Up until three months ago, Absegami High School wrestler Chris Henchy didn't know a barrel roll from a sushi roll.
Not only had he never wrestled before, he was not much of a fan.
"I think I may have gone to (the District 32 tournament) once a few years ago," Henchy said. "But that's about it. I do a lot of hunting in the winter."
He is now in the hunt for a state championship.
By virtue of his third-place finish in last weekend's Region 8 tournament, the 220-pound senior is among the 336 wrestlers from throughout the state competing in this weekend's State Individual Championships at Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall.
His chances of winning are remote. Henchy's weight class includes both of last year's 220-pound finalists: defending champion Bryan Dobzanski (39-0), of Delsea Regional, and Don Bosco Prep junior Zack Chaknonis (36-1). Dobzanski, who has signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Louisville on a baseball scholarship, is the No. 2-ranked 220-pounder in the nation, according to intermatwrestle.com. Chakonis, a junior, is ranked No. 8.
"I've already surpassed my expectations," Henchy said. "A couple of weeks ago, I was just hoping to place (in the top three) in the districts. I'm just going to do the best I can at states and see what happens."
Just qualifying for the tournament, which begins Friday with the preliminary rounds, was quite an achievement. Most of the other wrestlers heading to Boardwalk Hall have been competing since they were in elementary school. Henchy donned a singlet and headgear for the first time in December as a favor to Absegami coach Shawn Scannell.
Scannell, who is also an assistant coach on the Braves football team, did not have a 220-pounder in his wrestling lineup. He sought out Henchy, who had used his strength, quickness and agility as a linebacker. Henchy was a second-team Press All Star.
"Chris is a big hunter and never was very interested in wrestling," Scannell said. "But having coached him in football, I knew he was tough, strong as an ox and would listen to everything the coaches told him. We taught him a few moves and he's just continued to improve every day. He's certainly come a long way."
Henchy, a Galloway Township resident, has worked every day with Scannell and Braves volunteer coach Zach Hammond, who was a standout for both Absegami and Cornell University.
He responded to the coaching by getting off to a 19-0 start while winning his weight class in the Gateway Gator tournament and the Arthur Marinelli Christmas tournament at Egg Harbor Township High School.
"I didn't know many moves," Henchy said with a laugh. "They taught me a half-nelson, a single-leg takedown and a double-leg takedown. When I was on the bottom, they told me to stand up, so that's what I did."
He continued to make progress throughout the season. Henchy placed second in the District 32 tournament two weeks ago at Absegami, losing 6-5 in double overtime to Buena Regional's Nick Caporale.
He suffered a first-period pin against Dobzanski in the quarterfinals of the Region 8 tourney, but fought through the wrestlebacks to earn third place with a 4-2 decision over Mark Fischer, of West Deptford, and a 3-1 overtime victory against Highland Regional's Mark Gillis.
When that match ended, a jubilant Scannell hugged Henchy as he came off the mat.
"Chris did us a huge favor just by coming out for the team," Scannell said. "But he has worked his tail off to become the best wrestler he can be. He deserves everything that has been coming to him."
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