Brandon Keller has had the same vision ever since he emerged as a standout wrestler his freshman year at Timber Creek Regional High School. He sees himself as standing on the top of the podium in Atlantic City, crowned as a state champion.
“You have to (have that vision). If you are not picturing yourself on the top of that podium, then you are not going to be on the top of the podium,” Keller said. “As a freshman, I pictured myself at the top when I placed and every year I have done that. It doesn’t matter who is in front of you, if you step on the line and wrestle your match, you can beat anyone.”
Keller took the first step toward achieving that goal Saturday, claiming his fourth District 30 Wrestling Tournament championship. Keller dominated his way through the tournament despite nursing an elbow injury that will require surgery in the offseason.
“I had some tough competition over the years, but I just came in here confident,” Keller said. “At the end of the year I think I have wrestled my best. Wrestling a tough schedule and wrestling with (coach Nick) Cottone all the time and all of the guys on the team has prepared me. I practice hard every day and by the end of the season my head is in the right place and my body is in the right place. That’s why I come here and perform well.”
Keller has been fueled all season by his second-place finish at states last year. He knows this is his last crack at the title and is determined to finish on top.
“Honestly, I have thought about (the state final loss) everyday,” said Keller. “It kind of eats away at you. Anytime you are in the practice room and you don’t want to practice that day because of injuries, it just makes you push through.”
Keller had plenty of company on the top podium as the Chargers' John Amato (113), Dom Ruggierio (152) and Bryce Shade (160) each claimed a title. Shade’s was the most dramatic as it came in overtime, while Amato scored a second-period pin.
“I had it set in my head that I was going to win this title and then take it to regions and win that title,” Amato said. “I want to place in states and fulfill that goal I haven’t gotten yet.”
Not to be outdone, Highland had a great weekend of its own, highlighted by the performance of senior Joe Rodano, who defeated the Chargers' Brandon Virgillio in the 145-pound final.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for a while,” Rodano said. “I’m glad it’s here and I got to seize the moment.”
Rodano entered the tournament as a No. 2 seed, but never doubted himself in the final, which he won, 7-4.
“I try to keep my confidence level high, because if you don’t believe in yourself, why should other people?” Rodano said. “I really don’t look at brackets and seedings. If you go out there and wrestle with everything you got, what happens, happens.”
Although Rodano was the Tartans' only wrestler to win a title, he will have plenty of company at regions next week. Highland had nine other wrestlers finish in the top three of the tournament: Lucas Siegfried (2nd, 106), Dillon Pendergast (3rd, 113), Josh Clark (2nd, 120) Nick Theisen (2nd, 138), Sheldon Morris (3rd, 152), Tom Nolan (2nd, 170), Jordan Warren (2nd, 182), George Duddy (3rd, 195) and Martel Harrison (2nd, 285).
Rodano said the performance was another indication that Highland wrestling is back to being a top program.
“It’s phenomenal,” Rodano said. “I’m so glad to have the program back. It means a lot to the coaches and everybody in the district. It means a lot to us to bring the program back and to be bringing a full bus down to regions.