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Inspired by tragedy, Ardsley heavyweights prep for states

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Ardsley’s Billy Fon and George Lebberes aspire to win a state title, not only for themselves, but for their community, peers, and fallen friends.

The Journal News

ARDSLEY — Two Ardsley heavyweights will be wrestling this weekend with heavy hands and heavy hearts.

Billy Fon and George Lebberes are putting the finishing touches on preparations for their trip to Albany, where they’ll compete at the NYSPHSAA state championships.

The Panther seniors both hope to return with a state title, not only for themselves, but for their friends who perished in a tragic car accident on Jan. 30.

“It would mean a lot,” Fon said, who dedicated his Section 1 Division II 220-pound title in honor of Eric Goldberg and Jordan Wachtell. “The town, all of us, have been going through so much lately. With Eric and Jordan, I’m very close with the both of them. This is for them, because it just — I don’t know, a loss of words, honestly. They didn’t deserve it. Hopefully, this will shine a light on it and everyone around it.”

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Wachtell, 57, and Goldberg, 17, were killed when their car was struck by a wrong-way driver on Interstate 287. They were on their way to a basketball game along with two other Ardsley seniors who survived, Wachtell’s son, Preston, and friend Jack Rosen.

“I didn’t really believe in it at first,” Lebberes said. “I thought, ‘Maybe he’s all right. Maybe he’s just in the hospital, and they’re recovering.’ I didn’t know at first, I wasn’t 100 percent sure of what happened. I got a call from a friend, he was crying about it. It didn’t really hit me at first. When he said what happened, it didn’t seem real.”

Lebberes and Fon are close with the four Ardsley residents who were involved. Preston Wachtell and Rosen are both teammates on the varsity football team. Goldberg played lacrosse, but they all shared a friendship that lasted years.

They also grew close with the elder Wachtell, who became a beacon of guidance for the teens.

“Me and Eric, we hung out together on the weekends, spending time, with me and him and the rest of the boys,” Lebberes said. “We hung out and played a lot of Xbox over the last four years, (we spent) a lot of late nights playing ‘Call of Duty.’ I sat next to him in class every day. We were pretty good friends.”

“Jordan was a role model for us. He was very successful, and I had talks with him all the time, and he gave us some life lessons.”

With the memories of their friends serving as added motivation for the state tournament, Fon and Lebberes hope to help Ardsley triumph after tragedy once again.

In the spring of 2018, Ardsley junior Harris Halperin passed away after battling a rare form of lymphoma. The hashtag “#HHStrong” became a rallying cry for the community and the boys’ basketball team, which enjoyed a Cinderella run all the way to the NYSPHSAA Class A state finals. 

That historic season for Ardsley basketball was followed by a renaissance for Panther athletics. Later that fall, the boys’ soccer team captured its first league title in 17 years, while the football team won back-to-back Section 1 Class B titles.

Last spring, the softball team won its first state championship, becoming the first girls’ team in Ardsley sports history to do so. In November, the volleyball team reached its first-ever state finals.

“It’s a very small community, and very tight-knit,” Ardsley alumnus and wrestling coach Dan Manley said. “Obviously, when something like that happens, it definitely sends a ripple effect. Whether you knew somebody or didn’t, you more than likely know somebody who’s affected by the whole ordeal. Everyone really rallies around each other, especially in the athletic community here.

“It hit a lot of people. Other people have seen their friends go through something, even if they weren’t going through that same thing, that feeling of empathy really reverberated throughout the entire community.”

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For Lebberes, a three-time Section 1 champion, he doesn’t just want to land on the podium for the first time; he wants to win the whole tournament. Sporting a 37-4 record, including numerous wins over other wrestlers in the large-school division, he has a chance.

He enters the weekend as the No. 1 seed in the Division II 285-pound bracket.

“He’s really humble, but he is hungry for a state title,” Manley said. “He is motivated. If he wants something, he goes out there and gets it. He’s been working really hard. … He really just wants to get this for himself, for his team, for his community, and obviously, for his friends that passed.”

As for Fon, this will be his first trip to states. Although it’s his second year of varsity wrestling, he’s not all that new to the sport, having previously wrestled at the peewee and modified levels. The weight-room addict has raw strength that he will try to use to his advantage.

He’s only gotten better as the season has unfolded. Fon enters Friday with a 16-5 record, and, while he has a tough road ahead of him as the No. 14 seed in the 220-pound bracket, he has demonstrated why he shouldn’t be overlooked.

“I can’t say enough of how much of a hard worker that kid is,” Manley said of Fon. “He’s really determined. In any room he steps into, he’s a leader, and he leads by example. He’s vocal. He’s the same way as George in a sense in that, if he wants something, he gets it.” 

Whatever happens over the weekend, Fon and Lebberes hope to represent Ardsley well. They want to make their friends, peers and town proud.

Only one Ardsley wrestler has ever won a state title: 2010 graduate Penn Gottfried. Fon and Lebberes hope to be the next in line.

“I think if we can bring back a state championship that would be great for me personally, and the community,” Lebberes said. “We’re tough and supportive people over here in Ardsley. We’ll get through it, and help each other out.”

Follow Eugene Rapay on Twitter at @erapay5.

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