When Dover senior Brandon Rodriguez steps on the mat at the Giant Center on Thursday evening in the PIAA Class AAA wrestling tournament, it will be the first time since 2007 that the school will have a competitor taking part in the state's premier event.
The Dover wrestling program isn't a powerhouse. The Eagles were 2-16 this year. Even on struggling teams, however, there are a few wrestlers who shine individually. but usually are eliminated in the postseason before the state stage by competitors from traditional power schools where wrestling reigns supreme.
That makes what Rodriguez has done this season all the more impressive, giving the Dover school and community a reason to pay attention to a winter sport athlete for just a few days longer before fully transitioning to the spring season.
"At the moment, it didn't come clear at first," Rodriguez said before his practice session at the Giant Center on Wednesday about clinching a state berth two weeks ago. "Then, it started to sink in and I realized that this was probably the best thing that's ever happened to me in all my years of wrestling."
The process for getting to the Giant Center hasn't come easy. Rodriguez doesn't have the long postseason pedigree of some other recent York-Adams wrestlers who have competed at the state level. Instead, each year has been all about taking the next step, with the state tournament the ultimate goal for his senior season.
"It started freshman year and making that push into districts and losing early in tournaments and stuff like that," Rodriguez said. "The kind of success that I had just this year means that much more."
Wrestling at 113 pounds, the talent for Rodriguez, who is 25-5 on the year, has always been there, even as a freshman. His coach, Brad Brosius, described him as a coach on the mat, always thinking one or two steps ahead of his opponent. It's that combination of mental and physical ability that's helped Rodriguez gradually work his way through the District 3-AAA ranks until he ultimately qualified as the Southcentral Region's fourth seed for this year's state tournament.
Thursday at the state meet will mark about 12 days since Rodriguez last stepped on a mat in the district tournament. In that time, his preparation has been all about getting his stamina built up and working on situational wrestling.
There was a lot of time to think about the pressure surrounding the state meet. Yet, when he stepped on the mat with at least 300 of the best wrestlers in the state on Wednesday, he didn't appear to be overwhelmed by the moment.
"He seems ready to go," Brosius said. "He seems relaxed and ready to go."
For a program that has been down in recent years, having a wrestler make it to this point in the season can bring some much-needed attention. Brosius is hoping that Rodriguez's run will spark interest in the sport at Dover and help turn around the program.
"We're hoping it's a springboard to improving our program," Brosius said. "Our numbers have been down and hopefully this will help get some of our numbers back up."
As for Rodriguez, he understands the pressure, not just surrounding the event, but surrounding him. He'll have his entire community's eyes on him, as well as plenty of friends and family, when he takes the mat on Thursday evening.
Getting to this point has been his goal since at least his freshman year.
"It's just a full circle," Rodriguez said about qualifying for states as a senior. "Starting off, not wrestling with the district wrestlers and state wrestlers, to competing with them, but losing by a couple points, to winning ... I'm just hoping to perform and maybe step on the podium."
Rodriguez will face the Southeast Region's third seed, junior Aidan Burke (33-7) from Council Rock North, in Thursday's preliminary round with a spot in the main field on the line.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org