By Betsy Veysman
Tristan Rifanburg isn’t the only two-time state finalist getting ready for another postseason run. But he is the only freshman in that category.
Prior to ever stepping on the varsity mat for Norwich, Rifanburg saw a great deal of success, winning events such as the MAWA Nationals twice. As a result, he and his coaches believed he could compete as a seventh grader – and win – right away.
“We knew he was going to do well, but initially I don’t think we knew just how successful he was going to be in seventh grade,” said Norwich head coach Joe Downey. “But after about a month into the season, we realized how good he really was and we began expecting that he would win the state tournament.”
Rifanburg did just that, marching through the regular season at 96 pounds with just a single loss. In Albany, he captured the state title with a 10-6 victory over Drew Longo of Ardsley.
“I believed from the start that I could beat anyone that stepped on the mat with me,” he said. “People were telling me that that I couldn’t do it as a seventh grader, that I was going to lose. But I just trained as hard as I could every day and it paid off.”
“A lot of times when a seventh grader makes it to state, they’re just happy to be there,” Downey added. “But not Tristan. He had one goal in mind and he made it happen.”
In winning the crown, Rifanburg became the first seventh grader and the first Norwich wrestler to stand on top of the podium at the New York States. Rifanburg, currently ranked as the ninth best freshman in the country by Intermat, was welcomed back in style.
“I was really surprised that my town had a parade for me,” he said. “It seemed like everyone in the whole town was there. It was really cool.”
The celebration was for his achievements on the mat, but according to Downey, Rifanburg is accomplished in other areas as well.
“I would love my son to grow up to be like Tristan,” the coach said. “He’s a high honor roll student who is as calm and cool as you get. He’s respectful and courteous and a great person to be around.”
Last season as a 112 pound eighth grader, Rifanburg enjoyed another stellar season and fought his way back to the state title match in Albany. However, he took second place after four-time gold medalist Arik Robinson defeated him 7-2.
Now, as a third year varsity starter, the freshman has continued his winning ways, compiling a 34-1 record to date. He began the year at 126 pounds, suffering his only loss to one of the top 50 senior recruits in the country, Northwestern-bound Dom Malone of Wyoming Seminary.
“I learned from that match that I’m not the best guy out there,” Rifanburg said. “It motivated me even more to keep training every day and work to be the best.”
At the end of December, Rifanburg dropped to 120 pounds, where he went 11-0 with nine pins and two technical falls. He was considered by many to be the top 120-pounder in the Empire State.
“He’s gotten much better on his feet this year,” the coach said. “He’s shooting to both sides much more. He’s even more dominant on top than before. He does a really good job tilting, with bars and in general staying tight to his opponent. I don’t even know what to expect from him sometimes, he winds up amazing me.”
New Milestone, New Weight
In mid January, Rifanburg picked up his 100th high school victory, a milestone he said he had been thinking about for quite some time. He was quick to add, however, that now his goals have been reset and he has started the countdown to 200 triumphs.
He began that mission at the STAC Championships on January 27. At that tournament, he returned to 126 pounds, which he said will be his home for the remainder of the year.
“When I dropped to 120, I wasn’t enjoying the sport or school. Things weren’t as much fun anymore,” he said. “When I went back up to 126, everything felt better. My academics were better, wrestling was better and I was happier.”
The move to his new weight potentially sets up an intriguing match at the Section IV tournament this weekend. Sitting on the other side of the bracket is Lansing senior Corey Dake, a three-time state placer.
“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” he said of facing Dake. “We’ve never wrestled before. He’s the top guy in the bracket. Ever since the decision was made to move up to 126, I’ve been thinking about that match.”
“Fans are definitely going to get their money’s worth,” added Downey. “It will be a battle.”
After that battle, the wrestler expects to return to Albany to attempt a third finals appearance and a second New York crown.
“After I won my state title in seventh grade I set the goal to be the first six-time New York State champion,” Rifanburg said. “That can’t happen after last year, but I can still be a five time champ and tie [Cornell NCAA Champion and former Chenango Forks star] Troy Nickerson. That’s a big time motivator.”
With both Dake and defending 119-pound champion Nick Tighe of Phoenix, among others, in the field, it won’t be easy. But Downey believes that a loaded bracket will bring out the best in Rifanburg.
“Tristan is mentally prepared to wrestle the tough guys in the big situations,” he said. “When you put him underneath the spotlight, he rises to the occasion. He seems to step it up a couple of notches in the tough matches.”