Fitch, Canfield pursue state tourney berths

Tribune Chronicle file / Joe Simon David Crawford, top, and his Canfield Cardinal teammates wrestle tonight in the Ohio Dual Team Tournament regional semifinals.

Two teams that have been on the brink of reaching the OHSAA Dual Team State Tournament finals get another chance — maybe their best — today.

Austintown Fitch, competing in Division I, and Canfield, in Division II, are both hosts for the regional semifinals and finals, which will take place today.

The Cardinals, 16-0 in duals this year, have been tantalizingly close to advancing to St. John’s Arena — where the state’s final eight teams collide to determine the state champion — twice in the past three years, and they’re the favorites to move on today.

Canfield faces West Branch at 6 p.m. in a Division II Region 12 semifinal, with the winner taking on either Beaver Local or Louisville, which wrestle in the other semifinal. All four teams are part of the Eastern Ohio Wrestling League and possess numerous state-ranked wrestlers.

None have more than the Cardinals, who dropped a controversial bout in last year’s regional final and lost in the final bout of the regional championship in 2015. They’ve made eclipsing that point their goal in 2018, and Canfield coach Steve Pitts said the Cardinals are looking forward to some marquee matchups with opponents they know fairly well.

“We put our kids, since they were in sixth, seventh grade, in those scenarios, so it’s not something new to them,” Pitts said of high-level matchups. “They understand that those scenarios are not only a chance to prove themselves but also a chance for you to improve. If you go out and wrestle kids that are lesser opponents consistently all the time, then you’re not going to know what your weaknesses are.”

The hope is there aren’t many.

The Cardinals’ semifinal matchup with the Warriors will be the first between the two in nearly a decade, Pitts said. West Branch has a longstanding tradition of wrestling success, so Pitts said they’re certainly not overlooking the Warriors. However, they also have to be ready for either Beaver Local, which Canfield beat, 31-30, earlier this year, or Louisville, another team loaded with state-ranked competitors.

After beating two teams by a combined score of 136-8 in the first two rounds of the state duals, the competition will improve dramatically tonight. That hasn’t changed anything for the Cardinals.

“We try not to get too high or low,” Pitts said. “We just focus on what we need to get better at. Our kids are really competitive, so I don’t have to flip any switch for them. When you put them in that scenario (tonight), they’re going to compete.”

Another EOWL team, Fitch, is hoping for a breakthrough of sorts as well.

The Falcons haven’t been quite as close as Canfield to reaching Columbus, twice falling in the regional semifinals to state-power Massillon Perry. The Panthers, who have one dual state title and two runner-up trophies, are again part of the same region, with Fitch facing Carrollton at 6 p.m. tonight, and Perry squaring off with Massillon Jackson at the same time. As is the case in every region, the semifinal winners meet 20 minutes after the conclusion of the semifinal round.

Fitch (12-1) can’t worry about the Panthers just yet. Carrollton, which moved up from Division II this year, is the reason Canfield missed out on winning its region last year. The Warriors, much like Fitch, possess a deep lineup, and Falcons’ coach John Burd is well aware of their ability.

“We’ve looked at their lineup quite a bit, and we know what they have,” Burd said. “They’re pretty solid from top to bottom. All 14 of their guys that they put out there are competitive, so it’s going to be a really good dual meet.”

If Fitch gets past Carrollton, things could get interesting.

This may be Fitch’s best team in Burd’s three-year tenure, and while Massillon Perry possesses two of the state’s elite wrestlers, the overall matchup isn’t as lopsided as some may think. Each team has numerous ranked competitors, and the matchups at several weight classes could be tight matches.

As is often the case, the winner of those close bouts takes with them a ton of momentum.

“We have the same goal every year, to get through this weekend and make it (to Columbus),” Burd said. “Perry has put it to us the last few years. First, we have to get past Carrollton, a very solid program, and then I know our guys are really excited and are embracing the challenge to wrestle Perry again. We know they’re one of the most storied programs in Ohio. We’re just looking forward to the challenge and see where we stand as a team.”

Both teams have the ultimate barometer in front of them today.