MIFFLINBURG — If not for a decision made while in kindergarten, Mifflinburg’s Emmanuel Ulrich might be a part of the Wildcats basketball team.

“My biological father (Amir Deas) was a basketball and football player, and he wanted me to play basketball,” the sophomore 285-pounder said. “But my mom (Laura Ulrich) wanted me to wrestle, and my pap (Donald Ulrich, a former official with the Middle Atlantic Wrestling Association) wrestled. So when I was old enough, she signed me up for wrestling in kindergarten.”

Ulrich is 24-1 this season, and headed to Saturday’s District 4 Class 2A Tournament at Williamsport High School as the No. 1 seed. The top five wrestlers advance to the Northeast Regional next week.

Growing up, Ulrich was a rabid football fan, watching as many NFL games as he could, especially when his favorite player, Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis, was playing.

“I was a football kid for a very long time. I loved football, and I was always big. I thought it was the best sport ever,” he said.

Not to mention, his introduction to wrestling as a kindergarten didn’t go well.

“My first match, I got a bloody nose,” Ulrich said. “It was a lot of heart and determination to keep with it. Wrestling is not made for everyone.”

As he progressed in wrestling, and especially after he met Mifflinburg wrestling coach Derek Reber, things began to change for Ulrich.

“I started getting better, doing clubs and started wrestling better people,” Ulrich said. “When I met Derek and all the high school wrestlers, we just grew a tighter bond and I started getting good at wrestling. I met new people and people started noticing me and I loved everything about it, ever since my freshman year.”

Ulrich, with a 55-12 career record with 34 career pins in just his second season, said he hopes to wrestle in college.

“He’s been a solid kid all the way through, and he took fourth at (Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling) in eighth grade,” Reber said. “He had a pretty good junior high career and last year he wrestled really well. Getting second at sectionals and regionals behind the guy who took third place at state’s is great.”

That guy was Southern Columbia senior Lear Quinton, now wrestling at Brown University.

Although Ulrich said he loves quality competition, he admitted he is happy that Quinton has moved on.

Reber believes that Quinton’s presence in the state tournament in Hershey may have kept Ulrich from getting a medal last season.

“He didn’t wrestle too bad,” Reber said. “He took a kid that finished fifth (Riley Kemper of Burgettstown) to overtime.”

Ulrich was eliminated by Evan Pellegrine, of Bellwood-Antis, in the second round of consolations.

“I think he was worried about getting Quinton in the wrestle-backs, and that played on him mentally,” said Reber.

Quinton would have been Ulrich’s next opponent had he beaten Pellegrine.

Reber said that experience was “huge” for Ulrich, and this year’s state tournament will not be as big for Ullrich. That's not only because the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the Hershey field to eight, but because Ulrich knows more about what the Giant Center event is like.

Two days before the sectional tournament at Shamokin, Ulrich — who had pinned 11 of his previous 20 opponents, and had not been pinned — found himself decked in 24 seconds by Selinsgrove’s former state champion Nate Schon, in the teams’ final regular-season dual.

Ulrich knows he got caught and thrown by a great Class 3A wrestler, who is ranked No. 1 this season, and it didn’t cause him to stress heading into sectionals.

“I wasn’t too worried because I knew I won’t see him ever again,” Ulrich said.

Ulrich got a 35-second pin for his first sectional title, but said he is not counting on pinning opponents through the postseason.

He said that during the season, he would go for the pin if the team needed the six points, but otherwise, he didn’t focus on it.

“I tried to tech (win by technical fall) people as a heavyweight. It goes to show you what you can do if you put in some work and create an offense,” Ulrich said. “I am also a team player and that comes from football. It’s a natural thing, to be a team builder.”

Ulrich plays center and defensive tackle on the gridiron, and he also played lacrosse from fourth until eight grade.

“I like the physicality of it, but it wasn’t for me because I’m not going to do that sport in college. I played it mainly to keep me in shape because I played attack and midfield, so it kept me running,” he said.

Ulrich, ranked No. 7 in the state by Pa Power Wrestling, said he likes being ranked high.

“I like to show why people put me at the No. 1 spot," he said. "All the work I put in my freshman year to this year I definitely became a better wrestler and person, and I am looking forward to making my family happy. I love hearing my mom yelling in the crowd.”

Ulrich added that it is tough for the family with no fans allowed because of the pandemic.

If Ulrich makes the finals Saturday, he expects to meet either Hughesville senior Caleb Burkart (No. 2 seed), who is 21-3, or No. 3 Kade Sottolano, a Williamson junior who is 26-1. He beat Sottolano in sudden victory this year, and pinned Burkhart.

“I like wrestling both of them,” Ulrich said. “They are different styles of wrestlers. Sottolano is more of a leg rider, and I had trouble with him last year. Burkhart is stronger than most opponents. I kind of have to stay neutral with him, and not be so offensive because he can do some damage upper body.”

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