CLARION — If one was to see Josh Neal during the fall and winter months the past two years, chances are he would be walking with a limp in his right leg.
The junior, who suffered a knee injury before the 2009 football season and foot injury prior to the 2010 football season, overcame the leg problems to accomplish something great Saturday at Clarion University: A berth in the regional wrestling tournament.
Neal experienced a troublesome first varsity wrestling season in 2009-2010 — he finished 1-10, with the one victory being a forfeit — before starting this season with a 1-7 record. But he turned things around after that, going 11-9 down the stretch, with the last two victories helping him clinch third place at 171 pounds at the District IX Class AAA Individual Wrestling Championship Saturday.
The top three wrestlers from each weight class advance to regionals in Altoona, meaning Neal has at least one more week to wrestle.
"After everything I've been through in the past, it didn't even go through my head that I would have the opportunity to take third. It's a great experience," Neal said Saturday. "It's reassuring knowing the season's not going to end."
What he went through was a torn meniscus in his right knee in August 2009 that eliminated his sophomore football season. He lasted until January during his sophomore wrestling season due to the injury.
This school year, Neal was prepared for his junior season of football when he broke his right foot in August. He played sparingly in one football game, but was finally healthy once wrestling season started.
Due to a number of Punxsy's wrestlers competing up a weight class, Neal was an undersized 189-pounder while starting the year with a 1-7 record. But the bad start didn't discourage him, as he won 11 of his next 20 matches.
"I didn't have a winning record, but it all worked out in the end," Neal said. "Wrestling up a weight class made me a better wrestler."
Neal, a No. 3 seed, was in a precarious position to start the district tournament, as he was pinned by DuBois' Joe Morrison, the No. 2 seed who finished as the district champion following an upset of Clearfield's Derek Danver. But Neal knew he was better than that and understood that he needed just two victories to clinch a regional tournament berth.
"That first loss was really tough, because everybody knows they're a better wrestler than they show sometimes," he said. "That really went through my head, knowing that I could do better."
Neal had confidence that he could beat his next two opponents, considering he did just that earlier in the month. After pinning Bradford's Robert Hilfirty Feb. 15 in 2:20, Neal pinned him in 1:33 Saturday.
Saturday's consolation final didn't start as smoothly as it did Feb. 9 against St. Marys' Alex Geitner, when Neal pinned him in 3:38. But after a scoreless first period, Neal was ahead 6-2 thanks to four back points and a reversal.
Geitner didn't back down, as the St. Marys senior cut the deficit to 8-6, only for Neal to escape with fewer than 20 seconds remaining.
That's when Neal made a statement, using a powerful takedown to jump ahead 11-6.
"In that last minute or so, it really went through my head (that) I have to keep working. Because if I don't, this is it; my season's over," Neal said. "Personally, I didn't want that to end just because I knew that I could win."
The takedown was the crowning moment that meant Neal was heading to regionals for the first time.
"Josh went right at him and ended up securing a takedown at the end. I was real impressed with the way he finished that match," Punxsy head coach Eric Eddy said. "He finished it unlike he started. He started it nervous and finished it confident."
At 12-16, Neal may not have a nearly-spotless record like every other regional qualifier this upcoming weekend. But after battling through and overcoming two years worth of right leg injuries, he won't stop working hard anytime soon.
"After I got about halfway through the season, I knew that no matter what, I was going to do whatever I could to end up where I am now," Neal said. "I know I have to practice even harder than I practiced all season this week just to make sure that I do even half-decent going into regionals. I'm going to face some tough opponents, and all I can say is that I'm going to work my butt off."