Tough love lessons a part of Petrucelli's rise

by Austin Hertzog, Pottstown Mercury

Posted on March 6, 2019

Article originally appeared here:

It was two years ago to the day. So much different, so much the same.

I attend a lot of sporting events, as you might imagine. Increasingly so in recent years in an era where a sports editor finds himself as his staff's lead photographer, too.

There have been countless winning moments, clutch moments, nervous moments, heartbreaking moments.

Many are forgotten. But one has stuck in the forefront of my mind above any other.

Two years ago, I was covering the Southeast AAA Regional at Souderton, sitting matside with a camera and a notebook, working up a piece on the high stakes of the fifth-place matches, where a wrestler either makes states or his season's over. It's the epitome of "thrill of victory, agony of defeat."

The third Mercury-area wrestler to take the mat, an Owen J. Roberts rookie, had compiled a commendable 32-win season to that point, but the physicality had taken its toll. He entered the 132-pound fifth-place match ailing and early in the first period he needed an injury timeout.

Antonio Petrucelli was in tears, his body calling 'no mas' at the summit of his season.

It was an emotional scene, though that wasn't evident on the face of the assistant coach coming out to check on Petrucelli. The assistant coach was his father, Marc.

Viewed in isolation, the stoicism was unsettling, especially for the guy behind the camera a few feet away who would become a first-time father three months later. It was difficult to envision seeing my child in distress and wanting them to press on.

But now, two years later, context unveils the truth of that moment: inside, Marc Petrucelli was grappling himself.

"He wanted to get to states so bad that it was about getting him back up after he screwed his knee up," Marc Petrucelli recalled about Antonio's freshman finale. "It was 'go back out there' even though it was locking up. The only shot he had was to be on the mat.

"(Matside), I try to be a parent second and a coach first. But in that particular situation, and it's obviously my kid, I wanted to get him back on the mat because that's what he wanted to do. At the end of the day it's all about him."

The stern look wasn't some kind of anomaly, as anyone who has been around the Owen J. Roberts wrestling team can attest. On head coach Steve DeRafelo's staff, Marc Petrucelli comes across like the tough dad you don't want to test.

But in that match, the line between push and protect was tested.

"I had a torn meniscus in my knee," Antonio Petrucelli remembers. "It locked up during my 5-6 match with Nick Lilley (a Downingtown West junior). It wouldn't unlock really. I think I was down 6-3 at the time. I got up and I tried to wrestle and they stopped it again. I said 'No, I want to wrestle,' even though I could barely stand."

"My dad and my brother kind of pulled me from the match. (The frustration) was a combination of me not being able to finish a match the way I wanted to and knowing my season was over, which was heartbreaking."

Two years later almost to the day, on the same floor as that past pain, Petrucelli's progress was apparent: having already qualified for the PIAA 3A Championships for the second straight year, he was wrestling in the 138-pound final against host Souderton's Tyler Williams, a match moved to marquee status as the evening's finale.

The end of his first season wasn't a defining moment, instead extra fuel for a wrestler with passion and pedigree for the sport the Petrucellis call their own.

Brother Dominick (Class of 2015) was a 100-win wrestler at Owen J. Roberts, following the path of Marc (OJR Class of 1978), who went on to wrestle at Wilkes University.

Antonio already passed 100 career wins (two weekends ago at the District 1-3A North tournament) as a junior and is 40-8 entering this weekend's PIAA 3A Championships in Hershey.

It backs up last summer when he placed fourth at the Marines Cadet & Junior National Championships in Fargo, N.D., to earn freestyle All-American status.

"He's a really driven kid. He wants to be successful. He wants to wrestle Division I, which is as tough as it gets," Marc Petrucelli said. "His brother (Dominick) motivated him. He always wanted to do better than his older brother.

"They really cheer for each other and pull for each other."

That 'tough love' that Marc Petrucelli considers himself a believer in is an ingredient of his youngest son's success.

"The world's easy today. Everybody wants the best for their kids and so do I," Marc said. "But I want them to earn it every single day. And the greatest thing about wrestling is, all these kids that participate - I don't care if they're successful or not successful - earn every single thing they get."

There are few competitors you'll see with more passion for wrestling than Antonio Petrucelli: "Tote" as he's known around the OJR wrestling room, was also known for giving his teammates scouting reports on the opposition during the dual season.

He brings an intensity onto the mat that is part nature, part nurture.

"I've always been passionate in everything I've done. I put so much into this sport and I hate losing," Antonio Petrucelli said. "It runs in my family. We're a competitive family.

"My dad, on the side, he's very intense. He's in every match, whether it's me, Ricky (McCutchen), Dan (Mancini), any of them, he's always in every match. He brings another level of intensity that's pushed me to become more intense."

That intensity can be a blessing. It can be something of a curse, too.

It's why for all the poetic progress between his two trips to Souderton - from unfortunate exit as a freshman to main event status as a junior - Antonio Petrucelli's Saturday night ended the same on both occasions: with him devastated.

In Antonio Petrucelli's mind, the results are only black and white. And the 9-3 defeat to Souderton's Williams that forced him to settle for second place at the regional tournament for a second straight year meant he failed to meet his goal.

"I put so much time into the sport and when it doesn't go your way, it's not a good feeling," he said.

This time though, Petrucelli has another chance to change that lingering feeling while carrying the lessons of distant and recent past.

"Even though I don't feel I wrestled to my capability," Antonio said, "it was a good learning experience especially with states coming up this weekend and hopefully I can make those changes with Dan (Mancini) in the room and get a gold medal next weekend.

"But I have a lot of work to do."

No sport is as absolute as wrestling: the highs are higher, the lows are lower. That's a big reason why I find myself drawn to it.

Two years ago, I was instinctually uncomfortable with what I thought was Marc Petrucelli exhibiting too tough of love while his son struggled to put one foot in front of the other.

But with time, and seeing Antonio's progress, someone who can feel like a helicopter parent in the making started seeing the merits of tough love even in tough situations.

With the real story in one hand, and my nearly 2-year-old daughter in the other, the lesson has changed but it's no less valuable: parenting isn't about how you can interject your own style, it's about doing your best to support your child's dreams, even when it's a tough thing to do.

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