POLAND - Mike Audi was ready to quit wrestling before he even started.
Audi never participated in the sport before eighth grade, but his friend's dad was the head coach of Poland at the time, and he kept asking Audi to give it a try.
"He was bugging me for a while," Audi said, "so I just decided, 'I'm going to go to one practice, tell him I don't like it and that's that.' And then I went to a practice, and I actually really liked it, so I stuck with it."
Tribune Chronicle file photo / Dave Dermer
Poland’s Mike Audi attempts to flip New Philadelphia’s Mike Barrow on his back during last year’s State Wrestling Championships in Columbus. This year, Audi, one of the state’s best wrestlers, is looking to get back to Columbus.
Audi and the Bulldogs are sure glad he did.
Now a senior, Audi is one of the top wrestlers in the state at his weight class. He currently wrestles at 182 pounds, but he's allowed to go as low as 170 pounds, which he intends to do later in the year. That's when the postseason starts, and that's what Audi is most looking forward to after narrowly missing out on placing at last season's state tournament.
"I want to place high at the tournament this year, at least the top five," he said. "I was so close last year, and that's been bugging me the whole offseason, so that's just something I've been working for."
Audi placed fourth at last year's district tournament, which meant he was paired up against a No. 1 seed at the State Wrestling Championships in Columbus. That didn't faze Audi, who beat top-seeded Mark Barrow of New Philadelphia, 4-2, in the first round. Audi was winning his quarterfinal match in the next round against Wyatt Running of Clinton-Massie when he got caught in a move known as a "gator roll" and was pinned. Running ended up being the state runner-up.
The loss was tough for Audi because a victory would have sent him to the semifinal against a kid he defeated earlier in the year. Instead, he fell to the consolation bracket where he had to tangle with longtime Canfield nemesis John Poullas, who narrowly beat Audi several times during the year and again at the state tournament.
Poland coach Tony Stellato said instead of wallowing in self pity, Audi did what he always does and learned from the match.
"He's a real student of the sport," Stellato said. "He studies film. He watches all of his matches - reviews every little thing, every little detail of what's going on and how he can improve."
Audi's off to a good start this year.
He's 13-2 this season and two wins away from reaching 100 for his career - one that started just four years ago. Stellato said most state-caliber wrestlers have been involved in the sport most of their lives, but Audi's thirst for knowledge and impressive athleticism allowed him to quickly adapt and create a non-stop attacking style that's tough to stop.
"It takes some time to get yourself to even be competitive, so what he's been able to accomplish thus far is something special," Stellato said. "It comes down to the type of kid that he is - being a fierce competitor. He accepts a loss, but he doesn't take it well. That fuels his fire."
Audi takes that motivation - and what he learns from film - into the basement of his house, which is lined with half a wrestling mat. It was a gift he asked for after a rough freshman year. He and his brother, Anthony, a sophomore who also is coming on as an elite wrestler in the area, use the mat to work on their technique.
It's easy to see the improvement. Mike's quickness and overall skill from the neutral position are as good as anyone in the state.
"He has a wide-open style in the sense that he likes to keep his foot on the gas pedal," said Stellato, who added that the two have worked on taking more calculated risks to cut down on costly mistakes. "He's constantly trying to score, racking up those points and trying to break his opponent. You can't ask for much more as a coach.
"I'd put him up against anybody in the state."
Audi is ready for the challenge. The 6-foot senior, who hopes to earn a scholarship to wrestle in college, said he understands he has plenty of work to do before another shot at state can happen, but he seems to be on his way toward another postseason run. In his only losses this year - to Canfield's Stan Socha and Parma Senior's Mike Lewis in the finals of the Kenston Invitational - he was winning at some point. He admits he has to cut down on making "stupid mistakes," like the ones that cost him in those losses, but he's confident he will do just that in the coming weeks.
"That lost to Canfield, I've probably watched that 100 times on my laptop since that match," Audi said. "With wrestling, what you put in, you get out of it."
Poland's match against Austintown Fitch was canceled on Thursday. A make-up date has not yet been made.