Grappling with the success of his wrestling career

"Wrest­ling is one of the few sports where nat­ur­al abil­ity won't get you very far. You have to work doubly hard for everything." — Cal­vary Chris­ti­an Academy sopho­more Rich­ie Cerebe

Rich­ie Cerebe, a wrest­ler for Philmont Academy, though he is a sopho­more at Cal­vary Chris­ti­an, poses with trophies and medals in his house on Heath­er Street on Sunday, March 11, 2012. Kev­in Cook / for the Times


Many high school ath­letes stray from the beaten path to achieve great­ness, but Rich­ie Cerebe’s story may take the cake — es­pe­cially when you con­sider that his school doesn’t even field a team in his chosen sport.

Cerebe is a sopho­more wrest­ler at Cal­vary Chris­ti­an Academy in Somer­ton — but, tech­nic­ally, he’s not. Be­cause Cal­vary doesn’t have a team, Cerebe at­tends school there and wrestles for Phil-Mont Chris­ti­an Academy in Mont­gomery County as part of a co-op pro­gram between the two schools.

In a jour­ney that has seen Cerebe be part of three schools in the last year and a half, everything has worked out swim­mingly so far, even if a lot of people with­in the city lim­its haven’t heard of the two in­sti­tu­tions he’s cur­rently in­volved with.

Cerebe cer­tainly doesn’t mind Cal­vary or Phil-Mont’s vir­tu­al an­onym­ity on the Phil­adelphia high school sports scene, mainly be­cause he’s already ac­cus­tomed to wrest­ling be­ing over­shad­owed by the more “tra­di­tion­al” pop­u­lar sports like foot­ball, bas­ket­ball and base­ball. Know­ing he can’t change wrest­ling’s pub­lic per­cep­tion, Cerebe just con­cen­trates on what he can con­trol on the mat; thus far it has gone just fine — he pos­ted an eye-pop­ping 32-0 mark through Phil-Mont’s reg­u­lar sea­son and dis­trict tour­na­ment to qual­i­fy for the re­gion­al and state tour­na­ments.

“I def­in­itely was proud of my­self for what I achieved this year, but I don’t get over-proud,” Cerebe said dur­ing a chat in his kit­chen the week after he re­turned from the state tour­na­ment in Her­shey. “I’ll pat my­self on the back once in a while, but I need to stay fo­cused. When you go un­defeated for so long it’s easy to get cocky, but I can’t af­ford to do that, for many reas­ons.”

In a sense, Cerebe’s dom­in­ance has served as a bit of a double-edge sword. Win­ning more than 30 straight matches al­lowed him to place in the top tier of the South­east­ern Pennsylvania re­gion. After pla­cing fifth there, Cerebe qual­i­fied for states; be­cause the com­pet­i­tion level at his school isn’t as strong, Cerebe was a tad over­whelmed when he got to Her­shey, los­ing both of his matches in the double-elim­in­a­tion tour­na­ment.

He began wrest­ling by chance as a boy when his fath­er, Rich, dis­covered a fli­er on the ground for young wrest­lers in nearby Ben­s­alem. His ex­per­i­ence play­ing foot­ball al­lowed Cerebe to achieve in­stant suc­cess with wrest­ling, mainly be­cause he already was com­fort­able with the phys­ic­al com­pon­ent of the sport. It wasn’t long be­fore Cerebe stood out among most of the boys his age, and by his third year he was en­ter­ing na­tion­al tour­na­ments in Mary­land, Ohio and Michigan. He even re­ceived ex­tra in­struc­tion twice a week from Olympi­an wrest­ler Bobby Weaver, who runs a Quaker­town wrest­ling club.

Cerebe’s wrest­ling en­deavors have taken him far and wide, but by no means does his win-loss tally mean that any of his ac­com­plish­ments have come easy.

“It’s a six-to-sev­en-day-a-week com­mit­ment,” said Rich Cerebe, Rich­ie’s fath­er. “Rich­ie had to prac­tice with Phil-Mont and then would have ad­di­tion­al prac­tices or train­ing ses­sions right after. He’s com­pet­ing in a man’s sport, and since he doesn’t come from a wrest­ling fam­ily, he es­sen­tially had to fig­ure it out from scratch when he got star­ted. I don’t think any of us knew the kind of com­mit­ment it was at first, which makes what he’s achieved even more amaz­ing.”

After gradu­at­ing from eighth grade at Cal­vary Chris­ti­an, Rich­ie Cerebe en­rolled at La Salle Col­lege High School for his fresh­man year. La Salle’s ath­let­ic and aca­dem­ic pro­grams are among the city’s best, and he had suc­cess in both de­part­ments, post­ing a 15-5 re­cord des­pite bat­tling vari­ous in­jur­ies and a drain­ing com­mute from his Somer­ton home.

And al­though he did just fine at La Salle, something didn’t seem right; thus Rich­ie soon began look­ing in­to oth­er op­tions, but his de­cision was made much easi­er when he dis­covered he could re­turn to nearby Cal­vary Chris­ti­an and still wrestle at the high school level.

