By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
When current Holy Spirit 138-pounder K.J. Sherman was born, he arrived early. The only child of Ken and Jeanette Sherman of Galloway weighed in at a whopping two pounds, four ounces, and spent two months in the intensive care unit at the hospital before his parents were able to take him home.
It seems Sherman has been defying the odds his entire life.
So it should come as no surprise that he did just that at this year’s Region 8 Championships at Egg Harbor Township High School in late February. Sherman was one bout away from being eliminated, and was trailing 8-1 in that bout, against St. Augustine Prep’s Trey McLeer. A loss meant an end to the 17-year-old’s sophomore campaign, but a win would qualify him for the NJSIAA state championship at Boardwalk Hall the first weekend of March.
Sherman somehow fought his way back to force overtime, then scored a pin in the overtime period to put himself into the third-place bout. There, he was trailing good friend Ryan Figueroa, a senior from Hammonton, in the waning seconds before scoring a late takedown to pull out a 6-5 victory. Sherman had taken third in the region less than eight weeks after his father died suddenly at age 56.
“This day has been pretty good, but hectic. My second match I was down 8-1, I hit a roll-through cradle and tied it up, rode him on top the second period, and in the third period I rode him out again. In the overtime, it was the same thing, a roll-through cradle and I pinned him. The next match was a little more on my nerves. The first time he got a shot it was kind of my fault, I wasn’t really awake. But I was able to persevere and come back. I said to myself, ‘I can’t give up now. My father just passed away not too long ago and I’m trying to respect his name and make it back to states,’” Sherman said after that final day of regions. “(My dad) was on my mind that whole match. That first takedown (Figueroa) got on me, I knew it was going to be tough. But I feel awesome. I feel like I can make a name for myself this year.”
Sherman certainly did make a name for himself at states, picking up the first victory there of his career after qualifying as a freshman and going 0-2. Sherman, who came into states as the No. 16 seed, beat No. 17 Nicholas Stampoulos of Brearley/Dayton, pinning him with 18 seconds left in the third period after a topsy-turvy bout that saw Sherman take a late 12-11 lead before locking up a cradle for the pin. Sherman than lost to the top seed, Jacob Perez-Eli of Paulsboro, 7-2, and lost a 4-3 heartbreaker to Seton Hall Prep’s Conner Decker in the wrestlebacks. He finished his season with a 31-10 record.
“His dad is smiling in heaven, there’s no doubt about it. He has a lot of heart and has a gas tank that won’t quit. He can go six minutes hard. He’s just a great kid with a lot of desire to win,” Holy Spirit coach Ralph Paolone said after Sherman’s final two wins at regions. “I’ve known that family for a long time. His dad and I could talk wrestling for hours at a time. It’s difficult. I’m sure he’s looking for his dad and I’m sure when it first happened he was listening for that voice in the stands. But I think he feels the most normal and the most at home when he’s on the mat.”
Wrestling is all about overcoming. Overcoming weight, the pain and grind a high school kid has to put his body through the entire year, fatigue. It is not a sport for the mentally weak. And Sherman’s mental toughness was severely tested this season. In early January, Ken Sherman contracted a staph infection, and in just a few days he had passed away. It was a shock to the system for a young man who, no matter what happened on the wrestling mat, always had his father and best friend in his corner, rooting him on.
“They love this sport. He’s had more than 100 matches from the end of last year to now, they go to Penn State matches. After our matches they drive to Penn State and he’ll get a practice in after their matches. He just loves this sport,” Paolone said. “It’s a terribly tough thing and it’s been a tough season for him. I think he’s always had it in him. He’s digging deep now, but he’s always had it.”
“My husband died (in early January) and for us it was about K.J. doing what he wanted to do, no matter what. He’s wrestled so hard — he had 100 matches in the summer, my husband took him everywhere to make sure he was ready for the season because he knew he was going to have a tough weight class. He’s had good opponents, just great, respectful opponents. Ryan Figueroa, they’ve been friends and have wrestled in the same rooms together, so it was really nice to see them wrestle each other with respect. It was just beautiful to see that he didn’t give up,” Jeanette Sherman said. “When he lost (in the second round of regions) it was tough for him to gulp up, he didn’t know if his emotions were about losing or about grieving — he hasn’t really had time to grieve because things happened so fast. He wanted to do it for his dad, and he pulled it out in the last two matches, miraculously. They were both nail-biters and I know he had my husband in his heart, and his coaches and teammates motivating him. It was a utopian finish for him at regionals with everything that has happened.”
Sherman’s mother said she was fully prepared for K.J.’s season to end after a loss to Kingsway’s Finnegan McFadden in the second round of regions, and seeing her son trailing by a large amount in the wrestleback against McLeer. But somehow K.J. summoned the inner strength he needed to punch his ticket to Atlantic City.
“When he was down 7-1 at the end of the second period, I said to myself, ‘you know what? We’re OK. We’re going to go home, we’re going to grieve and I’m going to give him time to take off before we go back to wrestling.’ But when he pulled it out in the last few seconds I was so happy for him. What it took for him to pull that out, tied up, 8-8, and then win in overtime — I knew that was all heart. It was beyond skill, I knew that was what he wanted in his heart, and he accomplished that. I was so happy for him. I was beyond happy for him,” she said. “It helps me continue to be able to say to him that everything you put into this is what you get out of it. As a parent, I was very worried. Wrestling is very mental, and for him to overcome the grieving of his dad, his best friend — his everything — and go in and have to wrestle so many tough matches, I was very scared for him. At that point I was only worried about his mental state and him doing what he wanted to do, and I was going to support him no matter what. The fact that he won told me this is what he wanted. He was able to accomplish that, and that was huge.”
K.J. admitted it wasn’t always easy to stay focused on wrestling during the postseason tournaments, but he knew he still had his dad in his corner, if only in spirit now.
“It’s very sad. Every now and then I’ll just bust out crying,” he said. “But, all this hard work, he helped me through this and he’s been leading me this way ever since I was little. I might not have known it then, but I appreciate it so much more now. Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am right now, at all.”
Jeanette said she has seen her baby boy grow into a young man, and she saw a lot about his mental makeup in the span of just two matches at regions. And she knows that as difficult as it may be to let her husband, and K.J.’s father, go, she said she knows it’s now her son’s time to shine.
“His dad was his best friend. They’ve been together literally every day for the last 17 years,” she said. “We’ve always babied him and done everything for him, but he’s had to step up now. He doesn’t hear that voice over his shoulder that he always did. He has to have his own voice now. He doesn’t have my husband’s voice, that he always trusted. He had to do it for himself, and he did it.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays