Before he got to the high school level, Penn Cambria's Nick Szala had become a star, placing five times at the Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling Championships and winning a state title there in 2005.
Szala is a senior now, and he's had a good career, amassing a 131-31 record, but he never had that signature moment or that tournament to show that after all of the years of wrestling, he had arrived as the guy to beat at his weight class.
That is until he won his first District 6 Class AA title two weekends ago at 138 pounds - easily the toughest weight class in the tournament with five returning Southwest Regional qualifiers - with a 4-2 win over Bellwood-Antis' Trevor Helsley in the finals.
So, those high expectations surrounding him seem to be materializing.
"I like to think he's turned it up a notch," Penn Cambria coach Todd Niebauer said. "He's got a lot of confidence, and that's been a big thing. He just couldn't get over that hump. Maybe he figures it's his last chance to make his mark."
"About a week or two before [the district tournament], I started thinking about it, and I was getting excited to just wrestle," Szala said. "It was a really tough tournament, with four guys ranked in the state in the semifinals. It's one of the tougher ones I've been in."
Four of those five guys, including Helsley, Claysburg-Kimmel's Ty Dively and Blairsville's Noah Tarr, will be back for the Southwest Regional this weekend. Will Szala change his approach this week or keep it the same as districts?
"This past week, and the four days to come, I'll be working on perfecting what I've been doing," he said. "There's a couple things I could be doing better, but the gameplan is still the same."
One daunting fact in the pairings is that Dively is in his bracket, and they could wrestle in the semifinals. Dively, who was the top seed at districts but finished fourth, has given Szala (33-2) his only two losses this season. The last time was a 1-0 bout in the Thomas Subaru Tournament finals.
"I'm hoping they can both win and we see Dively in the semifinals," Niebauer said. "Dively has had his number. The last time, it was 1-0 and the scrambles didn't go our way. They're great kids, and they know each other. It's sort of like [North Star's Nick] Roberts and Evan Link. Great wrestlers like that kind of shut down and wrestle not to lose. We hope to get over that."
"I'm hoping to get another matchup with him," Szala said. "I'm excited about wrestling him and seeing what I can do."
Much like Dively, Szala came up as a heralded freshman. He went 34-9 and finished third at 112 pounds at the district tournament.
"I expected tougher competition than I had at the junior high, and I thought the guys would be stronger," Szala said. "I had to step my game up to compete at the same level. I felt I did pretty good, but there were times when my lack of experience came into effect. I was nervous at times, and I lost to guys I shouldn't have lost to. I gave too many guys too much credit, and I didn't give myself enough credit."
As a sophomore, he went 25-12, placed fourth at 119 at districts and took sixth at the regional tournament - one win shy of qualifying for Hershey - with a 4-2 loss to Blairsville's Adam Weinell.
"I wrestled all right," he said. "I had to wrestle off with Joey Stoy. He won the first wrestle-off, but I finally beat him the next wrestle-off. It set me back a little not wrestling at the beginning of the year. Finishing sixth was really frustrating when I was that close to going. It was heartbreaking, I told myself I wouldn't let that happen again."
Szala, however, would feel true heartbreak when Stoy, whom he had been friends with since the third grade, died in an automobile accident before last season started. Despite that tragedy, Szala went 39-8, made the district finals at 130, losing to C-K's Cole Claar, and placed fifth at the Southwest to qualify for Hershey.
"I don't think it affected my wrestling," Szala said of Stoy's death. "It motivated me to push myself harder. Me and Joey had the same amount of wins as a freshman and sophomore. After he passed away, I didn't have that guy to push me to do my best. It made me push myself and always improve."
Szala has had to do a lot of internal pushing this season. The Panthers were extremely young and inexperienced, so Niebauer had to alter his practices.
"You almost have to run different practices," Niebauer said. "We put Nick and Jon Stoy in one area and the other guys in another area. Lately, my brother Matt and I have been wrestling him in practice."
"It was tough for everybody," Szala said. "The coaches wrestled us a lot more than they used to. It was neat. I made a goal that I had to take each coach down one time. When I scored, I felt it was a pretty good achievement."
A quiet, straight-A student who's planning on going to UPJ but isn't wrestling, Szala is headed down the homestretch of his career. He wants to fulfill goals he set at the end of his eighth-grade season, winning a regional and state title.
"I'm pretty confident in myself, but I can't get too overconfident," Szala said. "I want to make sure I'm at my best. I can reach those goals as long as I do that."