Bryan Ditchman began the current school year believing that for the first time in many years, he was no longer an athlete and only a student.
After suffering a concussion while competing in football as a freshman at Florida International University, the Lincoln-Way Central graduate headed north and decided to continue his education at Joliet Junior College.
And then almost a month after beginning a full-time schedule of classes at JJC, Ditchman learned something that was very interesting that would alter his plans in a major way.
Much to his surprise, he learned that the school had reinstated its wrestling program after not having one for nearly 30 years and the three-time placewinner as a heavyweight with the Knights determined that it was time to make his return to the mat.
He decided to join another former Knights wrestler, Coach A.J. Blahut, to be a member of the first Wolves team to make their return to the sport and he was rewarded for his efforts by not only qualifying for the NJCAA tournament in Council Bluffs, Iowa, but also by earning All-American honors last weekend after claiming fifth-place in the 285-pound weight class.
“It was really funny kind of how everything came together,” Ditchman said. “I didn’t even know that the wrestling program was back at JJC four weeks into the school year. That day I got into contact with Coach Blahut and I told him that I was going to give it a shot. So going into it, I was trying to get everything to back how it was when I wrestling in high school. So it was difficult in the beginning, but by the end of the year, all of my moves came back fluently and I was even able to add to my arsenal, which really helped me.
“I was talking to some of the heavyweights and there was one other guy who came back to wrestling but that was his second year back, so my story was different from everyone after being in a whole year of football to not even playing sports anymore for health reasons to coming back to wrestling and being able to be an All-American. It was definitely a wild ride and has been a good story to tell.”
After individuals participated in nine challenging tournaments that often featured quality four-year programs, the Wolves took part in the North Central District Tournament and not only placed second, but also had seven individuals who qualified for nationals after finishing fifth or better, including Ditchman, who was one of two district champions.
At nationals, Ditchman won his first two matches before falling in the quarterfinals. On the second day of the tournament, he went 2-1 in the wrestlebacks to claim fifth place.
“We started off with 26 kids and by the end of the year, we had a total of about 14 in the room,” Ditchman said. “The people who came to wrestle and knew that they wanted to put their names down as the first team back definitely showed at the end of the year since a lot of guys worked very hard to get our name out there. Coach definitely put our schedule together very well by having us go to some of the hardest opens for junior colleges to go to and that really helped us toward the end since a lot of guys didn’t have that competition.
“Bringing the program back really helped guys who wanted to go to the Division I or II level who were just state qualifiers at a tough weight. That really shined at the end of the year as we had national qualifiers for some people who had just been state qualifiers. And the school is happy since it made a commitment to the program and it’s already paid off. Something that I’m happy that I was able to do for coach was to help establish this program’s dominance right off the bat and obviously to help them with recruiting this year.”
After making a successful return to the sport, Ditchman is taking some time to examine his options as to what he intends to do next.
“I’m super glad that I did this and that I was able to put my name in the record books as the first All-American in 30-plus years,” Ditchman said. “I have the opportunity to come back or go to the next level so I’m pretty much determining if I’m going to continue wrestling or not.”
While very pleased to have an All-American in his first season of coaching the Wolves, Blahut was disappointed that others, such as Dearion Stokes (133) and Rodsean Graham (197), missed out on the honor after falling one win short of earning medals at nationals.
“Obviously Bryan has a special skill set and is really familiar with wrestling on a big stage after being a three-time state placer at Lincoln-Way Central,” Blahut said. “Even after he took a year off, we felt at the end of the year that he was coming into his own since he was a little more agile and wrestling with a lot of confidence and it obviously showed. He was right there and lost to the kid who took second in a really close match. He’s a special athlete.
“But it was bittersweet since we had two guys who lost in the blood round. Dearion really was our leader all year and helped with the younger guys to believe in their abilities and we’re going to miss him. And Rodsean beat two All-Americans during the year, and this will help him to set some goals and work that much harder to get on the stand. I’m really happy that the guys worked hard, but we’re not finished. Our goals are to have All-Americans, national champions and to win a team national title. We’re trying to encourage kids who want to win a national and be an All-American to come to JJC because that’s where it’s going to happen.”