HOWLAND - It's been nearly a decade since anyone other than the Tigers raised the team trophy at the Howland Invitational, the second-longest running tournament in Ohio.
And while nine straight years of dominance came to an end Saturday when Painesville Harvey secured first place, not all was lost for the rebuilding Howland wrestling program.
The Tigers, who placed fifth as a team, tied Girard with three individual champions (Jimmy Lerakis, David-Brian Whisler and Mike Bell). More importantly, a young team led by a few stars continued to grow as the most important part of the year - postseason - inches closer.
"I feel good about watching them get better from day to day," Howland coach Bill Beasom said. "We're progressively getting better each week. More so this year than years past, from the beginning of the season till now, our team has grown. It's a great team to have."
It's been an interesting situation for Beasom, who guided the Tigers to a 10th place finish in Division II at last year's state tournament. He also helped 2013 graduate Gabe Stark claim the first state title at Howland since 1984.
Beasom may have another state champ on his team this year in junior David-Brian Whisler, who placed fourth at 152 pounds in 2013. Yet, his focus has been as centered on first-year wrestlers still learning the ways of the sport just as much as it has been Whisler and other standouts.
"We have some phenomenal athletes," Beasom said. "The kids just don't have a lot of wrestling experience. But we're exposing them to these really good tournaments like Tool City, Wheeling Park Duals and Hudson (Holiday Tournament). We're taking them all around, and it's kind of opening their eyes. The kids haven't been hanging their heads. They show up to practice and work their butts off."
One of those kids working hard is Lerakis, a junior who earned his first tournament title as a varsity wrestler on Saturday. Lerakis defeated Conner Roberts of Eastlake North, 11-5. Lerakis said his understanding of the sport helped him as he fluently changed to different moves to stay a step ahead of Roberts.
"I knew he'd be a good opponent," Lerakis said. "He wasn't going to go down after just one move. I knew I had to keep going and pursuing him the whole match."
Beasom said Lerakis' work ethic is something the younger, less experienced wrestlers should model. He said dedication is what he likes most about fellow junior standouts such as Whisler, returning state qualifier Jordan Radich and Bell, a 285-pound wrestler who narrowly missed a trip to state as a sophomore.
"You try to tell the kids all the time to work hard and it will pay off," Beasom said. "(Lerakis) and his drill partner, Jake Schulman, have been really working hard together. To see all the hard work pay off, it makes me feel good. It lets the other kids know that it pays off too."