---- — By Harold Raker
The Daily Item
MILTON -- As he warmed up for his matches during the season, Milton senior Ryan Solomon wore a shirt bearing the name "Francis."
Some joked that he didn't want opponents to know who he was.
Too late, Ryan. That ship sailed at least four years ago.
Besides, this is a teenager who has his own larger than life billboard in downtown Milton.
For those who have lived underground in recent years, Solomon won his second PIAA Class AA 195-pound state championship last month, two of four state medals for his career. If that were not enough, he also became his school's career wins leader this season, topping legendary four-time state champion Bobby Crawford.
For his outstanding season, which included a 40-0 record and a win in the prestigious Dapper Dan Classic in Pittsburgh, Solomon is The Daily Item Wrestler of the Year.
In addition, Warrior Run's Wayne Smythe and Lewisburg's Jim Snyder are the Coaches of the Year.
The humble Solomon, son of Greg and Kelly Solomon, would never have commissioned a billboard to honor his accomplishments.
Nevertheless, he said this week, "I like the fact that there is a billboard. It is promoting Milton sports, but there are many other individuals and teams that have accomplished a great deal this year."
And yet, his friends have taken notice. "They do tease me a little bit, but it's all in good fun."
Solomon had a lot of fun his four years as a Black Panther. He was one of the Valley's best football players (a standout at guard and linebacker) and this spring, he decided to join the high school baseball team as a pitcher.
The goal-driven Solomon was not completely happy when, as a freshman and sophomore, he didn't win the state wrestling title. But it looks pretty good to reflect on the rare accomplishment of four state medals. He was sixth as a freshman and a runner-up as a sophomore.
"It feels great to finally achieve my goals. The past two years have been especially great. To get to the top of the podium in the state of Pennsylvania is pretty awesome," he said.
"I do feel pride in what I have accomplished. I know I wanted to achieve more, but overall, I feel proud and blessed of what I have accomplished."
The University of Pittsburgh-bound Solomon said winning two state titles has made a difference in his life, but not in a way that made him feel superior.
"I have the opportunity to get a great education at a great university through wrestling," he said.
And leave a legacy as well, a high standard for future Black Panthers.
His high school coach, former Milton state place-winner Mike Snyder, rarely talked about Solomon without mentioning how good of a person, beyond his skills as a wrestler.
He credited Solomon, among others, for working with younger wrestlers, even to the point where they attended registration sessions for the youth wrestlers.
Oh, and what about that shirt with the mystery name?
Solomon wore it in honor of his best friend, a classmate and another outstanding Milton athlete, Chad Diggan (basketball, baseball).
"His middle name is Francis. He is my closest friend and he is a great athlete, too," Solomon said.
n Coaches of the Year
Both Smythe and Snyder guided young teams to outstanding dual meet seasons, competing in the rugged Heartland Athletic Conference Division II, where they had to take second and third fiddle to veteran Central Columbia and Benton squads.
Smythe picked up the 500th win of his career in the Jersey Shore Duals in January. He finished his 43rd year as a head coach (all but one of them at Warrior Run) with a career record of 508-291-8.
The Defenders were 17-4 this season.
Snyder, now in his 21st year coaching the Green Dragons, got his own milestone in the final dual meet of last season, pinning down his 100th career victory. This year's squad, posted the second-best mark in program history at 20-6.
n Sports editor Harold Raker covers high school wrestling for The Daily Item. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.