He looked like a state title contender.
But those who watched Bedford/Lenox’s Derek Venteicher improve to 31-1 and win the 182-pound bracket at the prestigious Harris Invitational on Saturday would be shocked to learn one thing.
Between bad luck and one brief lapse in judgment, Venteicher has never even competed in sectionals.
Venteicher, a four-sport athlete at Lenox and leader of a scrappy Bedford/Lenox squad, upset No. 4 Nick Haynes of Missouri Valley with a pin in the semifinals. Then, he scored a late takedown on Shenandoah’s Nick Dickerson in the final match to secure a 6-4 decision.
No one was more grateful to end the day on top of the podium.
“Wrestling has kind of always been my main sport, but I’ve never really gotten to showcase it like this year,” Venteicher said. “I was kind of in shock. My coaches were going crazy, and my mom, she gave me a big hug and said, ‘Derek, I’m so proud of you.’
“All of these people (were) coming and talking to me and congratulating me; I’m really just super blessed.”
The past few winters haven’t been easy for Venteicher. Each one has started with promise and ended with sudden heartbreak, challenging him in ways he never expected.
“It’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t wish on anyone,” Bedford/Lenox coach Lynn Christensen said.
The first bad break came when Venteicher was getting used to wrestling at the varsity level as a freshman. He tore the meniscus in his right knee in a tournament at Creston in January and was forced to have season-ending surgery.
As a sophomore he was where he wanted to be, wrestling Millard South’s Connor Olin in the finals of the Quad State Classic in Maryville, Missouri. It would have been the perfect warmup for the postseason, except the match got out of hand and Venteicher lost his cool.
Venteicher went out of bounds while trailing 6-4. He said when the referee walked away after the whistle, Olin shoved his face into the mat. Venteicher responded by kicking him in the shoulder, and Olin threw multiple punches as coaches, parents and wrestlers from both sides stormed the mat.
The result was a disqualification that forced Venteicher to miss sectionals, and consider the consequences of his actions.
Venteicher was an honor student who was involved in football, baseball, track, robotics, band, choir and youth group. But he felt as if many defined him by one incident.
“I was known as the kid who kicked a kid,” Venteicher said. “I got a lot of crap for it. A lot of people looked at me in a different way. If anything ever got heated, they would tell me to calm down, even though I was totally cool. It kind of just drove me to build my rep back up, and show them who I really am.”
However, Venteicher’s hopes of proving himself the next year were dashed when he retore his meniscus while training in December. He donned a brace and rode an exercise bike for a few weeks, hoping he’d be ready for sectionals.
In his return for a dual the week before sectionals, Venteicher notched two big wins. During weigh-ins of the second one, though, he bent down to pick up his cellphone and felt his good knee click before locking up completely.
He immediately knew what that meant: double knee surgery and another unceremonious end to his season.
A year later, though, Venteicher’s back on the mat, competing with only 10 percent of his meniscus in each knee and taking down nearly everyone in his path.
Venteicher said he’s just looking forward to sectionals, but his coach thinks he could finish on top.
“It’s unreal that you keep a kid out for a sport with these things that have happened to him,” Christensen said. “It tells me what kind of kid he is.”