The level of com­pet­i­tion in the Bi­cen­ten­ni­al Ath­let­ic League (in which Phil-Mont com­petes) was clearly a step be­low what is en­countered in a typ­ic­al year in the Phil­adelphia Cath­ol­ic or Inter-Ac Leagues, but be­cause of his dom­in­ance Cerebe was able to reach the state tour­na­ment as just a sopho­more in the 126-pound weight class.

Though he may have lost to older, more ex­per­i­enced wrest­lers, reach­ing this level so early gave Cerebe an idea of what it takes to suc­ceed on the big stage, as well as what it will take to get over the hump in his fi­nal two years.

“I think there are some good loc­al wrest­lers, but when you get up to a state tour­na­ment it’s kind of an eye-open­ing ex­per­i­ence,” he said. “I wouldn’t say all of them are bet­ter than what I was used to see­ing, but they def­in­itely take it more ser­i­ously and are more fo­cused. It was good for me to see a com­pletely new level of wrest­ling as just a sopho­more. The ex­per­i­ence has pushed me to want to place in next year’s tour­na­ment — an ‘aim as high as you can’ type of thing.”

Ad­ded the eld­er Cerebe: “Pennsylvania is prob­ably the most cut­throat state in the coun­try for high school wrest­ling, so get­ting to com­pete in the state tour­na­ment al­lowed him to dis­cov­er his strengths and weak­nesses. Once he works on get­ting men­tally stronger, he’ll be bet­ter off, and this was a good les­son in get­ting to that point.”

Rich­ie and his fath­er agree that, while the 32-0 mark in the Bi­cen­ten­ni­al League is im­press­ive, Rich­ie might even be­ne­fit from los­ing a few matches dur­ing his reg­u­lar sea­son in the com­ing years. By get­ting pushed to the lim­it by the com­pet­i­tion, it’s much easi­er to ad­just to not only hand­ling de­feat, but also learn­ing from it.

“There are good losses in wrest­ling, as long as you can learn from it,” Rich Cerebe said. “You al­most have to lose dur­ing your reg­u­lar sea­son, be­cause if you aren’t used to los­ing then it will men­tally catch up to you in these end-of-sea­son tour­na­ments. Los­ing makes it easi­er to pre­pare for the next match, es­pe­cially when the level of com­pet­i­tion is high­er.”

Rich­ie Cerebe plans to take his pre­par­a­tion to the next level by us­ing the sum­mer off­season to hone his skills. He is not sure what the next two years will hold for him, but whatever the case, he hopes to bring more aware­ness to a sport that is al­ways fight­ing for rel­ev­ance around these parts.

“People’s mis­con­cep­tions of wrest­ling are kind of an­noy­ing, es­pe­cially when they think it’s easy to go out there and just pin someone,” he said. “You have to be very smart to suc­ceed, from know­ing the tech­niques and be­ing both stronger and quick­er than your op­pon­ent. It’s prob­ably one of the few sports where nat­ur­al abil­ity won’t get you very far, but I like it be­cause you have to work doubly hard for everything that comes your way. That’s why if you put everything you have in­to it and don’t win, it can still be re­ward­ing. As long as you know you’re learn­ing and grow­ing to­ward fix­ing it, then it’s all worth it.”

Rich­ie’s ex­cel­lence on the mat has cer­tainly brought the tight-knit Cerebe fam­ily closer to­geth­er; in ad­di­tion to Rich­ie’s wrest­ling achieve­ments, his 13-year-old sis­ter Shayne has blos­somed in­to a highly-touted swim­mer. Ad­di­tion­ally, a cous­in, Dylan, lives around the corner and plays hockey for Holy Ghost Prep. Watch­ing their chil­dren suc­ceed ath­let­ic­ally has filled Rich and Kathy Cerebe with pride, mainly be­cause of the way their chil­dren have ma­turely handled them­selves.

“Rich­ie and I had a con­ver­sa­tion be­fore he star­ted high school about how hard this sport is and what type of com­mit­ment it takes in or­der to suc­ceed,” Rich Cerebe said. “It has to be one-hun­dred per­cent his de­sire. He has to want it for him­self, and not for mom or dad or any­one else, be­cause do­ing it half-heartedly will not work. He told us he wants to go to col­lege and wrestle at a Di­vi­sion-I level, and his work eth­ic on the mat and in the classroom speaks volumes to his com­mit­ment to the sport.”

At just 15, Rich­ie Cerebe has already ac­com­plished more than most kids his age, but his unique cir­cum­stances have kept him hungry for fur­ther suc­cess down the line.

“So far it’s been a fun, cool ex­per­i­ence,” he said. “Ob­vi­ously I want to dom­in­ate every­one I wrestle, but at the same time I like to com­pete against kids that are bet­ter than me so it will get me ready to wrestle at the next level. Be­ing able to go wrestle at Her­shey was great; even though I lost my matches, it got me more mo­tiv­ated than ever to get back next year and the year after.” ••


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