Pymatuning Valley’s Willis seeks 2nd title

Tribune Chronicle file / Joe Simon Pymatuning Valley’s Gaige Willis, right, points to family in the stands after winning the Division III 195-pound state title in March at Columbus.

ANDOVER — Going into last season, Pymatuning Valley’s Gaige Willis had all the motivation in the world as he entered his junior year.

In fact, he felt the incentive for about eight months prior to the start of wrestling season. It’s part of what inspired him during a dream year.

Willis lost in the state championship match two years ago as a sophomore, and the defeat was the inner drive for Willis as he dominated the competition during a perfect 46-0 state-championship junior year.

Now a senior going for his second-straight title, the tables have turned.

“He realizes that he’s the hunted now,” Lakers coach Dave Miller said. “Guys are going to be coming after him.”

Willis couldn’t be happier about that.

The fact that everyone he wrestles will be gunning to upset the defending state champ is just the driving force Willis needs to go after back-to-back titles. Some may become complacent after accomplishing a goal pretty much every wrestler hopes for, but Willis insists he isn’t settling.

“I’m even more thrilled this year to try and do it again,” said Willis, who recently committed to Edinboro, one of the top wrestling schools in the country. “I like the challenge, honestly.”

The first state champ in PV history, Willis is a physically imposing figure. His size (6-foot-2) and stature show how powerful he is, but the bulky build can mask his speed and athleticism. Those traits will be even more important as Willis bumps up a weight class from 195 to 220 — a move he’s making in part because he wants to get used to wrestling bigger guys (he will likely wrestle heavyweight in college).

“It won’t be much of a difference for him just because he’s so athletic, and he’s so strong,” Miller said of going up a weight class. “I don’t know that there will be a whole lot of guys who will be problems for him. Yeah, he’s going to run into guys who can probably match him strength-wise, but he’s very athletic, very quick, and he’s very aggressive when he needs to be.”

For all of his physical ability, Willis’ best attribute is probably his technique.

He started wrestling in elementary school, and he has fine-tuned his craft on a regular basis during the last 10 years. He travels around the area to different gyms for offseason training, and his unrelenting approach at practice is something Miller marvels at on a daily basis.

“His self motivation is just very different,” said Miller, who started wrestling at age 7 and has coached at PV in some capacity for the past 14 years. “I’ve had guys that were very motivated and wanted to do great things and worked really hard, but they would sometimes become lackadaisical. He’s never really done that. He’s always pushing himself, trying to push other people to try and be better and do better.”

Willis is considering making a few tweaks to what proved to be the perfect blend of wrestling last year.

His style is admittedly basic. Willis focuses on the fundamentals and avoids the flashy “throws” and funky styles others wrestles attempt. The risk isn’t worth the reward to Willis.

That said, he and Miller talked about wrestling with more pace than in years past, in part to get a point across, but also to prepare Willis for the postseason and college. Willis simply said, “I want to get on the attack a little bit more,” but Miller was a bit more in-depth in his reasoning.

“He’s pretty good at his pacing, but we wanted him to become more of a dominant type of wrestler, where he left no doubt that he was the better wrestler,” Miller said. “Gaige can turn it on and turn it off when he wants to and needs to, and we want to try to get him to go out more assertive and show, ‘I am who I am. I’m the state champ, and I deserve to be here.’ “

He proved all of that last year, and he’s looking forward to doing it again.