After checking in for each match, Austin Clabaugh jogs to the edge of the mat, facing out, and says a quick prayer.
The Bermudian Springs junior speaks to God and to his mother, Karen, who died of a sudden heart attack at age 45 in early December.
“Every match, I ask them for strength and to be with me for when I wrestle," Clabaugh said. "It has to be quick because the refs like to yell at me every time I do it. But I’m not changing that, that’s staying the same.”
He's dedicating this season to his mother, and when the postseason begins Saturday, if he keeps wrestling the way he has since her death, he could be standing on the podium in Hershey next month wearing a medal to dedicate to her.
• • •
Karen Clabaugh logged thousands of miles over the years driving Austin to wrestling practices, camps and tournaments.
She drove him to practices near and far at every time of the year. She drove him to meets all across Pennsylvania, and even to tournaments as far away as Virginia Beach, Virginia, and Orlando, Florida.
Sometimes, she'd be the only one in the crowd cheering for Austin at a tournament hundreds of miles from home. Matches at camps were just about the only ones she missed.
“Sometimes my dad would say, ‘Do we really want to go to a tournament that far away?’ or something because he wouldn’t be able to go, but just my mom and I would make the trip," Austin said. “She would never do anything to hold me back from wrestling. As much as I was willing to commit myself, she was in that much further. She was always willing to commit herself as much, or more, than I was into wrestling."
Austin's coaches and teammates are quick to describe him as "a hard worker." He practices with the Gladiator Wrestlers club in Gettysburg all spring and finds any team to practice with during the summer, including — don't tell anyone — rival Boiling Springs. Off the mat, his GPA approaches a 4.0.
But he'll tell you he hasn't always been that way, that his mother helped instill that work ethic in him.
"I would always want to compete, but I wouldn’t necessarily want to do the two, three, four practices a week leading up to it," Clabaugh said. "She said, ‘If you’re going to compete, you have to stay at your best all the time.’ That’s just how she wanted me to wrestle, if I was going to wrestle I was gonna be practicing, I was gonna be ready to.”
• • •
Austin Clabaugh walked into coach Dave McCollum's office the morning of Saturday, Dec. 5, and broke into tears.
What started out as a normal morning before a day of wrestling had taken a frightening turn when Austin saw Karen collapse in their home. As he and his father tried to help her, a barely responsive Karen reassured Austin that she'd be okay and encouraged him to go wrestle.
But Austin knew something wasn't right, and his fears were confirmed a couple hours later when his grandparents picked him up from the Cumblerland Valley Kickoff Classic, where he was scheduled to wrestle in the semifinals. They brought him to rejoin his family at York Hospital, where doctors later broke the news that she wouldn't make it.
“The death of a mother, especially a mother like Austin’s that really supported him through his love for wrestling and all that he’s done with the sport, it’s a very special situation," McCollum said. "Thinking how devastating that is to experience as an adult, let alone as a child, I don’t know how to put it into words. Our team rallied around Austin very quickly and supported him and gave him direction.”
Bermudian Springs junior Ashton West, a close friend and practice partner of Clabaugh's since elementary school, joined Austin at the hospital that night. When Austin said he wanted to do something with the team on Sunday, Ashton made sure it happened.
He gathered Austin's teammates, coaches, and other good friends from the school to meet for a meal at Round the Clock Diner in York. Some former teammates showed up to support him, as well.
"We were very much on top of trying to keep Austin focused and trying to get through this tragedy," McCollum said. "It’s one part of life you don’t really talk about, but it is a part of life.”
The following day, West and teammates Colby Smith and Ben Egenrieder took the day off from school with Austin and went to High Rock in Hagerstown.
“He just wanted to get his mind off things, so we spent the whole day with him,” West said.
• • •
The sectional tournament is set for Saturday, and Clabaugh hasn't lost since Dec. 12, when he lost in the championship bout of the Carlisle Holiday Tournament.
That was the only match he's wrestled in and lost all season. Technically, his record this season is 25-4, but three of those matches marked as losses came when he left the Cumblerland Valley Kickoff Classic and forfeited all of his matches the day Karen died. He beat Boiling Springs 2015 state medalist Jalen Hankerson in late January, then pinned him in a rematch a few days later.
This comes after Clabaugh qualified for the PIAA tournament last year and went 2-2 in Hershey.
“We expected Austin to be pretty tough this year," McCollum said. "He had a great season last year, qualifying for states was huge, and we were hoping that this year he’d come in a little bit more focused and ready to take the next step. Obviously, we’re hoping to get back to states and get on the podium.”
Clabaugh said his improved technique and aggressiveness from the neutral position are the biggest differences in his wrestling since last season. He's taking his opponents down more often to get on top, a position where he's always been strong.
He wrestled at 126 pounds for much of the season, but for the postseason he will go down to 120 pounds, where he wrestled last season. His sights are set on placing first at sectionals this weekend, in the top two in districts next weekend and in the top four at the state tournament the second week of March.
His mother won't be in the crowd like he's used to, but she'll be on his mind as he tries to earn a state medal to dedicate to her.
“It’s on my mind right up until I wrestle, but then I just wrestle," Clabaugh said. "It’s always in the back of my mind, but I’ve come to terms with it at this point. I’ve got to keep going.”
The high school wrestling individual postseason begins this weekend, wrapping up with the state tournament March 12. Here's the schedule.
District 3 sectional tournaments
Sectionals will be held Saturday. The tournaments are split into two sessions, with admission to each session costing $6 for adults and $4 for students.
Class AA: York-Adams teams will compete in the Section I tournament at Susquenita starting at 9:30 a.m. Saturday. The championship session begins at 5:30 p.m. Local participants: Bermudian Springs, Biglerville, Delone Catholic, Eastern York, Fairfield, Hanover and Littlestown. Top six wrestlers from each weight class advance.
Class AAA: York-Adams teams will compete in the Section V tournament at South Western starting at 8:30 a.m. Saturday. The championship session begins at 5:30 p.m. Local participants: Central York, Dallastown, Dover, Gettysburg, Kennard-Dale, New Oxford, Northeastern, Red Lion, South Western, Spring Grove, Susquehannock, West York, York Suburban, York County Tech. Top three wrestlers from each weight class advance.
District 3 tournament
The Class AAA and AA district tournaments are Feb. 26-27 at Hersheypark Arena.
The PIAA Southeast Regional Class AA tournament is March 4-5 at Wilson High School. There is no additional regional tournament for Class AAA.
The PIAA Class AAA and AA tournaments are March 10-12 at Giant Center.