Every picture tells a story, but few like the snapshot of Hunter Catka and the 220-pound medalists a month ago at the state wrestling tournament in Hershey.
The Sun Valley junior and Delaware County Daily Times wrestler of the year was on the left side of the podium, on the third-place step.
To his right was Class 3A state champion Nate Schon and farther right, fourth-place finisher Dorian Gray.
Schon and Gray are the only wrestlers to defeat Catka in 60 bouts over the last two years, Schon in a regular season match two years ago and Gray in the quarterfinals of the most recent PIAA state championship tournament.
Catka won each rematch, defeating Schon on the way to winning gold in 2018, and Gray in the 2019 state third-place bout.
For Catka, the difference between walking out of the Giant Center as two-time defending state champion instead of two-time state medalist was all there in the photograph.
"Afterward it hit me a little bit," Catka said of the unexpected loss in states. "And it's humbling. It's kind of hard to explain. I think definitely God has a plan for me and that's probably part of the process. And I just trusted in him and I learned from this process. And that's kind of what I got out of it."
Catka wasn't deterred, however, from earning his second consecutive honor as Wrestler of the Year for the Daily Times' All-Delco team. Though he was limited to a dozen matches before states, having fractured a leg and undergone knee surgery in the offseason, he finished 17-1, including the state tournament. The only setback came against Erie Cathedral Prep's Gray in the quarters.
"I learned I'm not winning a match if I'm not attacking," Catka said. "You saw the match. I didn't attack. I didn't score and I didn't win. If I'm on the attack, I'm going to be winning matches, I'm going to be scoring. There was a lot to learn after reviewing it."
Catka is the sixth Delco wrestler to earn back-to-back medals at states in this decade.
Colin Cronin of Upper Darby placed fourth and third at 138 pounds in 2016-17. Mike Marino of Garnet Valley was sixth at 120 in both 2013 and 2014. Chris Grill of Upper Darby was seventh at 135 in both 2005 and 2006 and Royals alum Joel Edwards was eighth in 2000 at 189 pounds, and first in 2001.
Crawford and Stocku are repeat selections along with Catka. He was 58-2 (.966) the last two seasons and 92-9 (.911) in his career. He's fresh off a college visit to Virginia Tech, the top 20 wrestling program hot on his trail.
Down the road, Catka has aspirations of competing in the Olympics, where freestyle wrestling is the norm. Right now, however, he's checking out the Flo National tournament circuit.
"I took two weeks off and I was back training," Catka said. "I'm looking to do some of the Cadet World Team Trials and hopefully make a world team. And before that I'm going to this Flo National tournament that's coming up in a few weeks. The knee is feeling good again. I'm taking care of it."
Catka's pain tolerance during the state tournament spoke volumes about his toughness. In the quarterfinal bout with Gray, he had to take a couple of injury timeouts when it locked up on him. Gray got two escape points and a penalty point in a 3-1 win. While Catka didn't use the injury as an excuse, Gray said his back hindered him after Catka crushed him, 9-0, in the rematch.
"I never want to make that an excuse why I'm not competing well even if at times it might be," Catka said of the knee. "I just kind of use that adversity and push through it as best as I can without trying to make excuses and complaining about it too much. How? I kind of ask God, I pray a lot, I ask him to take the pain away and give me the ability to wrestle my hardest. My strength comes from the Lord, and everything I do is to try to glorify him. I can use that as an opportunity to show him praise."
That Catka managed the injury and fought through it on the level he wrestled impressed the Vanguards coach Tom Ellis, who's not easily impressed.
"I don't think it's physically tough as much as mentally tough because at this level, this is the best high school tournament in the nation," Ellis said of the PIAA championship tourney. "You have (some of the) best high school wrestlers in the country all competing against each other. In the medal rounds especially, mentally, it's probably tougher than physically. Physically he's as gifted as it is. You just have to get over the mental aspect of having your knee that was operated on, now it's locking, so it's probably more of a mental thing for him right now than it is physically."
Already the youngest state champ from Delco, Catka is bidding to become the first county wrestler to win three straight medals at states since Andre Petroski of Springfield. Petroski was fifth at 171 pounds in 2008, third at 189 in 2009 and second at 189 in 2010.
Beyond the medals, Catka is grateful to be part of the Sun Valley wrestling family, whether it's instructing the next generation of wrestlers in the Aston Athletic Association program or making the annual pilgrimage to Fair Acres during the Christmas season.
It has a special meaning for Ellis, whose mother was there, as well as Catka.
"For me personally, it's obviously a fun time just hanging out and listening to their stories but also bringing gifts they can use," Catka said. "A lot of those older folks don't have families. Spending time with them, you realize coming back home that we're blessed to have a family, to have somewhere to sleep other than a home. I like going there. It kind of just shows us and helps us appreciate life a little bit more and the blessings that we're provided."
For Catka, it's all there in the snapshot of the medalists in his weight class at the recent state tournament.