For the second straight year, A.J. Luton was on the podium at the Class 2A Northeast Regional Tournament.
This time though, the medal counts for a lot more as he’s heading to the PIAA Championships.
“Last year, I missed by an inch and this year I made it by a yard,” GAR’s 113-pounder said. “It made me realize what a year could do to you. Over past years I’ve been progressing, getting better, just falling short. So this year I felt like I had to do it.”
It wasn’t easy going for Luton, though.
Skeptics said that he didn’t earn his medal last year because he got to the state-qualifying match by winning via forfeit.
Earlier this year, he was seeded first for the Wyoming Valley Conference Tournament. He faltered in the semis and finished sixth. What wasn’t known is the junior battled a sickness through that tournament.
“I think if anybody was down there (at regionals) to see him wrestle it definitely solidified him that he deserved to be right at the top of the podium and to be mentioned with some of the best kids in the state,” GAR assistant coach Jay Lavelle said. “All that matters is what he thinks of himself and what he can do. As far as everybody else, we can’t really help that.”
Now, the Grenadier grappler appears to finally have earned respect of the cynics by doing his talking on the mat, falling just shy of a regional championship after winning District 2 gold. He settled for second at regionals and earned a trip to the state tournament, which begins Thursday at Giant Center in Hershey, coming a long way since the WVC event two months ago.
“I was sick coming into the conference tournament but after that I just figured I had to fight through all the obstacles that come toward me, and I have to fight through them or wrestle through them to be where I want to be. It’s paying off for me lately,” Luton added.
When he steps on the mat Thursday morning around 9:15, he will become the first Grenadier to wrestle in the state tournament since Ted Yelland in 2004.
Being just a junior, he could join Yelland as a two-time state qualifier. He enters states with an 81-19 career record. With a strong senior season in 2013-14, he could also become just the fourth wrestler in GAR history to reach the 100-win plateau. The last to do that was 2007 grad Peter Hooker. The school’s all-time wins leader is Tony Tolbert with 114, which could also be within reach.
But first things first, as Luton is focused on this week.
“My first match is going to be the biggest. The first match of a tournament I haven’t been at yet? It’s going to be a lot of pressure but I can’t let that stay on top of my shoulders,” Luton said. “I have to go out there and wrestle how I’ve been wrestling the past couple weeks.”
Luton is part of a GAR squad that struggled this season with just six wrestlers on the roster. Yet five claimed district medals, four moved to regionals, two won district titles, and – if not for a sickness to 220-pounder Zac Faust – two could be headed to states.
Faust, who reached the regional semis, lost in the consolation semis to Western Wayne’s Austin Swoyer to be eliminated. At districts, the sophomore claimed the district gold defeating Swoyer in the finals.
With a young and sprouting roster, the Grenadiers are definitely heading in the right direction and head coach Rick Simon is hoping this helps drive up interest at the school in his attempt to bring the Grenadiers back to being one of the top programs in the conference.
“We’re hoping that the kids that were supposed to come out this year reconsider and really think about coming back out for the team next year,” Simon said. “So we’re hoping that will definitely change tides and then next year hopefully we’ll compete for dual meets to not just tournaments.”