Hunter Catka has had a lot of time to think about his second state wrestling championship, an unprecedented achievement in Delaware County.
What the Sun Valley product will remember almost as much as the undefeated season in which he wasn't taken down even once, surreal as that is, was how fortunate he was to be able to complete it.
Five days after Catka won the PIAA Class 3A title at 285 pounds the first weekend in March, the PIAA suspended all remaining scholastic sports playoffs due to the COVID-19 pandemic now crippling the country. Last week, the state athletic association suspended the spring sports schedule as well.
Catka sympathizes with the seniors upended by the virus that's taken lives, not just sports away. As much as he's moved on, he wonders what it would have been like having the rug pulled out from under him with no chance to take his spot on the medal stand.
"The hard work of a whole season getting cut short like that is never what anybody wants," Catka said. "It's sad but all you can do is move forward and try to get better. I'm thankful we got ours in."
Catka is the Delaware County Daily Times wrestler of the year for the third straight time, which like everything else now also is unprecedented. His 42-0 record this past season was one for the ages. The only opponent Catka didn't pin, defeat by technical fall or by major decision was Isaiah Vance of Hempfield, who was beaten, 11-4, in the state title bout.
Catka and Brian Kennerly (220 pounds, 2016-17) and Andy Matter (154, 1968) of Upper Darby are the only Delco wrestlers to go undefeated and win state titles.
"Hunter was in a class of his own in Hershey this year," Vanguards coach Tom Ellis said. "He was majoring and tech-ing people almost at will. He went the entire year giving up escapes only when he wanted to. Talk about dominant. I think we all got kind of spoiled by watching him wrestle over the past couple of years. No one realized how dominant he was, because it was kind of expected. I mean, he went an entire year and won the title without giving up a single takedown."
Catka was 134-9 (.937) in four years at Sun Valley, including 100-2 (.980) with three state medals the last three seasons. He crushed the only wrestlers to defeat him in the past three years, Dorian Crosby (Erie Cathedral Prep) and Nate Schon (Selinsgrove) in the rematches at 220 pounds. Crosby defeated Schon, 3-1, for the gold at 220 this year.
"I've never had a season go by like that," said Catka, who will attend Virginia Tech on a wrestling scholarship this fall. "I think that's coaching and preparation and my practice partners. I feel like I was better prepared than everybody I wrestled, and I was able to show it.
"But on the other hand, I'm not trying to think about it too much because I have goals and future plans. I'm trying to move forward as much as I can without looking back too much. I know it's tough with the quarantine and everybody staying home and stuff. But I'm doing what I can to get better every day."
Typically, Catka would be gearing up for an offseason of wrestling on a variety of fronts. That cannot happen on the usual scale now because of the coronavirus precautions. Wrestling is not about social distancing.
Catka knows people with mild cases of COVID-19. He feels fortunate to be able to lift weights three days a week and do agility training at Brookhaven home in the celebrated "Wrestling Lab" with Ryan.
Before Catka's championship bout in Hershey, he allowed himself to watch Ryan pull off a dramatic rally to place third in states at 195 pounds.
"As I was warming up and getting ready for my match, I saw him over there getting that last-second win," Catka said. "It was exciting. I was pumped up. I was almost tired from jumping and down, getting all excited. It gave me some extra 'oompf' when I went out there."
The bonding time now not only has enabled Catka to regroup, which is difficult for the young man who Ellis says has no off button, but has helped him appreciate what Ryan has meant to him.
"I've always been proud of him but especially this season with overcoming injuries and overcoming a lot of mental stuff, a lot of hardships," Hunter Catka said. "He's come back and really dedicated his life to doing whatever it takes to be a great wrestler. He's not in my shadow. He's definitely made a name for himself already. I can't wait to see what he does next year. Hopefully beating some of my stuff."
Last year in Hershey, Hunter Catka shared the podium with three of the wrestlers he defeated on the way to the 285-pound title. He gave his brother a hug, as well as his parents and friends.
The Catkas received a heroes welcome upon their return to Delaware County, the Aston Fire and Police departments collecting them in Concord and driving them to Sun Valley's campus for a meet-and-greet with fans.
Signing autographs for the wrestlers of tomorrow brought out the kid in Catka just as it did three years ago after his first title.
The next day it was back to work to get ready for the Dapper Dan wrestling tournament in Pittsburgh. A few days later, the harsh reality of this coronavirus stepped in.
"The day before I was about to head out, they canceled it," Catka said of the tournament. "That's when I knew it was serious and I've got to kind of take a step back and go from there."
These are the times Catka trusts in his faith and tries to move on as best as he can. It helps to have a supportive brother and the 'Lab' trained wrestlers who worked together throughout the year as resources.
With the potential to excel in college and possibly on the world level, one thing is clear.
Any time the Aston Fire and Police want to include him in a celebration of life, they won't have to twist his arm to return home