By NATE HECKENBERGER

nateheckenberger@gmail.com

@nheckenberger

There is a great and telling image from moments after West Chester Henderson's Brad Patton clinched a spot in the state tournament this past Saturday.

In the photo, Patton's aunt, Heather Conroy, is in the midst of celebrating in front of the bleachers, pacing and jumping. Her face intense with pride and joy, while her daughter, Avery, who's she's holding is clenching with the kind of fear on her face of a first roller coaster ride.

It is a fitting image for Patton's career, one that has had its downs and more recently, its most-rewarding moments.

As Patton and seven other locals begin the Class AAA PIAA championships today in the first round, starting at 4 p.m. at the Giant Center in Hershey, the Henderson senior has had stretches in his career that would make this final destination unimaginable.

"It's been pretty neat,' Patton said. "My family was going crazy. It was constant text messages, like ' we're going to Hershey, baby.' When I didn't wrestle my sophomore year my family was asking ' what are we gonna do? Who are we gonna root for?' They're probably more excited than I am.'

Patton will try to navigate a talented 138-pound bracket, starting with two-time state runner-up, junior Mike Kemerer of Franklin Regional. A win would get him to the quarterfinals Friday afternoon. A loss would mean a win-or-go-home consolation match in the round that starts at 7:15 p.m, tonight.

Playing the role of underdog suits Patton well. In the fall he was a 155-pound starting nose tackle on the football team. He also plays catcher in the spring on the baseball team. The year-round sports slate is what led to him not wrestling as a sophomore after a 10-12 freshman season. It almost kept him away this year, as well.

"I wasn't gonna come out,' Patton recalls. "I wasn't sure what I was gonna do. My head wasn't in it completely and we had a new coach so I didn't know what to expect. (Former) coach (Dean) Donley was there my whole career and my uncle (Ken Long) was a coach, too. I talked to my Aunt (Heather) and she basically said that I'd look back and regret not doing it with an opportunity to go to states.'

Patton had an up-and-down regular season, going 17-5, wrestling anywhere from 145 to 160. He made the drop to 138 for leagues and lost his second match, 12-4, to Octorara's Troy McBride. In his consolation match against West Chester Rustin's Matt Ricci, Patton had to take injury time to run to the bathroom and, well, ahem, relieve himself.

Whatever was in him was clearly holding him back, because from that point on he won seven straight bouts, including pinning Ricci and winning districts a week later.

Patton credits new coach Rob Beighley and his staff for his renaissance.

"Rob brought a different attitude and he gets really psyched,' Patton said. "He pours a lot of passion into me and it's meant a lot to me. He's focused on my strengths and kept working on it.'

The skepticism that weighed on Patton early in the season has turned to peace of mind and a lot of confidence heading to Hershey.

"I'm looking forward to the whole experience,' Patton said. "I feel like I can beat anyone at this point if I wrestle my match.'

Let's just hope little Avery has a good grip this weekend.

Here's a quick look at the seven other local qualifiers. In the double-elimination, 16-man brackets, one has to win two matches before losing two to clinch a trip to the eight-man podium.

Wade Cummings, Downingtown East, Sophomore, 120 pounds

Cummings starts his first trip to states as the Southeast second seed and faces the Northeast's runner-up, Tyrone Klump of Nazareth, in the first round. Klump took third at 106 last year and Nazareth kids are always a tough out in Hershey. A win would likely get him three-time state medalist Jake Gromacki of Erie Cathedral Prep. A loss to Klump would set him up with a pair of wrestlers ranked lower than him, barring an upset, so a medal is doable for Cummings.

Shane Ruhnke, Great Valley, Senior, 145 pounds

In his second trip to the Giant Center, Ruhnke has a winnable first-round match against the Northwest's runner-up, Demetri Probst of Central Mountain. If he moves on to the quarters he'll likely get returning state champ, Soloman Chishko of Canon McMillan. A loss in the first or second round will likely set him up with a tough road to medaling, with either Franklin Regional's Josh Maruca, ranked No. 3 in the state, or Big Spring's Chad Wickard, who beat Ruhnke 10-5 in the elimination round last winter. Still, Ruhnke has a shot if he's on his game.

Gabe Hale, Downingtown West, Senior, 170 pounds

Hale's first trip to states starts with another Hershey newbie in Devin Fallenstein of Ringgold, the Northwest's third-place finisher. If Hale can win there his run for the semis will be blocked by Kennard Dale's three-time champ Chance Marsteller, who's never lost in his high school career. Miracles do happen, but if they don't for Hale, he would likely get another first-timer at states to advance to the medal rounds. A loss in the first round isn't a disaster, either, as he'd have winnable bouts in the consis, maybe even Norristown's Rashon Lusane.

Caleb Edwards, Avon Grove, Senior, 182 pounds

After finishing second at regionals last week, Edwards may actually have gotten the better draw. He'll start with Southwest third-placer Clay Byerly of North Allegheny. While no draw is easy in Hershey, Edwards has the ability to win that one and face either a first-time junior or sophomore. The semifinals are a distinct possibility for Edwards if he can execute a full six minutes of wrestling. Greater Latrobe's two-time state medalist, Zack Zavatsky, is on Edwards' side, and he is the favorite to win the weight. Edwards' first two opponents look like better options than his potential consi foes, so winning early is key in terms of medaling.

Wesley McGuire, Coatesville, Junior, 195 pounds

McGuire has had an impressive postseason run, bumping up from 182, but he will get his toughest test in DuBois' Tom Sleigh, an undefeated, four-time state qualifier and returning state medalist. Sleigh is the No. 1 ranked kid in the state, while No. 2 Jon Johnson of Governor Mifflin is in McGuire's quarter of the bracket, as well. It will take McGuire's A-game on his feet to keep him in contention for a medal, but he has the steepest odds of all the locals.

Mike Boykin, Coatesville, Senior, 220 pounds

In beating Boyertown's Jordan Wood, the No. 1 kid in the state going into regionals, Boykin is now looked at by many as the favorite to win the title. With the way he's been wrestling, it's a distinct possibility. The returning third-place state medalist starts his third trip to Hershey with first-timer Lucas Chestnut of Mechanicsburg. He should work his way to the semis where Solanco's Bo Spiller could be his toughest opponent. Boykin and Wood are the only returning medalists so they are expected to see each other in the finals for the rubber match, since Wood won the 2013 regional finals.

Sean Snodgrass, Downingtown East, Senior, 285 pounds

The East big man earned a return trip to states and is rewarded with a first-round matchup against three-time state champ, Thomas Haines of Solanco. Only a heavyweight headlock may save him. If Snodgrass does drop to the consis, he will have a much more manageable bout. The way it looks, he could very well get a rematch with Hempfield's Joey Goodhart, who beat Snodgrass 6-4 last year. It's not the greatest draw, but as the third seed from the Southeast, it's definitely not a death sentence either. If Snodgrass can score on his feet, he can get to the podium.