It was six days before Christmas when Hunter Suter stepped onto a wrestling mat for a competitive bout for the first time in more than 16 months.
He was with a new school. He was working with a surgically-repaired knee for the first time.
“My nerves were so shot,” Suter recalled of the Dec. 19 match at Winslow Township, Camden Catholic’s first opponent of the 2019-20 season. “I couldn’t even contain myself. Because I just felt like I was myself, when I got on the mat, when I put my shoes on, I just felt like me. I felt great.”
Having lost his sophomore season after suffering an ACL injury in football, Suter, who transfered from Buena High School after last year, is making up for lost time and making a run at a memorable junior year. At the conclusion of the first week of February, Suter was undefeated two months into the season and eyeing a chance to collect both team and individual state titles.
“It’d mean a lot,” Suter said. “I left my family in Buena. I was really close with those kids (in grade school) … As I started getting to high school I thought to myself that I wanted to go somewhere (else). And since I’ve come here I’ve really bonded with a lot of the kids and we’ve come together as a family. I think a lot of the other guys are similar, came from other places where they weren’t supposed to be and came here to be great.”
Success isn’t guaranteed at Camden Catholic, but excellence is expected. The wrestling program is eyeing a 16th state title this week; only Paulsboro and Phillipsburg have more in New Jersey history. And Camden Catholic regularly sends wrestlers to the individual state tournament in March; Lucas Revano, who graduated last June, was a state champion two seasons ago.
Suter is familiar with what it takes to advance to Atlantic City. His dad and uncles all wrestled at Paulsboro; Matt and Jason Suter (his uncles) each have state titles.
“They have a reputation of being tough wrestlers,” Camden Catholic coach Matt Walsh said of the Suter family. “The family history is nice, they understand the sport. He’s already looking ahead to the next level, college and then beyond college, too. So it’s nice to see a kid that’s really hungry like that.”
After attempting to help a deep Irish team collect a second straight Parochial B title this week (the state finals are this Sunday), Suter will step into the individual postseason eager to add his own name to the family legacy.
He also wants to erase his most recent memory of Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall. When he advanced to states as a freshman, Suter went 0-2.
“Awful,” said Suter, who was matched up against Paulsboro’s Brandon Green, a future state champ, in the opening round.
“That’s never going to happen again,” he continued. “I’ve got my head on straight now, I’m not just a little kid going out there to wrestle, I’m going out there to prove something to everybody.”
Despite a quick exit in Atlantic City as a freshman and then missing all of last season, Suter isn’t exactly an unknown in the New Jersey wrestling world. As of Feb. 10, Suter had won every match he’s wrestled this season and has a team-best 20 pins; NJ.com recently had him ranked third in the state in his weight class (220 pounds).
Not that Suter puts too much stock in records or rankings.
“I haven’t checked the rankings since I started wrestling and I could care less about any of that,” he said. “Because, to win states, I’m going to have to beat those kids anyway. Until states happen, I could beat them throughout the season or I could lose to them, but it doesn’t matter until A.C.”
Suter has at least one intangible that could help him achieve his goal of reaching the top podium next month. He knows opportunities aren’t a given. He knows injuries are a reality and that even his senior year isn’t necessarily guaranteed.
All of the preparation, the hard work and the daily dedication to his sport can change in an instant, as it did on Sept. 8, 2018, when Buena’s football team hosted Haddon Township in the season opener.
“First game of the year, and I blew my knee out on the third play of the game,” said Suter, who had only just been cleared from a concussion over the summer from wrestling. “I didn’t know what happened. I just remember going down and thinking, ‘That was weird.’ And then I went to roll over and it felt like I got struck by lightning.”
The year-long rehab and watching matches from the bench probably weren’t fun, but it all made Suter strong mentally.
“I talked with my dad a lot,” Suter said of sitting on the sidelines as a junior. “With every wrestling match I’ve had (since), I haven’t just been going out there to win, I’ve been going out there to show what I’ve got and do what I know I can do and what I’m capable of doing. Pretty much flash my name around so people will remember me. I just take everything in. One day this will all be a memory, so I try to make the most of it and have the best time that I can.”
In the hallway just outside Camden Catholic’s wrestling room, the Irish are greeted with a few last words before they enter:
… PATHWAY TO THE HOUSE OF PAIN
Without that pain, wrestlers like Suter wouldn’t be able to savor the glory that’s to come.