Second in the districts, that was tough.

Fourth in the regions, that was tougher.

Ryan Swenson's sophomore season might have ended in frustrating fashion. But the Cherry Hill East athlete was "raised on wrestling," so he knew better than to wallow in regret or make excuses.

He vowed to make amends the next season.

That plan went awry after an impressive start, when Swenson landed awkwardly in a bout against Cherokee and tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

Goodbye junior season.

Hello darkness, my new friend.

"It was bad," Swenson said the other day, standing in the hallway outside of Cherry Hill East's wrestling room. "I had such high hopes, coming off my sophomore year, determined to get back out there and do what I love to do, show what I could do.

"Then it was all gone again."

Swenson, who projects as one of South Jersey's top heavyweights, is back for his senior season and determined to make up for the frustrating finishes of not one but two previous campaigns.

Well, he's almost back. He suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee in the final football game of his high school career - a Thanksgiving eve loss to arch rival Cherry Hill West - that required arthroscopic surgery and likely will delay the start of his wrestling season by a week or two.

Swenson said he can stand to wait a little longer, since his goal isn't to dominate in December, anyway. He has his eyes on late February and early March, on success in the districts and regions and a strong showing at the state championships in Atlantic City.

"Ryan is confident he belongs on the podium in Atlantic City," Cherry Hill East coach Mike Brown said. "He is much bigger and stronger than he was before the injury. His determination will be his drive to get there."

Swenson grew up in a wrestling family, competing for a number of travel teams. His older brothers, Kevin and Pat, who graduated from Cherry Hill East in 2012 and 2014, respectively, were top wrestlers for the Cougars and frequent sparring partners with their younger sibling.

"They were always beating me up until I got bigger than both of them," Swenson said. "They wrestled before me, kept me focused on the sport. I always wanted to do better than them."

Just about every high school wrestler in New Jersey starts the season with the goal of reaching the state championships and competing under that vaulted ceiling in Boardwalk Hall.

Swenson has extra motivation. You can't come much closer to that next rung of the ladder - second in the districts, fourth in the region (when the top three make the trip to Atlantic City) - than he did as a sophomore.

He was 37-4 that season and widely regarded as one of the state's rising young heavyweights. But missing out on that top spot on the podium at districts and that third-place medal from the region reminded him he needed to get better.

He was poised to break through last season. He was 11-1 when his knee "buckled" and he "planted weird" in a Jan. 8 bout against Cherokee.

"I tried to finish but ran out of injury time," Swenson said.

He underwent surgery Jan. 25, lived in the weight room during the spring and summer and finally was cleared to play football in late September. He played five games as a two-way lineman for the Cougars. But his last game ended in frustratingly familiar fashion.

"It was scary at first," Swenson said. "But I got an MRI that Friday, and it wasn't that serious. The doctor said I can start practicing next week, and then it's up to me. I'll be back. I'll be ready."

Swenson has been wrestling for most of his life. He knows this is his last chance to leave his mark in high school.

Every athlete wants to make the most of his senior season. Swenson is driven by acute awareness that this is his final opportunity to see that his career is marked by his accomplishments, not by the things he could have done under different circumstances.

"I don't want to be one of those kids who got injured and then people say, 'Oh, he could have been this. He could have been that,' " Swenson said. "I want to show what I actually can be."

@PhilAnastasia