St. John's Eagles Wrestling '07-'08

Linsey Tait, Staff Photographer

Harding following championship blueprint at St. John's

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Friday, February, 08 By Mike Grenier
Staff writer

Ryan Harding was a serious wrestler from the moment he entered St. John's Prep two years ago as a freshman.

His coach, Manny Costa, never questioned Harding's commitment. Neither did his teammates, who immediately noticed the kid's work ethic.

"From Day 1, Ryan had a goal at each practice. I was impressed," said Ryan Malo, a two-time state champion who went 58-0 last season as a senior and earned All-American status at the Prep.

It's virtually impossible to duplicate Malo's achievements, but Harding is following the blueprint pretty well. The 17-year-old junior is 43-3 in the 135-pound class and is a genuine threat to win the Division 1 North Sectional in Methuen tomorrow.

With a career record of 98-31, Harding is also on the doorstep of becoming the 24th member of the 100-win club at St. John's Prep. That's a fairly big deal to Costa, who equates 100 wins in wrestling to 1,000 points in basketball because of the Eagles' demanding schedule.

"Let's face it; we go against the elite teams," said Costa. Harding wouldn't want it any other way. His toughness and acumen were in evidence last year, when he set a sophomore record at the Prep with 48 wins. That broke the old mark of 46 set by Mike Pedro, who was the winningest wrestler in state history (213 career victories).

Harding, a North Andover native, was a force in the postseason, finishing second in Division 1, third at the all-state meet and in the top eight at the New Englands. "I really enjoyed being the underdog last year," said Harding, who took up wrestling in fifth grade. "No one knew who I was. I took out kids that didn't expect to be taken out."

Taking his lumps

It's entirely different this season. Harding is the Prep's sole captain, and his reputation coming into the season was already established.

In the tightly-knit world of schoolboy wrestling, where competitors keep track of each other on the Internet, Harding was now targeted as one of the favorites in his weight class. He had to adjust to that role | and it wasn't a smooth process.

"He came to me in early December and said, 'Everyone is counting me to pin in dual meets'," said Costa. "He was now the hunted instead of the hunter, and he was a little worried about it. I just said to him, 'You just take care of Ryan Harding.' He's only one guy and he just has to do the best he can. We have 14 other weight classes. You have to put the team equation into it.

"Ryan took a hit in the first round of the Lowell Holiday Tournament (losing to Tom Holt of Haverhill) this season, but it's the best thing that could've happened to him. I put it on him | let's see what you're made of for the rest of the tournament. It's a grind. He had to take eight straight the hard way (to finish third overall). If you want to be a champion, you have to do that kind of stuff."

Harding has always been willing to do the extra things to elevate himself to the next level. He posted a 7-14 record his freshman year, yet it wasn't because he was a terrible wrestler. Costa would use Ben Ersing in the 125-pound weight class because his team needed the points. Thus, Harding was relegated to the 119 class, where he often wrestled the cream of the crop, including state champion John Shugrue of Methuen and New England champ Aaron Kalil of Salem, N.H. "Ryan was our sacrificial lamb that year," said Costa. But the kid didn't back down from anybody."

"He was a freshman competing against all these great wrestlers who were juniors and seniors," said Kelley Johnson, a junior on the Prep wrestling team and Harding's workout partner. "It was phenomenal to watch Ryan against those guys. He was thrown to the wolves and you'd expect him to get thrashed, but it didn't happen."

Harding figured out pretty quickly that Costa wasn't trying to shatter his confidence as a freshman. This was the coach's way of shaping his character and getting him on the mat as often as possible.

"At the time, I wasn't fond of getting beat up," recalled Harding, "but it showed me what I would need to do. I understood that it was for the betterment of the team and I bounced back. I started to set my goals higher. That freshman year showed me what my standards should be."

Ready for the postseason

Harding was a three-sport athlete | football, wrestling and lacrosse | in his first two years at the Prep, but he gave up football last season to devote more time to wrestling. He went to a wrestling camp in East Bridgewater last summer and followed it up with three weeks of intensive training at former Olympian Ken Chertow's camps in Pennsylvania, where he faced strong competitors from eastern and midwestern states.

When school started up again in September, Harding became a regular at the Doughboys Wrestling Club in Lowell.

The goal in the offseason was always to stay sharp and absorb as much as he could from multiple sources. It's obviously paid off this season, and Harding is about as prepared as he could possibly be for the postseason.

Tim Rich of Chelmsford will be the wrestler to beat in Harding's weight class. Rich, who was the quarterback on the Lions' Super Bowl football team, is already a two-time state champion.

"These two kids have contrasting styles," said Costa. "Ryan is a defensive wrestler and Ryan is more of an offensive wrestler. It'll be a cat-and-mouse game. So Ryan will have to get by him if he wants to be a state champion.

"Can Ryan do it? Absolutely. He's come a long way since he got here."

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