Brandon Murray won 28 matches in each of his final two seasons with the High School South wrestling team, but there’s no contest as to which was his better year.
After failing to advance past districts last year, Murray capped his senior year with a run through districts, through regions and into his first trip to the boys’ state championships in Atlantic City.
“For me, especially after my junior year, it was about proving to myself more than anything else,” Murray said. “After that year, there weren’t any expectations for me. I wasn’t a region qualifier. No one was looking at me to do anything special. It was proving to myself that I knew I could do it.”
Murray became the third WW-P South wrestler in four years to make it to the state championships in Atlantic City, which took place from Feb. 28 to March 2.
Nick Maher placed fifth in states when Murray was a freshman and Steven O’Campo went to states last year.
“Having someone like Nick freshman year on the team is really special,” Murray said. “And when you’re so young, you’re like, I want to do exactly what he did. And junior year I had Steven. It’s special to say I’m at that level with Nick Maher and Steven and to be the third state qualifier from my school.”
Last year, Murray accompanied O’Campo to states as a fan. The trip added motivation for him to come back as a qualifier. Murray promised his coach that he’d be coming back to wrestle there this year, and coach Warren Gerstacker saw a changed wrestler this year.
“There was a lot more confidence in his matches,” Gerstacker said. “Everything in districts and regions and states, it was another level. It was like he turned the corner and peaked at the right point. He won some super tough matches at regions to make it to states. He wrestled his heart out.”
Murray’s yearlong efforts and focus paid off in a trip to states. And this year O’Campo returned from wrestling at Johnson & Wales University to root for him.
Murray made it through several heart-stopping matches to finish fourth at 120 pounds at the Region 5 meet just to get to states, and won the matches when they counted most.
“I was thinking, that guy wants me to not go to states,” Murray said. “He wants my career to be over. I need to go out here and wrestle. That’s what I told myself in warm-ups—if I don’t win that match, my season is over, my high school career is over.”
The ideal workout the day before regions had Murray ready to face any situation. In a private training session, he worked on situations that looked otherwise desperate. “That training and demoralization, that prepared me for being down and ignoring it and going your hardest and wrestling,” Murray said.
“He was not anxious during the postseason,” Gerstacker said. “A lot of times people get nervous because they have these goals. I noticed he didn’t have anxiety. He was just having fun with it. He had the same approach at states.”
Murray ended his season with a 7-2 loss to Robert Bohr of West Morris Central in the second day at states after dropping an 11-0 major decision to top-seeded Anthony Clark of Delbarton in the opener.
“I went out there with nothing to lose and just wrestled,” Murray said. “If anything, it’s very cool to wrestle someone of that caliber. I never wrestled anyone that good before. I always loved wrestling kids that are better than me in skill. You can let it all fly.”
Finishing his senior season in Atlantic City was all that he had wanted when the year began. He wasn’t quite sure how he compared to others in his weight class at the start of the season, but he started to realize his potential as the year developed and his improved technique paid off.
“In a lot of ways, he’s smooth, he’s silky when he wrestles,” Gerstacker said. “He’s not a big and strong kid. He does everything quick. What I saw change in his development, there started to be a lot more confidence. There started to be more forward aggression and he took more shots. That confidence allowed him to turn the corner. He’s still practicing and he’s beating guys that used to beat him.”
As the victories piled up again, so did his confidence. He placed third at the Mercer County Championships with a major decision over Alex Williard of Lawrenceville School to kick start his postseason run all the way to states.
“It seemed a much harder goal at the start of the season than when things started to fall into place toward the end,” Murray said.
He leaves another example to upcoming Pirates wrestlers of what can be achieved with hard work and total dedication. Murray had the added responsibility that came with being the lone senior for a young WW-P South team.
“He was really valuable in that he’d been around and he knows the whole game and how things work and what you have to do to get better,” Gerstacker said. “It’s a young group of guys that needed a lot of encouragement. Brandon was really good for doing that and getting them organized if anything extra was being done.”
Gerstacker sees how much Murray enjoys wrestling as an indication that he will do well at the next level. He will wrestle for York College next year and again follow in the footsteps of the select Pirate alumni.
“I know I’m getting into a whole new different style of wrestling in college,” Murray said. “There’s definitely a learning curve. I don’t expect anything production wise. I’m just going in with a mindset to learn.
Murray showed this year what he is capable of when he fixes his targets on a goal. His 28th win gave him 94 career wins, and more importantly, earned him a trip to Atlantic City to conclude his scholastic career.
“I was never too concerned with my win count,” Murray said. “I always wanted to make states. I’d much rather make states than get 100 wins.”