In between matches earlier this month at the state wrestling duals, Danny Bertoni bites into an oversized chocolate cookie with orange frosting.
In another hour, Bertoni, a senior at Middletown High School, will pin Sparrows Point’s John Harris in 1 minute, 4 seconds at 138 pounds, helping the Middletown wrestling team to a 56-19 victory and its second consecutive state duals championship in Class 2A-1A and raising his own record in high-school matches to an astonishing 171-2.
In another month, Bertoni will be chasing state history as he seeks to become the first wrestler from Frederick County — and sixth in Maryland history — to win four individual state championships.
But all of those things seem pretty far from his mind at the moment.
Sitting in the first row of bleachers at North Point High School in Waldorf, wearing a dark warmup jacket over his singlet, the wrap on his hands for recent thumb and wrist injuries still fresh from the state duals semifinals, Bertoni is light-heartedly asked if he should be munching on a cookie with another big match pending.
He smiles, raises his eyebrows and says, “Probably not.”
It is, however, in accordance with his every-man charm that makes Bertoni as likable as he is successful.
“If you walked into the same room as Danny, you might not know he was there,” Adam Bain, a friend, teammate and regular training partner said. “He is not going to be bragging about his accomplishments or anything.”
In fact, all of Bertoni’s well-earned accolades in high school wrestling alone — three state titles, four regional championships, four county titles, the most wins ever for a Frederick County wrestler — command a spotlight he does not actively seek.
“I am not a shy person,” he says.
But he’s not an outwardly expressive one either.
After winning his third state title last March, something only two other Frederick County wrestlers have done, Middletown assistant coach Yank Strube implored him to smile.
“He understands the benefit of humility,” Bertoni’s father, Dan, said. “He is not going to go out there and make himself a target, talking about what he has done or what he is going to do.”
Hence, Bertoni strives to treat every match exactly the same, regardless of its importance. A state final might as well be a nondescript match in the middle of the season in his mind.
Every opponent is treated with the same amount of respect, regardless of skill or experience.
“We have always emphasized there are no special matches,” his father said. “When you make a match special, that’s when you are going to start to wrestle differently. No one is more important than the other.”
This approach has afforded Bertoni enough margin for error that should he be offered, say, an oversized chocolate cookie with orange frosting in between matches at the state duals, things aren’t likely to veer off course wildy.
He almost never has to cut weight to compete.
“I always told Danny, ‘Expect to win. Prepare for the worst,’” his father said. “If he finds himself in a hole, he has to be able to get out of it.”
The Necessary Break
Bertoni’s wrestling schedule extends well beyond the high school season into the early part of summer.
It takes him to, among other places, Virginia Beach, where he has placed as high as second in his weight class at the National High School Coaches Association National Wrestling Championships, and Fargo, North Dakota, where a broken nose once prevented him from placing in an Olympic-style national tournament.
However, by the middle of the July, the singlet gets packed away and won’t be worn again until the leaves are no longer green.
Bertoni steps out in the backyard of his home in Jefferson and begins to kick the soccer ball around with his friends or his sister, Maria.
In addition to being the school’s preeminent wrestler, Bertoni has been a midfielder for Middletown’s soccer team, which captured back-to-back 2A state titles in November.
Playing another sport is a foreign concept to most wrestlers of Bertoni’s caliber. They devote their full time and attention to wrestling and compete year-round.
Soccer season, however, is one of the things that sustains Bertoni going on the mat. It allows him the chance to get away, clear his mind and rest his body.
“Wrestling is tough, mentally and physically,” Dan Bertoni said. “It’s not a game. When you are having a bad day in soccer, you can kick it to a teammate, and they can take care of it.
“In wrestling, it all falls on your shoulders. There are times when you need to step away from it and rest, mentally and physically.”
Dan Bertoni, who was a high school wrestler in upstate New York, has watched a number of kids burn out on the sport by maintaining a schedule that never allowed time for anything else.
He never wanted that for his son.
“There are a lot of talented guys out there,” he said. “They compete all of the time, year in and year out. Then, all of a sudden, they quit the sport. It catches up with them.”
For his son to reach his full potential as a wrestler, there had to be an extended break every year.
“It’s nice to have soccer to get my mind off of things,” Danny Bertoni said. “It helps me to become a better wrestler. I am just more fresh mentally, more mentally tough.
“I just focus a lot better when I do get back in the [wrestling] room [in October]. I want to be back after having that break.”
Bertoni’s matches often seem straight out of a wrestling textbook.
Much like his personality, they are direct, straight-to-the-point affairs, often not stretching beyond one two-minute period. There’s no allowance for any wasted movement or nonsense.
