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.” ••EndFragment