‘He’s in a different place’
PV’s Willis is MVP of EOWL
AUSTINTOWN — He started the day by beating the top-ranked Division II wrestler at his weight class, and he ended it by defeating a longtime friend.
Neither was easy, by any means, but Pymatuning Valley’s Gaige Willis continues to prove his status as one of Ohio’s best overall wrestlers — regardless of division.
Willis earned the 220-pound title and was named MVP of the 51st annual Eastern Ohio Wrestling League Tournament on Saturday at Austintown Fitch High School.
“He’s in a different place than a lot of guys,” Lakers coach Dave Miller said. “I don’t know how to put it. He’s just at another level.”
It’s hard to believe there’s another level beyond the talent he was up against.
The 220-pound weight class featured seven state-ranked wrestlers, included two ranked No. 1 and two others tabbed in the top 10.
Willis, a returning state champion ranked No. 1 in Division III, defeated the fellow top-ranked wrestler, Tyler Stein of Canfield, who’s No. 1 in Division II. The match was Saturday morning in the semifinal round, and it went into overtime after Willis was hit with a second stalling call late in the third period.
That resulted in one point for Stein and tied the match at 1. Willis shot in on a single-leg about 30 seconds into the first overtime and secured a takedown on the edge of the mat to pick up a hard-fought 3-1 victory.
“Yes and no,” said Willis of whether the match went the way he thought it would. “Yes, I got the win, but a little bit closer than what I thought it would be.”
Earlier in the tournament, Willis pinned 12th-ranked Blake Robbins of Louisville. His victory over Stein set up a meeting with longtime friend and offseason drill partner Parker Meaney of Lakeside, ranked eighth in Division I.
That matchup was equally difficult to the Stein duel because, since Meaney and Willis have practiced against one another so many times, they know exactly what the other does. Thus, Willis’ 1-0 victory wasn’t sealed until the final whistle.
“We know what each other are going to do, what we’re not going to do,” Willis said. “We read each other like a book.
“We’ve been drilling against each other for so long, it’s kind of tough to wrestle each other,” he added. “It’s going to be what you saw in that finals match, close 1-0, 2-0 matches. It’s tough to wrestle someone you’ve known for that long.”
Willis recorded an escape in the second period and was able to hold Meaney down for the entirety of the third frame to hold on for the victory.
The mild-mannered Willis, who now has a 76-match win streak, wasn’t raving about winning his second-straight EOWL and being named MVP. He’s more focused on winning a second state title, and his coach believes he’s well on his way.
“He has the ability that if he needs to ride you out, he’ll ride you out,” Miller said. “When he needs a takedown, he’ll get a takedown. He can open it up when he wants to and keep it tight when he needs to. He’s kind of got everything going for him.”
Considering the postseason begins in less than two weeks, it’s a good time to be at his best.
Because of the talent in the weight class, not every ranked wrestler placed. Stein finished third, beating Howland’s Brandon Matlock, who’s rated No. 3 in the state in Division II, in the consolation final, 3-2. Alliance’s Chavion Young (ranked 14th in Division II) beat Conneaut’s Alan Christine (ranked 14th at 285, Division II) by forfeit for fifth place. Louisville’s Blake Robbins (12th, Division II) did not place in the top eight.