“Just watching him wrestle as a freshman, I thought there is a guy who could win four [state] titles,” said Catoctin wrestling coach Ryan Green, who works with Bertoni on his Mason Dixon Mat Hawgs club team.
“Just because of how technically sound he was, how good he was, not only with wrestling positions. He was just so composed in the big matches.”
Bertoni doesn’t give opponents much to work with. He’s quick, strong, smart, agile.
While opponents probe for an opening, any sign of weakness, Bertoni is already busy twisting them into a pretzel.
In four years of high-school wrestling, he has yet to lose to anyone from Maryland.
“That’s quite an accomplishment in itself,” Linganore coach Ben Arneson said. “Being able to say you have never lost to a kid from your own state.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been setbacks.
When you wrestle in high-profile tournaments across the country, such as the invitation-only Journeymen Classic in Albany, New York, where Bertoni placed fifth at 135 pounds last October, “You are going to lose matches,” his father said.
It’s the nature of the beast.
Bertoni’s only two losses in a Middletown singlet occurred in the same building, Mount St. Joseph High School in Baltimore, during one of the toughest tests on the wrestling schedule, the Mount Mat Madness tournament.
After a 44-0 freshman season at 106 pounds, Bertoni arrived at Mount Mat in December 2014 with a raised profile. But he wrestled an admittedly sloppy match against Anthony DeLorenzo of Queen of Peach High School in wrestling-rich New Jersey and lost 3-2 at 126 pounds.
“That was a wake-up call,” Bertoni said. “There was a bunch of things I was doing wrong. Some of my shots weren’t very clean. I was rushing things.”
The following season, during a 46-0 junior season, he won the Mount Mat title at 132 pounds.
In December, a bid for a second consecutive Mount Mat championship was thwarted by one of the top wrestlers in the country, Malcolm Robinson of one of the preeminent programs in the nation, Blair Academy in New Jersey.
Wrestling in the championship final at 138, Robinson scored a rare first-period takedown of Bertoni, and that proved to be enough for a 2-1 win.
Bertoni rode Robinson for the entire second period and then picked up an escape point early in the third. But he could not find the takedown he needed, and Robinson was eventually named the tournament’s Outstanding Wrestler.
“I learn from the losses, each and every one of them,” Bertoni said. “They teach me what I can do better, where I can improve.”
The Final Push
Some wrestlers look like they want to rip someone’s head off.
They pace back and forth. They seethe. They just reek of intensity.
Bertoni, on the other hand, comes off as the guy you would want babysitting your kids.
By all accounts, he’s humble, hard-working, a good student, the model teammate on and off the mat.
“He has always been very level-headed,” Yank Strube said. “He has never thought of himself as better than anybody else on the team. That’s part of what makes him such a good leader.”
Today, Bertoni will walk into the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, a wrestling scholarship to the University of Maryland already in hand, as one of 36 state qualifiers from Frederick County.
His high school record has grown to 177-2, and, with four more victories and no losses, he will join Aberdeen’s Matt Slutzky (1989), Owings Mills’ Steve Kessler (1994), Hereford’s Josh Asper (2005), Southern Garrett’s George Scheffel (2007) and Centennial’s Nathan Kraisser (2009) as Maryland’s four-time state champions.
“I think it’s incredible, something that might happen once in 15 years,” Bain said. “If it happens, I think everyone there will realize how spectacular an accomplishment that really is. Danny deserves it.”
Bertoni is within arm’s reach of a milestone not even he might have thought was possible back when he was 4 years old and wrestling his first match, barely weighing more than his singlet.
He admittedly didn’t know what he was doing in those days. He was just rolling around with the other kids. There was no pressure to win and no heartache or frustration with the losses.
“I knew he had potential,” his father said. “He has been the hardest worker in the room since he was little. He’s always been very coachable. He has an incredible drive and a will to win. I am not surprised he has been successful.”
During a jog around a local track in Jefferson with his young son, Dan Bertoni was randomly stopped by a woman who suggested the boy had the look of a good wrestler. Maybe he should give the sport a try.
Now, that same boy is on the verge of becoming one of the state’s wrestling immortals.
Bertoni is the prohibitive favorite at 138 pounds in Class 2A-1A. Every other wrestler in his bracket has at least four losses this season, or two more than the Middletown standout has in his high-school career.
But, staying true to himself to the final whistle, Bertoni is not taking anything for granted. Nor is his family.
“I am trying very hard not to think about [four state titles],” his father said. “The journey is not over. When you think it is, that’s usually when something bad happens. I am a cautious man. I am just hoping Danny can finish this season the best way he knows how.”