Pope John Paul II’s Matt Vulakh Pulls The Early Upset Over State Champ Gary Steen

HERSHEY, Pa.: Pope John Paul II’s Matt Vulakh had a stunned, and almost uncomfortable, look as five reporters stood around him at Hershey’s Giant Center.

It wasn’t just the unnatural process of answering rapid-fire questions. Vulakh was a little overwhelmed by what he just accomplished during the opening rounds of the PIAA Championships.

Most wrestlers will tell you that they think they can win every time they take the mat. You never really know if they truly believe it, but Vulakh was honest when he revealed that he didn’t think he could beat Reynolds defending state champion Gary Steen, who only had one loss this season and came to Hershey as the No. 1 wrestler in the state.

But, Vulakh impressed even himself. He also got the crowd stirring early, when he controlled Steen and blew into tomorrow’s 106-pound quarterfinal round thanks to a 5-2 decision.

“I’m just in shock,” Vulakh said. “I wasn’t expecting to win that match, to be honest. When I got that first takedown, I was ready to go. I was in shock as soon as I got it and was able to keep it going.

“It’s a very big win, and it gives me a lot of confidence. He is the best kid in the bracket, but I’ve got to keep working at it.”

Vulakh had a nice warm up, a quick 58-second fall over Mount Union’s Bryce Beatty during the pigtail round. He got engaged early and finished quick.

That set the tone for the first-round match against Steen. Vulakh moved well and scored on a takedown 49 seconds into the first period for a 2-0 lead that sparked some interest in the crowd.

“I think it was an advantage,” Vulakh said of his match against Beatty. “It gets you a good warm-up and you are already wrestling. You’ve already felt it out and don’t need to get that feel in the first period.”

Steen escaped in short order but wasn’t able to add any points, and Vulakh led 2-1 after the first two-minute stanza.

Vulakh, who is ranked No. 7 in the state according to PA Power Wrestling, was on bottom to start the second. It took time, but he escaped with 1:05 showing on the scoring pylon for a two-point cushion heading to the third period.

There was a little bit of a buzz when Steen took bottom instead of neutral. The No. 1-ranked Raiders sophomore escaped in the first 10 seconds, but he couldn’t penetrate Vulakh’s defense and trailed 3-2 with a minute left.

“I had to just stay low and not let him in,” Vulakh said. “If he gets in on a shot, he is most likely going to finish it. So, you have to keep him away from that shot.

“It felt like a very long match, especially in the third period. You’ve got to keep the pace up and keep him off balance a little bit, and then get a takedown. He is trying to score points and isn’t worried about defending.”

That’s exactly what happened.

Steen was in desperation mode as the clock ticked down, which allowed Vulakh to score a takedown with less than 10 seconds left in the match and earn the decision.

“I was excited,” Vulakh said. “It was a good match for me to win. I want to keep building off of that. There are still some good kids left in the bracket, so I’m going to do my best.”

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