Jon Bon Jovi once sang that no man is an island.
Apparently, he never met Richie Cerebe.
Cerebe, a senior wrestler at Calvary Christian Academy in Somerton, recently returned from the postseason state tournament in Hershey with some new hardware around his neck, finishing sixth in the PIAA Class AA bracket at 152 pounds.
The most fascinating aspect of Cerebe’s journey is not that he came home with a state medal, but rather how he got there. You see, while every other wrestler in the state tournament improved upon their craft throughout the season by mixing it up with teammates in the practice room, Cerebe wasn’t so lucky.
In fact, Cerebe is Calvary Christian’s only wrestler. The school doesn’t have a team, so after a freshman season at La Salle, Cerebe transferred to Calvary to be closer to home and wrestled for Phil-Mont Christian in Glenside as part of a co-op program. When that sponsorship expired following his junior year, he knew full well he wanted to represent his own school in his final go-round, which left one burning question:
“To be able to graduate from Calvary, that was something I really wanted,” Cerebe said at the kitchen table of his Somerton home the Monday after he returned from Hershey. “I knew I wanted to make it work somehow. People knew who I was, but at the same time I really hadn’t made a name for myself. I wanted to get to the state level and achieve something, but it’s hard to find practices when you’re a one-man team.”
Enter Cerebe’s father, Rich. Luckily for the younger Cerebe, he’s not totally an island, adrift at sea without a lifejacket. No, his father stepped up as his coach, meticulously designing a workout program for Richie while working with tournament directors to allow his lone wolf son to hit the mat without an entire team behind him.
“Richie wanted to represent Calvary … it was a school spirit thing,” Rich said. “I had a plan, but only on paper, so things could and did change. Richie and I agreed he was going to have to have patience and discipline to make this work. Luckily, he’s the hardest-working athlete I’ve ever seen, so he’s not afraid to push himself outside of his comfort zone. As a wrestler, that’s how you have to work.”
Without a coordinated team practice, Rich would drive Richie after school to MPR Endurance, a mixed-martial arts training facility in Fairless Hills to train. Richie also spent time training with local wrestlers such as Father Judge’s Joe Galasso (whom he’s known since he was a child) and Neshaminy’s Raheem Rahamatulla, a rising junior, something he said was invaluable in a senior season where he went 23-5, won districts, regionals and his 100th career match.
“In the practice room, I usually take it to the kids to the point where they get better, but at the same time I’m not getting what I need,” Richie said. “A guy like Joey, who’s won a state title, took it to me and helped push me to the next level. He showed me if you have the right work ethic, then nothing can stop you.”
Added Rich, regarding Rahamatulla: “That kid, I don’t even know if he realizes how big a part of Richie’s success he was, just enduring the punishment Richie put him through in practice. He was a steady partner who wouldn’t complain or cry. They both got a lot out of it.”
In Hershey, Cerebe knocked off his first opponent, 9-0, before upsetting favorite Drew Doak in the quarterfinals, 3-1. In the semis, he had Southern Columbia’s Blake Marks on the ropes with about a minute left in the match, before Marks exhibited a “funky move” and was able to pin Richie, keeping him out of the state finals. Cerebe lost his two consolation round match-ups the next day to finish sixth.
“The next two, I just couldn’t get my mind off how close I was,” Richie admitted. “Being 45 to 60 seconds away from the finals of the toughest tournament in the country, it was rough. I couldn’t get my head back into it. But it was a great run. It didn’t go exactly the way I wanted, but I still made a mark and I’m pretty proud of that. Even just talking about it now is disappointing, but better things are coming my way in college.”
Indeed. Richie has already committed to Messiah College, a Division III wrestling powerhouse located just outside of Harrisburg. The school has a strong criminal justice program, which interests Richie, and the school’s wrestling coach, Bryan Brunk, said in his recruiting pitch that Messiah was a few wrestlers away from a national championship. He sees Richie as one of those missing pieces.
“To win a national championship in college, I think that’s any serious wrestler’s dream,” he said. “And after what I’ve been through already, that thought doesn’t seem so distant.”
If Richie’s unique season accomplished anything, it’s that it brought him even closer to his father. Not that they necessarily needed it, because they already shared a tight-knit bond tracing all the way back to when Richie was 5 years old and started playing competitive sports.
“We started together all the way back then, and the best thing he said to me was, ‘I want you to coach me to a state medal this year,’ ” Rich said. “For me to be able to go up there and place the medal around his neck, it was a great moment. The greatest moment.
“People didn’t think he’d even make it to states given all he went through with his situation, so it’s amazing. He accomplished everything this season that he’s worked so hard for.”
And despite falling short of a state championship in Hershey, in the end, Richie has no regrets. Participating in a sport that requires so much physical and mental discipline tends to allow competitors to leave everything on the mat.
“The sport, it exposes your character, shows you what you’re made of,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d be doing now if not for wrestling. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it translates to life. It makes things that once looked impossible seem easier. I’ve done football, hockey, soccer and swimming, but wrestling just can’t be touched in terms of what it takes to succeed.
“You learn things about yourself you may not have otherwise known. It all translates. It opens your eyes. People try to compare it to other sports, but to me, it doesn’t really compare at all. All you need is the right mindset. Once you have that, nothing can stop you. You can achieve anything you want to.” ••