Three years ago, hours after dropping a 4-3 decision to Shady Side Academy's Frank Martellotti in the 103-pound finals of the PIAA Class AA Championships, Tyrone freshman A.J. Schopp grudgingly walked back into the Giant Center before the Class AAA session started.
The glum Schopp didn't want to be there for an interview. He had pounded Martellotti at the Southwest Regional Tournament the week before, which made the loss all the more difficult to handle.
Schopp still doesn't like losing - although we didn't see him do that this year. When he came down off of the medals stand after losing to Keystone Oaks' Anthony Zanetta, 4-3, last year, the two-time runner-up's jaw was set and his eyes were looking past everybody as he walked quickly away toward the locker room.
It was that hatred of losing that helped drive him as he battled through two classicly tough wins over Hodgkins and then, a day later, over Montoursville's 2008 state champion Luke Frey in the 135-pound finals.
Oh how far he's come.
What has changed over the years are his skills and strength. He always had that devastating tilt, which he used to score a couple back points against Frey, whose decision to choose down for the second period was based on a history of almost never getting turned.
Even though he had worked out with Schopp at camps, he had never wrestled him with that kind of pressure on him or with a state title on the line. Afterward, Frey talked about Schopp's "hard, tight grip," which was increased by offseason strength training.
Schopp had never been one to lift weights, but a broken ankle at junior nationals prevented him from doing his offseason wrestling routine and pushed him into the weight room.
As a freshman, Schopp wasn't as strong on his feet as he was on the mat. Martellotti had that advantage over Schopp, and when he made an adjustment to stay from getting tilted in the finals, he was able to make up the difference from the regional tournament.
Since then, Schopp has gotten better on his feet. So good, it's rare now that he gives up a takedown. Frey got one in the first period, but he had to work for it. Schopp's funk rolls and acrobatic maneuvers keep him out of trouble and frustrate his opponents. Frey admitted to that frustration afterward. Schopp's funky style of wrestling reached new heights this season.
That was no doubt improved with his workouts and eliminations with teammate Ronnie Garbinsky in the "cage." Both became very good at finding ways to score points and avoid giving up points.
While you have to applaud the improvement he's made, I'm also struck by his likability. He doesn't boast, even though he could. He could brag that he pinned 29 of his 42 opponents, and only four went the distance with him, and two of those were former state champions. He could brag that he won 160 career bouts, breaking Terry Tate's school and area record.
Interviewed after a pin or a technical fall, he'd never want to make a big deal about it, even if it came after a title or came during the state tournament, because somewhere down the line there would be that one opponent who would test his skills and test his guts.
Schopp aced those tests.
Todd Irwin can be reached at 946-7464 or at email@example.com.