BELOIT - Howland senior captains Alex Cornicelli and Gabe Stark have been wrestling on the same team since they were in elementary school.
The two were around the same weight class and wrestled against each other in practice for the longest time, creating a rivalry of sorts, Cornicelli said. As the years passed, Stark grew bigger and taller (he's now in the 145-pound weight class) than his longtime friend (Cornicelli is at 126 pounds), so their time as drill partners dwindled.
"We've been wrestling since we were little kids, and we've always worked together and pushed ourselves in the (wrestling) room," Cornicelli said. "It's a friendly competition. We always like to push each other. But once he started getting bigger, it got a little harder for me to keep up with him."
The rest of the field seemed to have that problem with the two of them at Saturday's Division II sectional wrestling tournament at West Branch High School.
Stark and Cornicelli each won sectional titles at their respective weight classes, leading a group of eight Tigers who advanced to the district tournament next week at Alliance High School.
Howland finished fourth as a team with 179 points, just 20 behind first-place West Branch (199). Crestwood was second with 190 and Canfield third at 180.5.
This was Stark's second-consecutive sectional championship. He dominated his weight class, pinning all four of his opponents. In fact, none of Stark's foes even made it to the second period. Stark, ranked as high as second in the state, said he has worked tirelessly on attacking opponents from his feet, an area he felt was a bit of a weakness coming into the season.
"Last year, I was really good on top and I was confident on bottom, but I was a little timid on my feet," he said. "I wrestled a lot of freestyle over the summer, which is mostly neutral wrestling, so I've picked it up on my feet. I jump a lot of rope to get my foot speed up, and I've done a lot of running to get my cardio up, so I can go 6 minutes as hard as I can."
There was no need to go that long this weekend, but that might not be the case in the coming weeks as the competition will continue to get better. Stark, who placed fifth in the state last season, has conquered such challenges before, and now Cornicelli said he's ready to do the same.
Cornicelli said he's made strides in several areas, but his biggest improvement came from the bottom position.
"I've always had my troubles on bottom," he said. "But really, what it is, is how far and how long you can push yourself because you have to be in good condition to get off bottom. You have to be in good condition to take them down on your feet, and you have to be in good condition to hold them down. It's just what you do and what you make of it. You don't have to be the strongest guy in the world to hold somebody down. It's about who's going to push themself the hardest."
Howland coach Bill Beasom said Cornicelli, Stark and fellow captain Nico Lucarelli, who took fourth, look better than he has ever seen them, and he's seen a lot of them. Beasom coached Howland's junior high before being promoted to the high school level four years ago, so he has mentored most of the Tigers for the last six years. He said his relationships with the kids helped create a strong team chemistry - something the captains also played a role in.
"My captains I have this year, we have great communication," he said. "They're just an extension of me. If there's anything ever wrong going on, they tell me and we try to work at it and fix it. It's not just a dictatorship by me - it's a group effort."
The group looked good Saturday. Other wrestlers who moved on were David Brian Whisler (second at 152 pounds), Jordan Radich (third, 160), Josh Grodesky (third, 182), Andrew Rolfe (second, 195) and Mike Bell (third, 285).
"I was amazed with how well a few of these kids wrestled," Beasom said. "We exceeded my expectations."