HAVERFORD — When L.J. Barlow began wrestling in kindergarten, his parents encouraged him — but also told him that if he didn't like the grind, he could stop competing.
Their passion was understandable.
L.J.'s dad, Larry, wrestled at Sun Valley and Drexel University, while his mom's uncle, Mark Cagle, earned All-American honors as a sophomore at West Virginia University in 1979.
"They were definitely a motivating force for me to get into the sport, I could tell that they really loved wrestling,' L.J. Barlow said, recalling fond childhood memories of those early years.
"But as much as they wanted me to get into wrestling, they never pressured me to stay with it. All the travel, all the practices, all the tournaments they've provided me everything I've needed to succeed. So, yeah, I'd say my mom and dad have been giant factors in my career.'
That love, encouragement and countless miles put on the family van's odometer have paid off in spades.
For the second time in his high school career, L.J. Barlow has been selected the Daily Times' Wrestler of the Year.
Barlow is joined on the All-Delco first team by Upper Darby's Anthony Petril and Austin Petril, Garnet Valley's Michael Marino, Sean Lyons and Johnny Dambro, Marple Newtown's Pat Callaghan, Interboro's Eric Thomas, Springfield's Dennis Charamella, Bonner-Prendergast's Joe DePhillipo, Radnor's Tom Meyers, Penncrest's Liam Frank, Penn Wood's Karon Lucas-Tillery, Episcopal Academy's Cody Russell and Delco Christian's Scott Pendell.
The All-Delco teams are selected in consultation with area coaches.
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Barlow, the driven but soft-spoken and amicable 195-pounder, won the award as a freshman and has been a first-team All-Delco selection three years running.
"It's exciting and it's rewarding for us to see all the travel and hard work come to fruition,' Kelly Barlow said of her son's most recent accomplishment. "I'm glad that we have an opportunity as a family, which has been there with him since he was little, to celebrate this together.'
Barlow's junior season at Haverford School was nothing short of spectacular, running his career record with the Fords to 119-19 with a 39-4 campaign that began almost as a personal showcase in December with prestigious titles in the University of Delaware's Beast of the East tournament as well as the Battle at the Beach tourney at Indian River High in Delaware.
At the Walsh Jesuit Ironman tournament in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio — recognized as one of the country's elite scholastic events — Barlow lost his quarterfinal by ultimate tiebreaker and had to settle for a seventh-place finish that fueled him the rest of the way.
After capturing his second consecutive title in the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Tournament, Barlow wrestled his way to the finals of the Prep Nationals where he fell just short of his ultimate goal by finishing second with an overtime loss.
"It's awesome to think about all the things I've been able to accomplish in my high school career, but at the end of the day I'm still chasing the national title,' Barlow said. "Winning the Beast of the East was awesome and placing in all these tournaments was awesome, but my main goal is to win the national title.
"I'm kind of disappointed I wasn't able to accomplish it this year, but I'm pretty confident I'll be able to take home the title next year. I have had a great three years ... but not good enough, in my opinion.'
Asked to explain how he fell short, Barlow is able to visualize every painful detail.
"I was confident, as the first seed I kind of thought I could win,' he said. "I wrestled pretty decent but I didn't come to wrestle in the finals and lost —d and that's on me. One bad tournament doesn't take away from a great season, I just feel like I didn't wrestle aggressive enough. My opponent attack while I defended and that was my downfall. You' ve got to take that and learn.'
Barlow, who considers himself to be his harshest critic, felt that a disappointing break relegated him to seventh at the Ironman. But he lit up when dissecting his preparation and performance for the Beast of the East.
"I trained real hard leading up to it, ran sprints after practice and did extra work off the mat and it paid off,' he said. "I came ready to wrestle and blew through all my competition. That was awesome.'
Even before this season, Haverford School coach Bruce Kennett said Barlow "will go down as one of, if not, the best that ever competed here at Haverford.'
That assertion certainly seems spot on, considering how Barlow strives to improve both himself and his teammates even as opponents eye him up as a potential prize win they could place on the mantel and reminisce about years from now.
"L.J. Barlow is a very special kid,' Kennett said. "He's a very goal-oriented kid who sets goals that are very high, puts together a plan, and works very hard to achieve them. To succeed at the level he has achieved requires a lot of dedication and willingness to make sacrifices. He has an ' I'm going to beat you, no matter what it takes' mentality. He expects to win every time he steps on the mat.'
That all-in attitude also extends to the classroom, which is why Barlow intends to continue his education and wrestling career somewhere in the Ivy League.
But before he leaves the Fords, Barlow has some unfinished business both for his teammates and himself.
"Wrestling is a very, very difficult sport and you have to be mentally tough to do it,' Barlow said. "Cutting weight. Running. All the practices. It's one of the hardest, if not the hardest, sports on your body. The main problem with keeping a team together when not everyone is a stud is keeping them motivated and wanting to get better.
"Haverford School does a great job with that, because our coaches keep our wrestlers motivated and the captains do a great job too. I would like to think of myself like that, because I like to keep the younger kids motivated. I don't want the kid who started wrestling in eighth or ninth grade to quit because he's getting his butt kicked. That's not the point of it. You've got to keep on pushing through, keep motivated and keep positive and work hard for a common goal like winning the Inter-Ac League title.'
While Barlow is not bashful to say his remaining goals are "to win a national title and be the best there ever was in our school,' he also has his eye on the future and his family. Specifically his 10-year-old brother, Chase.
"I feel he has more natural talent than I did when I was his age,' Barlow said. "He's a little bit more athletic and quicker than me. He's gonna be good. Hopefully he exceeds what I've accomplished.'