Pope John Paul II’s Ryan Vulakh comes full circle, shakes off emotional 2017 disappointment into State semis

HERSHEY: There was an emptiness in Ryan Vulakh’s gut throughout the 2017 wrestling season. A piece of his life was taken away.

That’s how much wrestling means to Vulakh. It’s his love, it’s his passion, and having to sit on the sidelines and watch his friends and fellow competitors on the mat was emotionally taxing.

Vulakh was coming off an eighth-place finish his freshman year at North Penn. He transferred to Pope John Paul II for his sophomore season and was ruled ineligible by District 1 and PIAA.

So, Vulakh watched. He sucked it up and turned misery into motivation, working out every day to come back strong this season.

On Friday, that effort came full circle. Vulakh, now a junior, was back on high school wrestling’s biggest stage and blasted his way into the PIAA Class 3A Wrestling Championship semifinals with a 4-0 decision over Kiski Area’s Cam Connor at 145.

“It was real hard to deal with, especially since wrestling is such a big part of my life,” Vulakh said. “I train all year round, and I don’t play other sports. I’m not popular, I’m not known for anything, and wrestling was my only outlet.

“It was one of my few sources of enjoyment, and to have that taken away … just to practice hard and never get that enjoyment of stepping on the mat, getting to win a match, it was really tough to bear mentally. It was breaking and emotional.”

Continued Vulakh, “Medaling the year before was, obviously, great, but last year, I was pretty annoyed with what happened … like anyone would be.

“I worked out 20 times harder, coaches were 20 times harder on me, they pushed me, and I pushed myself every day. I knew I had to come back this year and make a statement. Hopefully, I can finish the tournament and make that statement.”

Mission accomplished.

Vulakh, ranked No. 2 in the state according to PA Power Wrestling, won Thursday’s opening match 4-0. He came back Friday with a workmanlike performance against Conner, No. 5 in the state, with an identical result.

The first period belonged to Vulakh. He didn’t score, but he pressed the action and put Connor on his heels for the rest of the match.

Connor chose bottom to start the second. Vulakh never relinquished his grip and was able to turn a bar into a tilt with 18 seconds left for an insurmountable 3-0 advantage.

“With the tilt, I knew I wanted to ride him,” Vulakh (29-4) said. “I knew if I rode him out, I could, hopefully, win 1-0. When I saw that I could get [the tilt], I was like, ‘If I can take advantage of this, it will seal the match.’ It just gave me a lot of confidence.”

But Vulakh didn’t relax.

The Southeast Region champ took bottom to start the third and was out within four seconds to extend his lead. Connor never recovered, as Vulakh continued to dominate the pace of the match.

“I was comfortable,” Vulakh said. “But kids can pull moves from anywhere. There have been plenty of kids who were up 5-0 and got pinned.

“It’s the way wrestling works. Even though it was sort of a break, you still have to be on your toes, just in case.”

A spot in the state semifinals is a goal Vulakh’s had since his freshman year, but it isn’t an ending point. Not for someone who loves the sport this much.

But the road up the medal stand gets a little tougher Saturday. Vulakh will square off against Nazareth hammer and Ohio State recruit Sammy Sasso, the defending state champ and No. 1-ranked wrestler in the state.

“Obviously, it’s [Sammy], and he is very good,” Vulakh said. “I just have to scout him and make a game plan. It’s as simple as that, although, it’s him. So hopefully, I can make a good game plan and be in the match.

“It’s great to be in the state semifinals, but hopefully, I can continue to wrestle better and better every match. That’s what it’s all about.”

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