When Bedford's Ryan Easter walked out to the Giant Center floor, in front of a packed house, for the PIAA Championships' parade of champions for all of those wrestling for medals last year, he wore a broad smile he couldn't hide.
He had reason to smile. As a 113-pound sophomore, he was wrestling for his second state medal, which is two more than most high school wrestlers in the state.
And he had no problem with the fact that he was wrestling for fifth place again, which is what he placed as a freshman. He later lost to Ligonier Valley's Josh Patrick, 2-0, in the fifth-place finals. Still, it was another medal in the toughest state tournament in the nation.
"That's the place to be," Easter said. "Why not be happy about placing? I was still going for fifth. I worked all season and life for that medal. I knew I would only be there a couple more times, so I may as well enjoy it."
"Ryan really loves to wrestle," Bedford coach Brian Creps said. "When it comes to the big situation, he loves the big matches. He loves the chess match of getting ready for the big matches."
A year later, the junior will be looking for his third medal and for that spotlight to hit him in a darkened arena as he's being introduced for the finals. It won't be easy, that's for sure. He opens with Saucon Valley's Bryan Israel, whom he beat, 4-3, in his fifth-place bout as a freshman, and Benton's Matt Welliver, who beat him in overtime, 3-1, in the consolation semifinals last year, is a possible semifinal opponent.
* Three-time District 5 Tournament champion, two-time state medalist.
* He's 33-2 with six technical falls as a junior.
* Has a 106-15 career record in three years.
But this kind of pressure in a big tournament is nothing new for Easter. The former Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling state champion and five-time PJW medalist says he knows what to expect at states, which is an advantage he has over some of his opponents.
"That experience will carry me a lot," he said. "It will keep me relaxed. I have my routine before a match, and I won't change anything. Some of the nerves will be gone. That won't be a factor."
"Having been down there twice really makes a difference," Creps said. "It seems like the bigger the venue the more basic wrestling skills show through. The basics are what wins there."
When Easter wrestled in his first state tournament as a 103-pound freshman, he opened with a 6-0 loss to Hanover's eventual fourth-placer Ian Brown. But he won three straight consolation bouts until he lost again to Brown, 6-1, in the consolation semifinals. Easter finished with a 36-5 record, despite having to wrestle much of the season with a torn hamstring.
"He went to states his freshman year not knowing what to expect," Creps said. "There's a lot of people in the arena and you can feel the electricity. It's a really big jump to get to that level. He lost his first one and came back through. Most freshman would have said 'Maybe this is too big for me,' but he got on a roll. It was a real big thing to get a medal."
It didn't take him until the state tournament the next season to face a challenge. In fact, he faced it in his own backyard in Chestnut Ridge freshman Trent Crouse, who beat him twice during the regular season. But, Easter avenged those losses by beating Crouse for the second of his three District 5 titles.
"That really bugged him," Creps said of the two losses. "He lost to him at the district duals, and he wrestled really well in the state duals. That was about the time he turned it on. Sometimes you have to get a down moment to get motivated."
"The first two losses were definitely harder than the last time I wrestled him," Easter said. "I battled through, and it made me more mentally tough. I could have said to heck with it and stopped working. It made me work harder and helped beat him, and it made me better."
Easter, who owns a career record of 106-15 in only three years, reached the semifinals at states last year before losing to Meyers' Vito Pasone, 3-0. Oh so close to getting that spotlight shone upon him, which is why many semifinalist losers fall again in their next bout.
"I definitely had higher expectations," Easter said. "I thought I could do better than I did."
Easter enters the state tournament with a 33-2 record, with his losses coming to an out-of-state wrestler at the King of the Mountain and to Ligonier Valley's Josh Patrick in the tiebreaker in the Southwest Regional finals.
"That King of the Mountain loss really got him motivated," Creps said. "He got on a roll and is wrestling really well. Patrick and him have gone back and forth in their careers. Two years ago, when they wrestled in Hershey, Ryan won. When you're wrestling guys like that, it makes in interesting. He's having a great season."
It was his third loss in the regional finals, but the loss actually put him in a better bracket in Hershey. Patrick is in the same bracket as Bethlehem Catholic's returning champ Darian Cruz.
"I hope to go down and win," Easter said. "I've beaten everybody or lost to them by one or two points. I don't think it's a longshot. If I lose, I'll come back and try to get third."
Wonder how big that smile would be if he won a state title.
"It would be awesome," Easter said. "That would be the best feeling ever."