Franklin Regional frosh Lee setting sights on PIAA wrestling history
Reputation is one thing. Living up to it can be another.
Franklin Regional freshman Spencer Lee entered his first high school wrestling season with a long list of accomplishments, not the least of which was being ranked as the No. 1 eighth-grader in the country by FloWrestling and InterMat.
Through four weeks of this season, Lee has proven he can handle the stage.
Lee is 17-0 and already has achieved a first. By easily winning the 113-pound weight class at the prestigious Walsh Jesuit Ironman Tournament last month in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, he became the first freshman to win the Outstanding Wrestling Award.
The Ironmen is considered one of the premier high school wrestling tournaments in the country. Lee went 6-0 with two first-period pins, three 15-0 technical fall victories and a 12-2 major decision.
“Being ranked No. 1 as an eighth-grader was a goal,” Lee said. “Now I need to work harder to maintain that reputation.”
Lee followed that by breezing through his first Powerade Tournament, where he posted four pins and a major decision win in the finals by defeating Latrobe sophomore Ethan McCoy on Saturday.
The confident Lee has even bigger goals.
“I want to be a four-time, undefeated PIAA champion,” Lee said. “I also want to become a Cadet World Champion, something I left on the mat at the Cadet World Championships in Serbia this summer.”
Only four wrestlers have won four PIAA titles and finished their careers undefeated. Kennard-Dale senior Chance Marsteller, a three-time champion, entered the season 125-0. Jefferson-Morgan's Cary Kolat (137-0) was the last wrestler in the state to achieve the feat (1992).
Lee earned the No. 1 ranking in the nation after placing second at the Super 32 in 2012, becoming the first eighth-grader to reach the finals. He is ranked No. 1 in the country at 113 pounds by Amateur Wrestling News, InterMat and FloWrestling after winning the Super 32 in October. It was there he avenged the previous year's loss to Nick Suriano of Bergen Catholic.
“After he lost to Nick in 2012, he tossed his silver medal in the trash,” said Larry Lee, Spencer's father. “I fished it out, and then one day my wife (Cathy) called me to tell me that Spencer took the medal out of the drawer and hung it out the back of the door.
“Spencer told me he wanted to see it and hear (about) it every day until he got another shot at Nick. After he won this year, he took it down and put it back into the drawer.”
Runs in the family
Lee doesn't like to lose, and he's motivated by failure. He was disappointed with his fifth-place finish at the Cadet World Championships.
Another loss that bothered him was when he badgered his mother into a battle this past summer while watching his sister, Gabriella, play softball.
“He started jabbing at her a little, and they finally went at it,” Larry Lee said. “It was a good battle. His friends were shocked.”
Spencer Lee added: “She got me down and forced me to tap out. She had me in a choke hold.”
Cathy Lee was a 1991 Pan-American silver medal judo champion and was an alternate on the United States Olympic team in 1992. Larry Lee was one of the Olympic judo coaches.
They met at judo practice for the Olympics.
“Cathy asked me to work out,” Larry said. “I wasn't going hard because I didn't want to injure her. But she picked me up and slammed me on my head. It was love at first fight.”
The Lees moved to the Franklin Regional School District when Larry landed a job at Carnegie Mellon. He is associate dean of student affairs for operations.
Spencer Lee started wrestling when he was 6. He didn't get serious about the sport until he was 8.
That year he finished 26-1, and his father took him to a wrestling tournament in Strongsville, Ohio.
“I got crushed,” Spencer said. “I was 0-4, and I told my dad I (stink) at the sport. I have no chance at being successful.”
Larry Lee said that was the turning point in his son's career.
“He got up in the middle of the night and came to me and told me he knew what he did wrong,” the elder Lee said. “I told him to go back to bed, but I knew he had the bug.
“Spencer is his worst critic. He has the composure, the competitiveness and drive to be the best. He doesn't handle losing well.”
The way he wrestled at the Ironman, Lee will be tough to beat. He dominated highly ranked opponents. He pinned senior Anthony Bosco of Marmion Academy, Ill. — the No. 11 wrestler in the country and a North Carolina recruit — at 1:44 after building an 11-0 lead.
Not only was Lee the tournament's OW, he also won the Ray Mendoza Award for most team points scored (35 1⁄2).
“I didn't expect to be seeded first (at Ironman),” Lee said. “I knew the competition would be tough.
“I wrestle the Iowa style. I like to pound people on top, and there's not a better feeling when you break your opponent when he's on bottom. Iowa wrestlers may not always be the best, but they never quit.”
After the 2013 season, Lee met PIAA Class AAA 106-pound champion Luke Pletcher of Latrobe in the finals of the Flo Nationals at Indiana (Pa.) Pletcher won 3-1.
“No execuses, but I should have won,” Lee said. “I got bit by a spider. If you watched the video, you could tell it zapped me of my strength.
Franklin Regional coach Eric Mausser said Spencer is a student of the sport.
“He challenges himself all the time,” Mausser said. “He's always looking to get better. Even at practice, he competes against Michael (Kemerer, ranked No. 3 at 138 by InterMat) and Ty (Smith, No. 10 at 132 by InterMat). He's a great kid.”
And possibly a great champion. Only time will tell.