Hollidaysburg senior Damian Huff had some lofty goals coming into the wrestling season. He wanted to go undefeated and capture a state title.
"I was always told that if people aren't laughing at your goals, then you're not setting them high enough," he said.
Huff, of course, has had a taste of the PIAA Class AAA Championships, qualifying as a sophomore at 106 pounds but just missing a returning visit to the Giant Center last year as a junior with a fourth-place finish at the Northwest Regional Tournament.
He won his first District 6 Tournament title last year with a 5-1 win over Bellefonte's Luke Leathers in the 106-pound final, and will likely be the favorite Saturday to claim the 113-pound crown at the district tournament. In fact, he's pretty confident that he'll be climbing up to the top of the district podium again.
"I won't accept anything less," he said. "I'm not sure about what the seeding will be, but that doesn't really concern me."
"I think he's the top guy at the weight class," Hollidaysburg coach Mike Moore said. "Certainly there are some guys that are going to test him, but if he goes out and wrestles, he's better than those guys."
With a 13-3 record, Huff, who began the season at 120, hasn't wrestled a lot compared to the other wrestlers at his weight. Part of that is because he was out of the lineup for a little bit with concussion-like symptoms he started having after bumping heads twice with an opponent at the Sheetz Holiday Classic.
Neither Huff nor Moore would call the injury - headaches, sensitive to light and sound - a concussion, but it was enough to keep him out of the lineup.
"I had to go through the process," Huff said. "I just think I was a little dazed. That was my first one. It was scary being out of the lineup my senior year, and I didn't want it to go downhill. I guess I needed to learn from it. It's better that it happened then and not now."
"He was dazed a little bit, but he recovered fairly quickly," Moore said. "But because of the situation with concussion symptoms now, as a precautionary measure, we kept him out of the lineup for about a week-and-a-half or so."
Moore says the injury wasn't the only thing holding him back early in the season.
"I think coming into his senior year, he put a lot of pressure on himself, but he's kind of gotten that under control these last three weeks," Moore said, "and he's wrestled the best I've seen him wrestle in his career. He was too concerned [early on] about holding on to something, and would wrestle very conservative and be afraid to open things up."
It was a lesson that Huff had to learn, even at this point in his career. Huff is a four-year starter for the Golden Tigers, but he hasn't been involved in the sport for as long as many of his opponents. He began to wrestle in sixth grade, and he became hooked.
"I just loved it," he said. "I improved so much. Coach Moore had me training and working in the room, and it helped so much. It's a shock to me that I came this far. I didn't see the improvement every day, but it would come and go. I could feel myself getting better."
Huff is 88-30 in his career, and it's not a shock to Moore that he's come so far so fast. While Huff doesn't consider himslf a leader, Moore says he's a fine example for his younger wrestlers.
"He's got great body awareness. He's great balance. He can do back flips off the wrestling room wall," Moore said. "He's one of those kids in which you put him in a situation that you sometimes don't coach, but he's got a pretty good feel of where he needs to go to come out on top. He's always had that ability. He's a workaholic. He's the first one in the room and the last one out. You give the kid something and he'll run with it. He's a treat to coach.
"I have not been around too many guys that work the way that he works and is dedicated and disciplined as he is in the wrestling room. We always talk about running through a wall. We were doing sprint work at the end of practice and he literally ran through a wall and ended up hurting his shoulder a little bit, but he's fine."
Huff went 25-13 with 11 pins as a freshman, and he placed third at districts. The next year, he went 26-10 and took fourth at 106 at districts, but he qualified for states with a 3-1 overtime win over Bald Eagle Area's district runner-up Travis Giedroc in the regional consolation finals.
"I knew it was my time to get it done," Huff said. "I would have been upset if I hadn't gotten it done."
Huff went 0-2 at Hershey, and his route to a return visit seemed pretty clear last season after winning the district title. Huff breezed to the regional semifinals with a pin and a major decision, but he dropped a 2-1 decision to DuBois freshman Shae Bloom in the semis and was beaten by McDowell freshman Charlie Lenox, 4-0, in the consolation finals.
"That motivated me a lot. That's all I would think about when I got to practice," Huff said. "It was pretty disappointing. I wasn't fully believing that was getting it done. I was wrestling not to lose instead of wrestling to win. But, it was what it was. It was a good lesson for this year."