Ryker Eckenbarger left Westminster High School in the spring of 2016 with a decorated wrestling resume, one that helped him earn him a place within a NCAA Division I program.
Eckenbarger felt a pull to return home, however. Changing schools and majors isn’t always a smooth transition, but Eckenbarger made it work to his benefit.
Now he’s the first college graduate from his family ― Eckenbarger is part of McDaniel College’s Class of 2020, which is being recognized Saturday, May 23 in a “Celebration Day” with virtual ceremonies and slide shows to honor the group.
“I think transferring to McDaniel was the best decision that I could have made,” Eckenbarger said. “I think it also changed the direction that my life will take.”
McDaniel’s seniors aren’t getting a chance to walk across a stage during a graduation ceremony, but Eckenbarger said he’s not focused on that.
“Just another bump in the road,” he said. “I’m taking the steps I need to to find a career and keep my future going that way.”
The former Carroll County wrestling tournament champion (he won at 126 pounds as a senior in 2016, the same year he won a Class 4A-3A state title) sought a degree in Homeland Security at Campbell, but decided on computer science when he got to McDaniel.
Dreams of one day becoming an FBI agent morphed into learning how to develop software for companies.
Wrestling also factored into his move, he said. Eckenbarger went to college with 146 career high school wins, second-most in Westminster history and tied for fifth all-time in Carroll County. He earned three Times first-team all-county honor during his time with the Owls.
But failing to crack Campbell’s starting lineup in his first year of college perhaps motivated him to work harder and take advantage if given a second chance.
He wrestled at 141 pounds and posted a 36-5 record this season for the Green Terror, and won his first Centennial Conference tournament title. Eckenbarger finished fifth at the NCAA Division III Southeast tourney.
His 85 career wins are eighth on McDaniel’s all-time list, and Eckenbarger got there in three seasons.
Green Terror coach Mason Goretsas praised Eckenbarger for his leadership and ability to act as another coach on the mat.
“He has been phenomenal,” said Goretsas, who finished his second year as McDaniel’s coach this winter. “You can’t ask for anything much more. What he has been for the new guys coming in is exactly what I needed.”
Eckenbarger became a three-year starter for the Terror, and was named Most Outstanding Performer at the 2020 Centennial tournament after going 3-0 and pushing a win streak to 17 matches in a row with his victory in the finals.
“He wrestles his hardest in every match,” Goretsas said back in January, before McDaniel made its postseason push. “It’s not necessarily always technique with this guy as much as it is 100% effort all the time, which is great being such a young team.”
Eckenbarger didn’t get a chance to finish his sophomore (ribs) and junior seasons (staph infection) because of injuries, so coming out with a conference title made this year sweeter.
“Personally, I’m proud of that. Only I know the journey that I’ve been on,” Eckenbarger said. “I feel like I put in everything I had, and to be able to come out with something means a lot to me.”
Eckenbarger went 4-2 at the NCAA regional tournament and won his finale by forfeit. It wasn’t the ending the Finksburg native had envisioned, but he doesn’t seem to carry too many regrets.
Not when talking about switching schools. Not about wrestling. And not about his college degree, one that will likely have him getting used to wearing a suit and tie and posting up in front of a computer.
“It’s going to be something different for me,” Eckenbarger said. “I grew up on a farm, and being real rough, wrestling, this will be ... kind of a pioneer in a new way.”