PALMYRA - Southeast's Brandon James is a returning state placer and one of the highest ranked wrestlers in his weight class, yet he entered the Division II sectional final as a bit of an underdog.
James was up against John Poullas of Canfield in the 170-pound final last Saturday at West Branch High School. Poullas defeated James in a closely contested match earlier this season, and while that loss may have lingered in the minds of some wrestlers, James said it wasn't even an afterthought.
"It left my mind," said James, who beat Poullas, 8-3, in the finals. "I was focused on winning it. I went out there with the attitude that I'm going to beat him."
That's been James' mindset most of his senior season.
He didn't rest on the laurels of a great junior year, when he finished with a 43-8 record and eighth in the state at 152 pounds. The success helped him realize his potential, and it wasn't eighth best in the state.
"Win the state title," he said of his goal. "It's the most important thing to me right now."
And it's not far fetched. James is wrestling at the highest level of his career, Southeast coach Bob Noall said. That's mainly because he spent the offseason in the weight room and on the wrestling mat - literally. At one point, he even slept on the mat. That came at a wrestling camp at St. Paris Graham High School - a Division II school that has won 12 straight state titles and numerous national championships.
"I went to all kinds of open tournaments in the summer," James said. "I joined the Akron Wrestling Club, I went to the St. Paris Graham camp and just did whatever I could to get better.
"(The camp) was tough. It's a week. You stay there all the time. You sleep on the mats, wake up, run and then wrestle all day long. It was an experience. I learned how to push myself and mentally put myself on the same level as those kids."
All the work is to reach a milestone that seems to be in his gene pool. His uncle, Bo James, was a Division I state champion in 1997 at Akron Springfield High School and went on to wrestle at the Ohio State University.
"He helps me out a lot," Brandon James said. "I go up and wrestle with him every chance I get."
Reaching the top of the podium at the state tournament, like his uncle, is a dream James has held since junior high. His speed and quickness from the neutral position is one of the reasons it could become a reality. His strength (he bench presses 305 pounds and squats 465) certainly doesn't hurt either, said Noall, now in his fourth year coaching the Pirates.
"His goal is to win the state championship," Noall said. "He doesn't mince any words, and I believe in him. You can't beat that (mentality). He can do it. He's got the tools. That's where some kids don't have it is up here (pointing to his head), and he does. I think he can win it. I really do."
James' experience at the Jerome Schottenstein Center in Columbus (the site of the state tournament) made him believe winning a title was a possible. The size of the arena - its capacity is 18,809 - and the thought of being front and center at the biggest stage possible for a high school wrestler didn't faze him. More importantly, he was able to compete.
"I loved it," he said. "Going down there, it was probably one of the cooler things I ever accomplished - getting down there and getting on the podium. Last year made me want to get on the top - first place."
He has to get to Columbus first. He and fellow Pirates Hunter McPeak (138 pounds) and Santana Barrera (220) wrestle at the Division II Alliance district tournament on Friday and Saturday. The top four placers advance to the state tournament.