Jersey Shore

132 POUNDS

1. Carter Dawson, Williamsport

2. Bryce Vollman, Muncy

3. Noah Hunt, Warrior Run

4. Hayden Ward, Canton

5. Zach Miller, Central Mountain

138 POUNDS

1. Riley Bower, Williamsport

2. Kyler Crawford, Milton

3. Logan Bartlett, Lewisburg

4. James Batkowski, Montoursville

5. Logan Witmer, Warrior Run

145 POUNDS

1. Nate Higley, Sullivan County

2. Luke Gorg, Hughesville

3. Roman Morrone, Williamsport

4. Mario Barberio, Muncy

5. Landon Lorson, South Williamsport

152 POUNDS

1. Lane Porter, Central Mountain

2. Devon Deem, Montgomery

3. Christian Good, Muncy

4. Colton Ammerman, Sullivan County

5. Broghan Persun, Lewisburg

160 POUNDS

1. Isaac Cory, Montoursville

2. Hayden Packer, Jersey Shore

3. Kaide Drick, Montgomery

4. Kohen Lehman, North Penn-Liberty

5. Sebastian Robinson, Williamsport

170 POUNDS

1. Cael Crebs, Montoursville

2. Timmy Ward, Canton

3. Ethan Gush, Muncy

4. Lane Lusk, South Williamsport

5. Porter Dawson, Williamsport

182 POUNDS

1. Dylan Bennett, Montoursville

2. Garrett Storch, Canton

3. Ryan Kershner, Jersey Shore

4. Hoyt Bower, Warrior Run

5. Tristan Ditzler, Muncy

195 POUNDS

1. Nathan Rauch, Milton

2. Nik Miller, Central Mountain

3. Derek Atherton-Ely, Canton

4. Caleb Moser, Montoursville

5. Sam Hostrander, South Williamsport

220 POUNDS

1. Cameron Wood, Montoursville

2. Trevor Williams, Canton

3. Gage Sutliff, Central Mountain

4. Cael Hembury, Muncy

5. Caleb Burkhart, Hughesville

285 POUNDS

1. Nevin Rauch, Milton

2. Charles Crews, Williamsport

3. Gunner Treibley, Meadowbrook Christian

4. Cyrus McCarl, Central Mountain

5. Logyn Choplosky, North Penn-Liberty

Pound-for-pound

Top 10

1. Cameron Wood, Montoursville

2. Dylan Bennett, Montoursville

3. Nate Higley, Sullivan County

4. Riley Bower, Williamsport

5. Jacob Blair, Muncy

6. Nevin Rauch, Milton

7. Branden Wentzel, Montoursville

8. Scott Johnson, Muncy

9. Cael Crebs, Montoursville

10. Timmy Ward, Canton

Top 5 Teams

1. Montoursville

2. Central Mountain

3. Canton

4. Williamsport

5. Muncy

Mitch Rupert covers wrestling for the Sun-Gazette. He can be reached at 570-326-1551, ext. 3129, or by email at mrupert@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Mitch_Rupert.

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