Second Chance Success
Sometimes in life you get a second chance, an opportunity to fight for a better result. For Penn State Mont Alto wrestler Luke Lardarello, a second chance was all he needed to make history. Lardarello avenged his loss from earlier in the season at the National Collegiate Wrestling Association (NCWA) Mid-East Qualifier to Grigol Khochiashvili 5-2 by defeating him in the NCWA National Championship two weeks later. With the win, Lardarello became the first National Champion in Penn State Mont Alto wrestling history.
"He did something that will never be forgotten (winning a National Championship). In the wrestling room and outside of it, he is always grinding. Whether it was wrestling, lifting, or his diet, he had it down to a science," said teammate Nick Kostyak.
To some, suffering such a defeat before nationals would have been a setback. For Lardarello, he wasn't deterred because his focus was on the process instead of the result. That process-driven mindset is what sets him apart from his peers, each loss is a chance to learn and grow as a wrestler.
On the three-hour bus ride back to the Mont Alto campus from the Mid-East Qualifier, Lardarello wasn't too concerned about the match result. "Getting too caught up in the wins and losses can be detrimental to an athlete", he said.
"I focus all my energy in performing the best I can on the wrestling mat. If you worry about wins and losses, you're going to get in your own head," said Lardarello. He admits he wasn't as aggressive as he should have been in feeling out a new opponent. That regret served as a huge learning lesson for future matches.
As part of his process, Lardarello watches his match film extensively. Lardarello's father, Steve, records all his matches so he can improve upon each match he wrestles. During film sessions, he focuses on the two biggest aspects of the match, himself, and the opponent.
"A lot of wrestlers come from similar coaching trees in the area, so that can help with scouting", Lardarello explains. "Many wrestlers in the area tend to have the same moves". The opponent is just half the puzzle for Lardarello, self-focus is the other main part of the scouting process. "For example, I look to see if I am leaning too much during a match", he said.
"I try to really focus on myself and my first move, said Lardarello." Making those adjustments is a critical aspect of any athlete, so they can grow and develop over time. Lardarello looks to make his first move and control the match. In collegiate wrestling, control is important with the riding time component.
The riding time aspect of collegiate wrestling is something that he had to get accustomed to. A riding time bonus point is awarded to a wrestler who was in control of their opponent for one minute or longer during a match and is awarded at the end of regulation. Being in control played a huge part in the championship match as he didn't lose the riding time point and forced the match to overtime. An escape was the decisive point for Lardarello in the championship as he went on to win 3-2.
Lardarello admitted to having a different approach at Nationals than his coaches, something he laughed about after the fact. "I was really relaxed before Nationals, I was joking around with my teammates and coaches, they were sweating knowing I had big matches ahead of me", said Lardarello. "I know if I'm cool, I will wrestle my best and be crisp on the mat."
Lardarello admits he struggled early in the season. "I found myself doing the same three to four things, once I opened up, I broke out and started performing better." As the season went on, he worked on his offense to take his game to the next level.
Lardarello's work ethic is another piece to his success. "Most people think their day is over when they get off work, for me that is just the beginning of my day," said Lardarello. A normal day for Lardarello nine months out of the year will consist of classes followed by a workout or two. Following his workouts is when Lardarello continues his process of finding any means possible to get better.
"What sets him apart from other wrestlers is he puts in work before, during and after practice", Penn State Mont Alto Assistant Wrestling Coach Davon Williams said. "He trains mentally, he trains his body, and he works hard."
"During homework breaks, I am always watching film," he says. Lardarello turns on highlights of top collegiate wrestlers whenever he has the opportunity, looking to breakdown their game and learn from them. "They are having success on the mat, and I want to emulate that", Lardarello explains. "Whatever it takes to get a small edge over the opponent, I'm going to do that."
Return to collegiate wrestling
The road to Penn State Mont Alto was a long one for Lardarello. Upon graduating from New Oxford High School in the summer of 2019, Lardarello attended McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland, to play football. He never saw the field his freshman season and was shortly approached by the wrestling coach about joining the team. He wrestled three matches for McDaniel in 2019-20 before transferring in the spring of 2020. Due to missing the deadline to register for his dream school, Penn State, he finished out the 2019-20 school year at Harrisburg Area Community College.
The COVID-19 pandemic started in the spring of 2020 and Lardarello was put in a tough situation because he wanted to compete, but the pandemic shut down the 2020-21 season. His next stop was Penn State York as he took web classes through the pandemic to continue his education. During that time, Lardarello decided his window to compete was quickly dwindling.
Following many talks with his high school coaches, parents, and family over that time, he decided he wanted to go back and become a collegiate wrestler. Lardarello always loved the sport and knew he wanted to be a Penn State student-athlete. Penn State Mont Alto was the perfect fit for Lardarello as he enrolled with the school in the fall of 2021 to continue his education and wrestling career.
Lardarello is a business major at Penn State Mont Alto as he is looking to become a sports/wellness consultant upon graduation. He wants to start his own consulting business to help people with their sports and wellness. He wants others to have a healthy life and believes that it is very important to create good habits. Those good habits can transform into better growth and being a better person.
Reflecting on a championship
Luke Lardarello finished his Penn State Mont Alto season with a 34-9 overall record, going a combined 8-1 in the final two tournaments of the season.
As great as the season was for Lardarello, he will be the first to credit his teammates for his success.
"This championship means more to them than it does me in a way", Lardarello explaining the impact of a championship on his teammates. The championship win propelling them to each put in the extra work to take the next step in their game.
Lardarello described the championship match as a crazy night, with the match not concluding until 10 p.m. central time. He was on the phone with family and friends following the win chatting with his biggest supporters.
His mom, dad, uncle, and grandparents were all in attendance for his big night. Many of them not missing a match this season.
It just so happened that the first tournament he won was a national championship, a bittersweet ending on an outstanding 2021-22 season.
Lardarello feels as though he isn't near his peak as a wrestler due to a late start with the sport. While many start at age five, he didn't start wrestling until he was 13. He believes he can achieve more wins in the future and continue to improve. "I don't even think I'm near my peak at all. I can really take off if I just keep doing what I'm doing. Getting in the wrestling room, lifting, and following my eating habits. I'm just going to get better and there's no way I can't with all those good plans in place," said Lardarello.
"He showed me what a true grind and work ethic can do to your wrestling. He thrived in the classroom and on the mat. I look forward to more National Championships from him in the near future", said teammate Ron Schilpp.