WRESTLING: Time to Shine: Extremely-motivated trio step into spotlight at PIAA tourney in Hershey

“Where there is shadow there must be light.” – Haruki Murakami.

All of three of Warren County’s PIAA wrestling qualifiers started their respective careers in the shadows.

For Warren sophomore 126-pounder D.J. Fehlman, it was the shadow that comes with being the son of a PIAA wrestling champion.

For Eisenhower senior 195-pounder Jake Johnson, the shadow was cast by three older brothers that had all left their mark on the Knights’ wrestling program.

For Youngsville junior 220-pounder Jaykup Durlin, the shadow was created by those who came before him. Successful Eagles “big men” like 1993 PIAA heavyweight wrestling champion Jim Hoffner, and the county’s top duo in career wins – heavyweight Mike Sullivan (143) and 220-pounder Jordan Cooke (128).

Through years of sacrifice, and literally blood, sweat and tears, their opportunity to break out of the shadows and into the light has arrived.

The time to shine comes Thursday through Saturday with the PIAA Class AA and AAA Wrestling Championships at Hershey’s Giant Center.

The trio have a lot in common; not only are all three making their first trip to states, they are also extremely motivated athletes who aren’t satisfied by simply making the PIAA cut.

Another thing they have in common?

Success – and lots of it.

Though just a sophomore, Fehlman is already a two-time District 10 Class AAA champion. He set the Warren record for wins by a freshman with 33 a season ago and has won 32 of his 34 matches this year – a tidy career record of 65-8.

Not many wrestlers – especially Warren County wrestlers – are the sons of former state champions. Instead of running from the fact, Fehlman has embraced it and used it to better himself in the sport.

“He’s been a great role model my entire life,” said Fehlman. “He’s helped get me interested in the sport and has motivated me when I needed it most. I want to be as good as him and what he accomplished has motivated me to be my best.”

Already one of the top 16 Class AAA 126-pounders in the state, the Warren sophomore and second seed from the Northwest Region opens his first PIAA tournament with the Northeast’s third seed – junior Chase Zemanak of Nazareth (22-5).

Of the other 15 wrestlers in the bracket, Fehlman has squared off with three of them this season – Clearfield senior Dylan Graham, Punxsutawney freshman Kaleb Young and General McLane sophomore Keller Watkins.

Fehlman beat Graham in last weekend’s PIAA Class AAA NW Regional semifinals in Altoona to secure his first trip to Hershey before losing to Young in the finals, 8-0. Fehlman is 2-1 against Watkins this year, losing to him during a dual match in January before beating him in the Tool City Tournament finals as well in overtime to capture the D-10 Class AAA title.

“I know a lot about the kids in my bracket,” said Fehlman. “When it comes down to it, everybody wrestles every match in a different mindset than the match before. The guys I face are going to come out fighting, so I have to do the same. This is a very exciting experience. Hopefully I can win two matches and get myself on the medal stand.”

Warren wrestling coach Glenn Baldensperger believes Fehlman has what it takes to surprise some opponents – and perhaps even himself – by making a deep PIAA run.

“A lot of kids don’t wrestle their best against great competition,” said Baldensperger. “The thing about D.J. is that he tends to raise his game when it matters most. He’s a gamer. The biggest thing he needs to do is believe in himself. If he can go out there and wrestle with confidence, he should have an opportunity to win every match he’s in.”

Perhaps no county wrestler has had as explosive a postseason as Eisenhower’s Johnson. The Ike senior (30-9) narrowly made it out of the Section 1-AA Tournament in Union City after a fourth-place finish. He then lost his first match at districts in Sharon and was one loss from his career ending – one win short of 100 no less.

Rather than roll over, Johnson turned things on – and then some. He won his 100th career match on Saturday morning of the district tournament and clicked off four straight wins to finish third and qualify for regionals. There, he won his quarterfinal match over Brookville’s Taylor Cudworth, 9-2, before locking up his trip to states with an upset 7-1 win over Seneca’s Trevor Beiter.

Only an 8-2 loss to Corry’s Ryan Morris in the finals kept Johnson from a regional title and a seven match winning streak entering Hershey. His career wins total now stands at 105.

Plenty of things have helped propel Johnson to success – not only this postseason, but for his entire career. But what has driven him most is the desire to be better than his brothers Justin, Andy and Mick- all former standout wrestlers at Eisenhower.

“Andy has been a big motivator this season because he was in the room as a coach for a lot of the year,” said Johnson. “I definitely wouldn’t be the wrestler or person I am today without my brothers. Coaches can do a lot, but you need a great family behind you as well and I certainly have that.”

Johnson has already visualized the “perfect ending” to this incredible ride, though he won’t be disappointed no matter the final outcome.

“I need a medal,” said Johnson. “Bringing back a state medal has been the ultimate goal all season and to achieve it would be a tremendous ending to my career.”

His coach Kiel Woodburn, himself a former Ike standout, knows that Johnson completing his career on the medal stand at Hershey is a very real possibility.

“He’s got a great will to win,” said Woodburn. “His desire to win is unmatched. He’s a different wrestler now than he was all season. Since he reached 100 wins, he’s had a lot of pressure taken off of him and he’s wrestling with confidence. Not many wrestlers in this tournament are on the roll he’s been on as of late.”

Johnson’s journey to a medal begins with the Northeast’s third seed – senior Conner Rosensweet of Western Wayne (33-9).

Youngsville’s Durlin (33-5) showed he had the ability to win in the postseason by advancing to regionals in 2012 as a sophomore. This season, he took his game to the next level and is the first Eagle to make the state tournament since Sullivan in 2006.

Durlin says he has long been motivated to be Youngsville’s next successful “big man.”

“I see their names on the wall and I want my name up there next to them,” said Durlin. “I know what it’s going to take to do that.”

Durlin’s postseason run began with a second-place showing at sections in February. One week later, he claimed fourth at districts to earn his second career trip to regionals. With only the top three making it to Hershey, Durlin shook off a semifinal loss and found himself matched up with Reynolds’ Logan Rickert with only the winner advancing to states.

Despite losing to Rickert the week prior at districts, Durlin gutted out a tight 1-0 victory, breaking a seven-year drought for Youngsville at the PIAA level.

The junior certainly doesn’t lack for confidence. While being interviewed last weekend about making it to states, Durlin said his goal entering the PIAA tournament was the “gold medal.”

Durlin isn’t going as far as to predict a gold medal, but says he has lofty aspirations for this weekend’s event.

“I just want to end up on the medal stand,” said Durlin. “It doesn’t really matter where I place. I just want a state medal. If I fall short, it will add to my motivation to get back here next season.”

Youngsville coach Scott Ishman says Durlin has the ability and drive to be special – even when compared to the Eagles’ long lineage of big grapplers.

“He’s got a special brand of intensity,” said Ishman. “He always wrestles intense, but can hit another level when needed. Lately, he’s been learning how to wrestle intense, but also control it. He’s always been a big, strong, intense kid. If he learns how to use the mental side of his game as he’s been showing, he’s capable of very special things.”

Durlin has a tough opening round draw, facing the Southeast’s second seed in Halifax senior Joey Kaufman (38-1).

The first round pairings for both the PIAA Class AA and AAA Wrestling Championships were published on page B-3 of Wednesday’s Times Observer. Below is the schedule of on-mat activity for the PIAA Class AA and AAA Wrestling Championships at the Giant Center in Hershey: