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Farmboy phenom: Chance Marsteller is 'a LeBron James in wrestling'

This story was originally published in March 2010. 

It was a most unusual scene in the cramped junior high wrestling room:

Tired teens flopped through exercises and ran noodle-legged from one wall to the other -- as a 14-year-old barked out commands.

He told them to switch practice stations.

He demonstrated each wrestling move quickly and effortlessly, even with a dislocated elbow.

He huddled up to one wrestler, then another, advising them, encouraging them, even chastising them.

This is Chance Marsteller -- teammate and honorary coach. The kid who lives on the family farm on the line between Fawn and Hopewell townships in the South Eastern School District.

He's a phenom wrestling machine who has followers in this niche sport buzzing across the county, the state and beyond.

He has red hair and an almost cartoonish build for an eighth-grader, a stocky, 5-foot-6 frame with thick wrists and super-sized legs.

And, certainly, a lot of people already know about the kid who is tearing up star opponents five years older, the one making a name for himself at a school nearly devoid of any wrestling tradition.

"He's a LeBron James in wrestling," said Don Scarborough, his head junior high coach at Kennard-Dale. "I've had refs come up to me and say, 'Coach, I've never seen anybody wrestle like him before,' and these are refs who do district and state matches."

Scarborough added: "I'll be honest with you, I can't teach him anything. I just try to keep him in shape and enjoy having him around. He's like another coach."

Now, take it from one of his peers, though a much older one:

"Even as an eighth grader he can compare to any high school wrestler in Pennsylvania," said Victor Bracey, the Kennard-Dale senior who qualified for the state tournament earlier this month. "He's the real deal."

But who knows where this story will go or how long it will last?

That's the trick with spectacular underage performers, from tennis to ice hockey, from swimming to gymnastics. They're so young. There's so much time to lose interest or get derailed by an injury or simply stop getting better.

And yet, at least for now, Chance Marsteller is different than most any other kid who has come before him.

* * *

It was a most unusual scene at Penn State's annual Nittany Lion Open wrestling tournament in December:

College athletes with scholarships and high school studs with state titles gathered their friends and teammates together.

"Hey, the kid is wrestling!"

Chance was an enticing oddity then, like he is on so many other wrestling mats from New Jersey to Nebraska.

But this was different. He wasn't simply wrestling kids two and three years older, as he regularly does at some of the nation's most prestigious offseason tournaments and camps.

No, this was a college event featuring backup kids from powerhouses like host Penn State and starters from lesser programs. Some of the best high school seniors entered to test themselves and impress college coaches.

Junior high wrestlers? Chance just might have been the first.

Better yet, he was wrestling in a stocked 133-pound weight class.

"The eighth-grader is wrestling!"

And the mob crowded around to see him pin his first opponent, a Nittany Lion freshman. Then they watched him lose at the end to wrestlers from UNC-Greensboro and Rutgers.

A junior high kid might have never gained so much attention, so much respect, from losing back-to-back matches.

Coaches from the University of Maryland and Pitt sought him out to chat and shake his hand.

Of course, Penn State's staff, led by Olympic gold medallist Cael Sanderson, knew him well even before that weekend. They talked him up, too.

"We mostly joked around and talked wrestler to wrestler," Chance said of his meeting with Sanderson and Sanderson's brother, Cody. "They did tell me that I'd look good in blue and white."

It's all part of the plan, it seems.

"I want to wrestle in the Olympics in two years, so I have to learn how to wrestle the big guys," he said, matter-of-factly. "I love college wrestling. They hand fight. They know how to battle -- these guys battle. It's awesome."

In many ways, he seems like the main character in a sappy, TV movie.

The one with the near-perfect grades who "Yes-sirs" and "Yes-ma'ms" even his parents. The kid who lives along a country road bearing his last name, who practices on wrestling mats rolled out in the pole building behind his house.

He's so willing to help others that he'll spend hours coaching teammates and friends in wrestling rooms around the county and north to Harrisburg.

Take a junior high match this winter. Chance could only watch, sidelined with that bad elbow, and seethed over what he perceived as a lack of team effort.

"I was embarrassed," he said. "We had no heart that night. So I told the guys, 'We're done going through the lolly-gagging.'"

The following day he led practice again, forcing his friends through the kind of hellish, lung-burning workout he grew to love while training with former Olympian Cary Kolat.

Chance's junior coaches actually promote such behavior from their prodigy. They understand what they have on their hands and find no reason to reign it in.

They know Chance is the one with the Olympic-caliber training, the one wrestling 250 to 300 matches a year, the one traveling all over the country with elite club teams.

He hadn't lost to anyone his own age in two years, hadn't even been scored upon offensively. Then he suffered that elbow injury three months ago and had to forfeit a match halfway through -- a match he was leading, 12-3.

Better yet, he has not only humbled high school state champs from around the country in freestyle matches, but he's even beaten the best that mighty Pennsylvania has to offer.

How about when he pinned Northwestern Lehigh's Evan Yenolevich, who had just won a state title at 125 pounds and was a three-time state finalist? Yenolevich earned a full-ride to Edinboro University.

Scarborough shakes his head when he hears such stories. He remembers saying this to another coach at a tournament last year:

"If Chance had a driver's license and could drive the bus, we wouldn't even need to be here."

* * *

It was a most unusual scene in the training center in Timonium, Md.:

Kolat, the former Penn State star, snarled in Chance's face to get his points across. Often, Kolat will break down his pupils while teaching them, pushing them, making them better. Even humiliate them, if that's what it takes.

He has a short and compact frame, basically one large wrestling muscle. With a megaphone for a voice.

Marsteller, pack up your stuff and get out of this room!

Marsteller, how many times do I have to show you this move?

He yells only because he cares, so to speak.

And Chance loved it.

One night of practice each week quickly turned into two and then three.

Soon enough, the comparisons between teacher and student were being made. Same stance and same build. Same desire. Kolat, though, is one of only four Pennsylvania wrestlers in 80 years to win four state titles and never lose a match doing it.

The routine is different now, with Kolat moving out of the area, but often still fierce. Chance will start his days with three- to five-mile runs before dawn. Three more workouts might follow before bed.

He's also sworn off McDonald's meals, just to be healthier.

When his mother worried about his elbow being healed enough to wrestle, Chance pumped out 20 one-arm pushups -- on the bad arm -- to show her.

"He is a Cary Kolat," said Wayne Yohn, who runs a wrestling club in Juniata. "He's got that same frame, and the kid just does not quit. The kid works his ass off. He's special.

"People just don't understand the (eighth-grade) thing. How could somebody that young be that good? But it's pure. He's good because he loves the sport. You get what you put into it. I don't see him getting burned out. I don't think the kid does anything he doesn't want to do. It's coming from within."

So explaining the phenomenon is a bit complicated.

Chance is physically gifted and well-built for his sport. He's strong from countless pull-ups and sit-ups and easily hits a rather lean-looking 150 on the scale when he's not watching his weight for competition.

"His legs are like little telephone poles already," Yohn said.

And yet he isn't simply overpowering his opponents.

The mental aspect of the sport comes easily, enabling him to create and build off his elite training.

"He teaches me stuff, teaches me techniques I've never seen," said Jay LaValley, who helped Kolat run his training center. "I was in Arizona competing myself and Chance was there to watch. He came to my corner when nobody was there. He was being my coach, which was funny, but at the time, he was one person I wanted there if Cary couldn't be there."

Dover's Kevin McCleary has coached youth wrestling for decades and clearly sees the vast potential.

"The thing that struck me the most when I saw Chance wrestle was how much he wrestled like Cary. He's ambidextrous. He'll attack you left-handed and right-handed."

All of that helped him go 12-3 last summer at the prestigious Disney Duals in Florida, where he handed one wrestler his only loss of the tournament and also defeated a University of Michigan-bound competitor.

His eyes light up when the conversation turns to wrestling, and he could go on forever. About trading wrestling shoes or how many states he's competed in or comparing one club team to another or . . .

All he wants to do is wrestle.

* * *

A most unusual scene is playing out on the family farm between Stewartstown and New Park, along Marsteller Road:

There was a time, even a month or so ago, when it wasn't certain the phenom would even wrestle his his high school career in Pennsylvania, no less in York County.

He dreams big, of a full scholarship to a top wrestling school and the Olympics. And his parents know he could find better, every-day wrestling opportunities elsewhere.

The best programs have done their part of "recruiting" him, from private schools in Maryland to the legendary Blair Academy in New Jersey to stellar public school teams in Western Pennsylvania.

But the Marstellers say they are staying put, holding onto the family farm of 100 acres where they grow sweet corn and pumpkins, and where Chance is the star roadside summer salesman.

Plus, staying in Pennsylvania, arguably the nation's premier high school wrestling state, might be too appealing. There is a mystique surrounding the dozen wrestlers who have won four state titles here -- or even come close.

And yet, no matter where he ends up, Chance must seek out older, stronger college wrestlers to push him, as in a recent workout with Pitt's Chris Albright, a Red Lion grad.

The kid is special, to say the least.

And the best part is that his story is only now about to truly unfold.

His first high school varsity match is eight months away.

"He's definitely the best we ever had come through the program," said Terry Klender, one of his junior high coaches. "He's one-in-a-million in this sport."; 771-2104