By FRED KRONER
There are two main ways for youngsters to get involved with wrestling.
The most common is to take up the sport in a kids’ club or as part of a youth program, some of which begin in first grade.
The other way is to participate in a variety of other sports during grade school and, by default, turn to wrestling to stay active when opportunities in the other endeavors become limited.
Ryan Berger’s path to wrestling — and ultimately the Hall of Fame — came via the less traditional approach.
The 1998 Mahomet-Seymour graduate participated in soccer, baseball and basketball in his pre-teenage years. Berger might have continued with those sports, except for one event which took place in November, 1992.
“I tried out for the seventh-grade basketball, but was cut,” Berger said.
There wasn’t room for a youngster who weighed 80 pounds.
“Some of my friends said I barely weighed more than a bag of dog food,” Berger recalled.
Even before the basketball roster was set his seventh-grade year, Berger was being recruited by another coach.
“I’d like to think the coaches were conspiring,” Berger said. “Mr. (Jim) Moxley said if I didn’t make the basketball team, I could come out for wrestling.”
He wasn’t a total novice, although he noted, “no one in my family had ever wrestled before.”
Added Berger: “Our gym class with Mr. (Brad) Stipp had a unit on wrestling.”
The seventh-grader soon made his way to the wrestling room for practice.
“I didn’t like it at first,” Berger said. “I got beat up most of my first year.”
That winter, Berger never got to be the school’s No. 1 wrestler at 80 pounds. He was literally second to teammate Trent Iliff all season.
Fortunately, his backup status didn’t affect his ability to compete.
“In elementary school, you’re able to enter two individuals at each weight (for tournaments),” Berger said.
He took advantage.
In the 1993 Illinois Elementary School Association regional, he placed second. Teammate Iliff was first.
In the 1993 IESA sectional, he placed second. Teammate Iliff was first.
In the 1993 IESA state, he placed second. Teammate Iliff was first.
The postseason was an important time in Berger’s life.
“If I didn’t have success, I would have questioned whether to continue,” Berger said.
He not only continued, he thrived.
Berger was the IESA state champion as a 90-pound eighth-grader. That year was the first of five in succession where he won his final match of the season.
As a high school freshman he placed third in the Class A state meet at 103 pounds.
As a sophomore at 112 pounds, he was again third.
As a junior at 125 pounds, he was the Class A state champion.
As a senior at 135 pounds — the first year that M-S competed in the Class 2A division, — Berger was again the state champion, earning a scholarship to the University of Illinois.
Before he graduated from Illinois as a three-year letter winner, he was nationally ranked at 157 pounds in the preseason of the 2002-03 season.
On April 7, he will be enshrined in the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association Hall of Fame in suburban Chicago.
“His election to the Hall is well-deserved and probably overdue,” said Rob Sherrill, who has authored a book on the history of high school wrestling in Illinois and has compiled state rankings for more than three decades.
Sherrill said Berger’s achievement as a senior at M-S was no small feat.
“When Mahomet transitioned from A to AA, that was a hard transition because of how tough AA was on a national level,” Sherrill said. “Over most of its duration, and at least the last 15 years, the most difficult state tourney to win in the country was AA in Illinois. The fact that he was able to navigate through that, and win that, sets him apart from a lot of great wrestlers.”
Berger’s coach throughout his M-S high school career — Rob Porter — believes the school’s advancement to Class AA in the fall of 1997 worked to Berger’s advantage.
“I’m not saying Ryan would have been complacent (after his junior year), but the fact he had a new challenge was a big motivator for him,” Porter said. “He was one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around. He was focused and talented and that’s a tremendous combination.”
Berger approached the advancement from Class A to Class AA with confidence.
“I had wrestled the AA guys in freestyle and Greco in the summers,” he said. “I didn’t feel much fear because I had competed at that level.”
The extreme work ethic, Porter said, was not just illustrated at practice.
“He’d wrestle a match, and after he got of the mat would jump rope,” Porter said. “Then he would jump rope backwards as the dual went on.
“It was demoralizing to the opponents that he was training so hard. He was a special kid.”
Berger set standards with the Bulldogs that are still school records or place him among the elite leaders.
He registered 25 technical fall wins as a senior, which remains the single-season mark. His 36 career technical fall wins is also still the school mark.
His 164 career wins and his 553 career takedowns are second on the all-time list of M-S leaders.
Sherrill said those who contend Berger is the top wrestler from a program that has produced a myriad of standouts, can make a case based on the performance.
“He had a great all-around career,” Sherrill said. “He had high school success, success on a national stage, success in college.”
The summer after Berger’s senior year at M-S, he won his weight class in the National Greco-Roman Tournament.
The summer after his sophomore year at the UI, Berger won the University Nationals, which earned him a berth on Team USA and sent him to the Dominican Republic for the Pan Am Games.
As an Illini junior, Berger was a 20-match winner at 149 pounds, was ranked 13th nationally in the preseason and qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
An Academic All-Stater at M-S, Berger also earned Academic All-Big Ten accolades, too.
Heading into his senior year at the UI — a season that ended prematurely with a broken wrist — he was nationally ranked among the nation’s top 10 at 157 pounds.
“He was probably as good as anyone Mahomet ever had,” Sherrill said.
Porter wasn’t surprised that Berger continued to excel in wrestling after graduating from high school.
“Ryan is a high-character young man who’d give it everything he had,” Porter said, “and would not be distracted by the social aspects (of college).”
As Berger reflects on his prep career, he said, “the first (state title) was more emotional because it was the first time I had experienced that. Coming back, especially with the class change, was a good feeling.”
His fondest memories are not necessarily of particular matches, but the interactions with the coaches.
“I have a ton of appreciation and gratitude for the coaches,” Berger said. “Not a day goes by in my personal and professional life that I don’t use lessons I learned.
“They helped me develop leadership and discipline. When you have a bigger picture in mind, you can do a lot with that.”
Berger graduated from the UI in 2003 with a degree in science.
He worked as a biologist in Virginia and Florida before relocating to California in 2010.
Berger has tried to stay active in wrestling as a coach either at the high school or AAU level, though he is not involved this year.
“It’s one of those sports that gets in your blood and won’t go away,” he said. “It’s my way to give back to the sport that has helped me so much.”
He recently started a new job with a non-profit as operations manager at the Marine Mammal Center.
“My job responsibility is to lead the response in rescue efforts for mammals that are injured or need assistance,” Berger said. “There’s quite a bit of variety.”
He lives in Rio Nido and endures a one-hour daily train commute to Sausalito, which is located north of San Francisco.
Enshrinement in the state Hall of Fame was not on Berger’s radar.
“When I got the call, I said, ‘What for?’ “ he said. “It never even occurred to me.”
He bought his plane ticket last week and plans to be in attendance.
He said there are others who deserve recognition and a tribute.
“My parents (Steve and Merry),” he said. “I need to thank them for the money they put forth and for driving me around for years.”