Derry wrestler Baker already a champion after winning battle with cancer

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Tuesday, February 19, 2019 | 1:30 AM


No matter what happens the rest of Jason Baker’s high school wrestling career, he already is a champion.

The Derry senior has accomplished something many his age have never done: recover from a brain tumor and beat cancer.

“He may be the first wrestler to beat it,” said Baker’s dad, Dennis. “We’ve researched it and haven’t found anyone else.”

And while Baker has achieved a lot the past three seasons, he still has numerous goals to achieve. He wants to reach the 100-win milestone and claim a wrestling title.

“I’m pretty close to being fully recovered,” he said. “My stamina is back, and I feel a lot better. Wrestling has gotten me through a lot.”

Those things are within his grasp starting Friday at the PIAA Class AA Southwest Regional at IUP’s Kovalchick Complex.

“He’ll get it,” said friend and former Derry teammate Micky Phillippi, who wrestles at Pitt. “I’m confident he’ll get to the top of the podium. He’s been an inspiration to me and all of his teammates.

“He’s a hard worker. He’s strong, and he doesn’t quit. When he missed his freshman season, he was still there for his teammates.”

Phillippi and Baker talk almost daily, and they’ve worked out together for several years.

“Jason was a Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling champion,” Phillippi said. “He has the right mentality to be a champion. I told his parents that he can achieve anything he wants.”

But Baker almost didn’t get a chance to continue his wrestling career after brain surgery. His doctors didn’t want him to wrestle.

“We had to jump through hoops to get some clearances,” Dennis Baker said. “But as long as he wears a protective pad on the back of his head where the surgery was performed inside his headgear, he’s OK to wrestle.”

Dennis and his wife, Valarie, are proud of what their son has accomplished. But they know he’s determined to reach his goals and wrestle in college.

Baker was pinned in the WPIAL 132-pound finals by Quaker Valley sophomore Conner Redinger on Saturday. He won the Section 3 title on Friday by defeating Burrell senior Bryan Gaul, 5-2.

“He wrestled a good kid, but I know he’s a lot closer to that kid,” Phillippi said. “I know he can beat him.”

Baker will open the regional tournament against Richland freshman Allen Mangus (23-13). Also on his side of the bracket are Everett junior Kaden Cassidy (30-1) and St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy sophomore Zack Witmer (26-7).

Baker is a three-time regional qualifier who is looking to earn his first trip to Hershey.

Two of Baker’s closest friends on the team are seniors Dom DeLuca and Kace Sabedra. DeLuca, a 220-pound Mercyhurst football recruit, said Baker has battled a lot of obstacles.

“It means a whole lot to see him compete,” DeLuca said. “Everything we went through his freshman year, the team wrestled for him. How he’s come back is just phenomenal. It shows a lot about his character.

“After he finished his chemotherapy, he kept a smile on his face and kept working and working. He came up short on Saturday, but he’ll bounce back and be ready for next week.”

Sophomore Ty Cymmerman, who transferred from Latrobe before his freshman season, said he didn’t know what Baker went through, but he knows what a hard worker he is.

“He’s so strong in practice. He really is a great workout partner,” Cymmerman said. “He works so hard.”

Derry coach Mike Weinell said it’s amazing what Baker has done the past three seasons.

“His first year was a little rough just getting back into it,” Weinell said. “He’s getting his bearings back, and this year is just determination.

“He beat cancer. The hard work in practice has shown on the mat, too. He’s not going to quit wrestling no matter what, and it shows.”

His dad added: “It’s amazing, a miracle that he’s come back. He’s done it with his grit, a lot determination and heart.”

Baker said he was a little disappointed he didn’t perform better in the WPIAL finals, but he knows his goals are still attainable.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Baker said, “but I still haven’t got where I need to be.”

Paul Schofield is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Paul by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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