Trying to crack the code: Glendale’s Johnston looks for ways to beat Mount Union’s Ryan

Mirror file photo Glendale’s Cory Johnston (right) will have to deal with Mount Union’s Jake Ryan (left) most likely again.

It’s not too often that an area wrestler wins a District 6 Tournament title, later places at the PIAA Championships and is a slight underdog to repeat as district champion the following season.

That’s the situation, though, that Glendale senior Cory Johnston finds himself in this week.

Johnston will most likely face Mount Union’s returning Class 2A state runner-up Jake Ryan in the District 6 Tournament 220-pound finals Saturday night. Ryan, who was at 285 last season, has earned two 3-2 decisions over Johnston this season.

“We’ve yet to crack that code,” Glendale coach Billy Dubler said. “Ryan is a great wrestler, and he’s definitely one of the top contenders for a state title this year. Cory knows he has to figure out a way to beat him.”

The losses to Ryan have served as a motivation for Johnston to crack the code. He’s watched a lot of film to prepare for the impending matchup, seeing where he can score and what he can do differently this time. He works on strategy and technique in practice.

“I love it,” Johnston said. “I love competition. It’s great that I can wrestle him more than just one time a year. It’s great to have that competition throughout the whole year.”

The one-point losses came in the finals of the Panther Holiday Classic and in the Jan. 28 dual meet at Glendale.

“I lost 3-2 both times, so it’s real frustrating,” he said. “I lost on a takedown both times, so my defense got me there and not attacking as much.”

What makes the losses easier to take is Johnston and Ryan are friends.

“We’re pretty good friends, and we always have been,” Johnston said. “We always talk when we’re at tournaments. We warmed up together last year. This year, he dropped down (to 220), and I was talking to him at the first tournament about meeting each other in the finals. We both know what to expect and we go hard.”

Johnston is 29-3 with 18 pins heading into the weekend. He’s ranked third by PA Power Wrestling, while Ryan is ranked second — just behind Wilson’s Kolby Flank. Johnston is ranked second in the Mirror rankings behind Chestnut Ridge’s Duane Knisely, who is ranked fifth by PA Power Wrestling.

“I think I’m wrestling well for the most part,” Johnston said. “I feel like I picked up my attacks a lot. I’ve been practicing picking up my attacks because I’m training to beat Jake. I’m going to see him again. Everyone knows that. In order to beat him, I have to pick up my attacks.”

“He’s wrestling really well,” Dubler said. “His leg attacks are good, which is rare for most 220-pounders. That really separates him from a lot of the guys at that weight class. He’s wrestling more confident now than I’ve ever seen him. I still wrestle with him every now and then. I can’t go long with him because he hurts me.”

Johnston pinned his way to the district finals last season before beating Central Cambria’s John Croft, 3-1, for the title. Teammates Suds Dubler and Brock McMillen also won titles.

“That was awesome, especially being beside Brock and Suds after they won,” Johnston said. “Hopefully we can repeat it this year.”

Johnston finished third at the Southwest Regional to qualify for Hershey, where he lost his first bout to Lewisburg’s Dakota Snyder, 1-0, and won four straight in the consolations to get to the consolation semifinals. He lost to Flank, 9-3, for fifth place.

“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Dubler said. “I knew he was cable of that. I know the rankings didn’t have him ranked very high. I knew what I saw every day in the practice room and the way he competed. I just knew if he got in the right situation he could be in the top eight.”

“It was a pretty good experience,” Johnston said. “It was great to be there. I’m glad I made it there last year so I know what to expect this year. Obviously it was cool placing and watching Brock win it. I definitely want to be at the top of the podium this year. That’s what we’ve been working for.”

If he does get to the top of the podium, it will be the culmination of a long journey. Johnston said he began wrestling in kindergarten or first grade. He placed at the Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling State Championships in the sixth grade and in eighth grade.

Johnston came up to the high school level as a freshman and wrestled at 195. Despite his youth and inexperience, he went 17-9 as a freshman.

“I was wrestling a bunch of more experienced and older kids, so it was tough that year,” Johnston said.

He had a rougher sophomore year. He tore his meniscus the third game of the football season and eventually had surgery right before wrestling season started. Johnston was able to return late in the wrestling season, took a 5-0 record into the District 6 Tournament and finished fifth at 220.

“I didn’t expect to be back, really, to wrestle again that season,” Johnston said, “but I think I wrestled great for just coming back. I felt I was ready to go. I wouldn’t have come back if I didn’t feel like I was ready to compete again.”

Johnston started working out with Altoona’s 2018 Class 3A state runner-up Parker McClellan and State College’s Cole Urbas after his sophomore year in the offseason at M2 Training Center. World champion and Penn State two-time NCAA champion David Taylor runs the club.

He’s also wrestled in the Disney Duals in Florida and the 1000 Island Summer Duals in New York.

“I love to compete and train,” Johnston said.

Johnston amassed a 43-1 record with 24 pins last season. He tied McMillen for the area lead in wins, was third in pins and had the fastest pin in a lightning-quick 5 seconds. His win total gave him 72 for his career, giving him a shot at 100 wins this season. Johnston recently reached the milestone, giving him 101 wins going into the postseason.

“It was actually pretty special for me because that year I had to take off for my surgery I didn’t think it was doable,” Johnston said. “Then last year when I got 43 wins, I realized I had a great opportunity to get it.”

No matter what his win total is, Johnston is considered one of the leaders of the Vikings. In fact, Dubler called him a “great” leader.

“This time of year, I try to take the temperature of the (wrestling) room and see what we need as a team to get us prepared for districts,” Dubler said. “When I’m asking people for their honest opinion, Cory is one of the guys I can go to for some real answers. He’s an extension of the coaching staff. He’s really mature.”

Johnston will be going to college, but he’s not sure whether he’ll wrestle or play football.

That’s something to worry about in the future. Right now, Johnston is focused on somehow beating Ryan for a district title and later winning a state title.

“Every time those two wrestle each other it makes them both better,” Dubler said. “I really think it’s going to help both of those guys in the postseason preparing for one another.”

“I think I’m ready for it,” Johnston said of the postseason. “I’m glad it’s here, and I’m ready to go.”