Joe Ramunno's return to the top has been a journey filled with sweat and a brief bout of nervousness.
The latter took place in his very first wrestling match of the season. The fact that the West Seneca East senior had a case of the butterflies makes sense in retrospect.
Sure the 6-foot-2, 265-pound athlete's surgically repaired left knee held up during the rigors of trench warfare on the football field, but would it hold up on the mat – the same sport where his promising junior season ended abruptly via twist of fate after he fell awkwardly while trying to prevent a take down?
"It was more of a mind game than anything," Trojans coach Will Walkden said. "There were reasons for nervousness going into that match. I do believe he had to go through that. … There was doubt before the season that he'd even wrestle because of the knee."
Ramunno lost that match to Lake Shore's Shaerod Rodgers but has come out the big winner in the long run. Ramunno cleared a mental hurdle by proving to himself that he, or more specifically the knee, was strong enough to get through a wrestling match against a high-level opponent without any problems.
That's great news for Ramunno, but bad news for future competition.
Ramunno heads into Saturday's Section VI Class A Championship Tournament having won 38 of his 39 matches since that defeat with his biggest victory coming two weeks ago at the ECIC Championships – where he won his second straight title at 285 pounds.
He is once again one of the favorites to win the title in his weight class at the Class A Tournament. But unlike last year, he'll have a chance to compete in that meet whose top five placers qualify for next weekend's overall Section VI championship meet.
"I'm more excited than ever," said Ramunno, who enters the weekend with a 70-16 career record with 13 of those defeats coming in his first year in the sport as a sophomore.
"I'm just going to keep moving forward," said Ramunno, an All-Western New York first team selection at offensive line last football season. "The hard work definitely paid off. … Being able to come back from a torn ACL and win ECICs is great. I believe I had the fastest pin in the finals match."
The Class Tournaments in AA (Lancaster), A (Starpoint), B (Cheektowaga), C (Falconer) and D (Maple Grove) take place in different venues in the area Saturday. Each meet starts at 9 a.m. with finals slated for 4:30 p.m. Top five in each weight class in Classes AA and A advance to the Section VI Division I meet. The top four in each weight class in each of the smaller classification tournaments advance to the Section VI Division II meet.
Both Section VI Division I and II meets are slated for Feb. 11. Division I is at North Tonawanda, with Division II at the Allegany Community Center in Salamanca.
Ramunno won the ECIC meet last year but suffered his only loss in 18 matches in a regular-season contest days before the Class Tournament. In that match, Ramunno planted his leg in an attempt to thwart a take down.
But in doing so …
"It was just a fluke way I fell down, just a twisting motion and it popped," said Ramunno, who finished the first period of that match before dropping out via injury default.
After surgery, Ramunno attacked rehab the same way he goes after his opponents – aggressively. He not only worked out under medical supervision, he also exercised on his own at home just to make sure he'd be ready for football season. He ran two miles a day in the morning during the summer before team workout sessions.
Such was his determination to return stronger than ever.
"I was mad at myself (for getting hurt)," he said. "It was just a fluke thing. Take it as a challenge and overcome it. That's how I looked at it."
The work paid off as Ramunno, who hopes to someday either become a park ranger or Deparment of Environmental Conservation officer, is an imposing-looking figure for a high school athlete.
"He does look like he's 25," Walkden said. "There are 285 pounders out there with no muscle tone where Joe is 100 percent muscle. … He goes out there and attacks. These kids have no idea what's coming."
What is coming?
Ramunno has a chance to put a hurting on the competition in the late-season tournaments that matter most, which is definitely better than being in pain watching from the sidelines wondering what might have been.
West Seneca East last had a wrestler win a title at the Class Tournament and win at the Section VI meet back in 2013 when Danny Graham qualified for the state tournament.
Ramunno hopes to follow in his footsteps.
"It'd be a big statement for me and my school," Ramunno said. "Words can't even explain it."