WHERE ARE THEY NOW: FORMER TOWANDA WRESTLERS REMEMBER 4TH PLACE FINISH AT STATES
(2021-01-01)BY CHRIS MANNINGNorthern Tier Sports Report
It’s a new year, but as most people look ahead, there are a few who may be looking behind.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Towanda Black Knight wrestling team that took 4th at the PIAA, Class AA Duals Championships - a first in Towanda history.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Caleb Willey, who was a senior on the squad. “Everything we worked for throughout the years was paying off and it was a great feeling knowing we had a chance to do something special.”
They had some success early, though they lost to Central Columbia at their Dandy Duals Tournament. It wasn’t until after Christmas break that they really hit their stride as they blew through the NTL on the way to a league title.
The District IV Duals Tournament was a little tougher, as they had some close matches. However, it was obvious they were a changed team, as they went on to get revenge on Central Columbia en route to the team title.
“I felt really responsible for the loss to them the first time,” said Willey. “So beating them when it really mattered meant a lot to me.”
However, they believed they were the favorites going into the day.
“That was always a good feeling,” said Cody Wheeler. “The whole team knew what we were up against and our expectation was to win, and that’s what we did.”
That’s when the run began to get real for them.
“Going to districts didn’t feel any different than a normal tournament, until we won and we got the plaque, and knowing that we were going to states, which I had never been to,” said heavyweight Aaron Schultz.
The Giant Center was a little different venue from the Milton High School.
“When we got there the nerves set in,” Schultz said.
It didn’t show the first match, a 32-24 win over Claysburg-Kimmel on that Thursday. Schultz had a big hand in that win.
“Our first match was going good when I was up,” he said. “I knew I needed the win, and it may have been one of my harder matches, with all the nerves and pressure. But I got the win, and knew what I had to do the rest of the tournament.”
Their next match was that Friday, another close 39-27 victory over Ridgway. It was VanDeMark’s turn to send Towanda to the next round, the semi-finals, with a fall.
That was just one of a lot of key wins VanDeMark got for the Knights, as he went 5-0 during the weekend.
“I felt like I was an ass-whooping machine,” said VanDeMark.
He and Schultz were the ‘hammers’, as Sexton called them, during their early run at states.
“I liked being near the end of the line-up,” said Schultz. “I liked the pressure and knowing that I’d have to get a pin or a major. It was a driving force for me.”
Sometimes VanDeMark would get bumped up, but he didn’t mind.
“Nobody likes losing weight and having to bump up,” he said. “But I always had fun throwing the bigger guys around.”
The way the tournament went the Knights wrestled one match per day the first two days, then had plenty of down time between. That left quite a bit free time on their hands.
“We watched a lot of wrestling,” said Willey.
They also spent time with those who came to watch them.
“We spent a lot of time with our families, just having a good time,” Schultz remembered. “And staying focused on what we were there for.”
Everybody had their own way of staying ready to wrestle.
“I probably played ninja and listened to music,” said VanDeMark.
No matter how they spent it, it was those small moments that made the trip memorable.
“We actually got to bask on the stage,” said Wheeler. “Being in Hershey, being down on the floor, then going back to the room and hanging out with your friends. That’s what wrestling is all about, and the stuff you remember forever.”
Wheeler remembers that they had good unity - evident by the fact that they all dyed their hair black for the trip.
“Everyone had fun in each match,” he said. “Either way we were all going to have a good time, and all going to work hard.”
They made up for all the down time on Saturday, when they wrestled three matches.
Beginning at 9 a.m. they fell to eventual champions Bethlehem Catholic, 45-18, though they were winning after four weights.
That dropped them into the consolation semi-finals, where they needed to win to get into the medals.
Cue-up VanDeMark, who continued his strong tournament with another big victory. He hit a cement mixer on his opponent to get into the medal round. That, along with ‘putting National Brown of Lewisburg on his tuchus with an off the whistle ankle pick at districts,’ were his two best memories of the post season.
“Both felt really good,” he said.
They beat Bedford 34-29 to get into the third place match against Burrell. They would lose that match 37-18, but had made history just the same.
“It was surreal,” said Schultz. “Knowing we were the first team to place with the history Towanda has. I had three tough matches that day, I picked up my only loss at states.”
While the heavier weights got a lot of attention, due to how the weights drew out, it was a total team effort, with Wheeler, Willey and Zack Ripic leading the way.
“Having guys like Cody on your team only makes you better,” said Willey, who wrestled two weights above him at 135. “When Cody would go out on the mat and get work done, I knew I better go do the same. We had a lot of good energy and leaders on that team, and I think we fed off each other. I have to mention how thankful I am for having such great parents, coaches, and teammates that made everything possible.”
They won together, and they celebrated together.
“Stuffing our faces when it was all said and done,” Willey said. “And the feeling of accomplishment. It wasn’t first place, but we had a good run.”
Schultz also enjoyed the whole environment they were in.
“Seeing all the support the community had for us,” he said. “Watching the younger kids in the line-up go out on the mat and give it their all. And having the group of coaches we had, and everything they did, from getting us in the right mindset or making us laugh.”
Willey, Schultz and VanDeMark all made the individual state tournament but lost out before the medals. Wheeler, though, became the second Knight to reach a state final, though he lost to Mason Beckman in the 125 pound Championship match.
“That’s something I’ll always remember,” Wheeler said about reaching the state final. “I wanted to get one more place up, but, being a team captain that year I couldn’t have asked for a better year with those teams.”
Like many graduates some have stayed local, while others have followed their hearts elsewhere.
Wheeler spent five years wrestling at Lock Haven University and now works for Chesapeake Energy as he lives in Towanda. He also helps out with the wrestling team when he can, recently helping to coach Cooper Mosier in his run through states.
“It’s nerve racking,” said Wheeler. “Way more nerve-racking to be a coach. I want to be out there and do what I can for them. You have to rely on them to do what you taught them.”
Schultz has a job in the gas industry and travels for work. He’s currently married with two boys and a new baby girl.
Willey went on to wrestle for Lycoming College at the Division-III level. He got his bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice with a minor in psychology.
He’s currently an account coordinator for a natural gas distributor in Minnesota, where he lives with his girlfriend, Courtney, their dog and two cats.
VanDeMark attended Bloomsburg University for a year after graduation and has been on sabbatical since. He’s worked a lot of odd jobs and ‘started traveling to weird places and meeting unusual people.’
He’s spent the last five years living in Philadelphia with his girlfriend Kelsey. They spend most of their free time visiting family and friends, exercising, attending live shows and flying airplanes.
While most of that team had been together since they were little, VanDeMark returned after being at North Schuylkill. For him, the move back to Towanda was like winning the lottery.
“I think my junior year at North Schuylkill my teams’ record was something like 8-18,” he said. “And my senior year at Towanda I think we went 32-4? It was a bizarre dream come true to come back and finish my wrestling career with the same guys I started with. And the fact that they were a pack of savages being led by a legend in Bill Sexton made it even better.”
It’s safe to say it was a dream come true for all of them.
CUTLINE: (Clockwise from top left) Aaron Schultz with his family, Garrett VanDeMark, Cody Wheeler and Caleb Willey. (PHOTOS PROVIDED)
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