Willis, Stein clash in EOWL

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Pymatuning Valley’s Gaige Willis, top, finishes a pin of Louisville’s Blake Robbins Friday at the Eastern Ohio Wrestling League Tournament. The top-ranked Willis wrestles Canfield’s Tyler Stein, ranked No. 1 in Division II, today

AUSTINTOWN — Two top-ranked wrestlers who rarely look ahead couldn’t help themselves, and it’s hard to blame them.

Pymatuning Valley’s Gaige Willis is a returning state champion and ranked No. 1 in the state in Division III. Canfield’s Tyler Stein is a returning state qualifier and ranked No. 1 in Division II. Both are in the 220-pound weight class at this weekend’s Eastern Ohio Wrestling League Tournament, and they’ll be butting heads today.

A match that should probably be reserved for the championship round takes place in this morning’s semifinals at approximately 11 a.m. at Austintown Fitch High School. The winner advances to the final — and takes with him a major confidence-builder.

“For sure,” said Stein when asked if he looked ahead at the potential matchup when the brackets were released Friday. “I can prove something. He’s ranked No. 1. I’m ranked No. 1. He was a state champ last year. It’s going to be fun.”

It’s going to be interesting, too.

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Tyler Stein of Canfield, top, secures a pin against Waterloo’s Jarrett Broom during their match Friday at the Eastern Ohio Wrestling League Tournament. Stein, ranked No. 1 in the state in Division II, wrestles Pymatuning Valley’s Gaige Willis, ranked No. 1 in Division III, today in a 220-pound semifinal. Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Pymatuning Valley’s Gaige Willis, top, finishes a pin of Louisville’s Blake Robbins during their match Friday at the Eastern Ohio Wrestling League Tournament. Willis, ranked No. 1 in the state in Division III, wrestles Canfield’s Tyler Stein, ranked No. 1 in Division II, today in a 220-pound semifinal.

Something has to give between two wrestlers who are massively built and who possess incredible strength. Willis has a slight edge since he won their only previous matchup, which was last year in this exact same situation. Willis won, 3-0, and finished the year unbeaten with a 46-0 record.

He’s again undefeated at 28-0 — a 74-match winning streak — and said he’s really only been in one close match this season (a 4-0 victory in the Kenston Invitational final). He’s looking forward to another one.

“It tests me on if I’m truly ready for state or not,” said Willis, referring to the individual state tournament, which takes place in early March. “It’s going to put me to the test to see if I’m ready.”

Big matches are nothing new to either wrestler.

Willis’ last loss came in the state final in 2016. He has won numerous tournaments — including claiming EOWL, sectional and district titles — since that defeat, but today’s matchup with Stein might be the biggest test yet for the Edinboro commit.

He’s not overly concerned.

“(Experience) helps a lot,” he said. “Most of these situations I’ve seen before, so there’s nothing to truly worry about.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he added. “I have to worry about this match more than the next. This one right here is the most important match of all of them.”

Because of the criteria used at the EOWL, the two top-ranked wrestlers were paired in the same half bracket, so instead of being the biggest match of the finals, it’s the marquee matchup of the semifinals. That was the case last year as well, and Stein remembers the close defeat fairly well, but he insists he’s a different wrestler than 2017.

He’s 33-2 on the year (with two losses at the Brecksville Tournament, one of the state’s toughest events), and in the offseason, he placed fifth at a national tournament known as the United World Wrestling Cadet World Team Trials. The added commitment is obvious.

While he might be big and bulky, he’s also fast and explosive with sound technique. The combination is the reason some prognosticators expect him to join Willis as a state champion.

“I feel like I’ve gotten better in all positions, but I’m a lot more confident in my leg attacks and my setups, more than last year,” Stein said. “Through the offseason, wrestling national competition, I just developed a mentality to want to attack and hit (moves). It’s kind of a maturity thing.”

Both wrestlers admitted they’ve been keeping an eye on another at the tournament, hoping to pick up a few tendencies to take advantage of today.

They both saw something similar — a wrestler with very few flaws.

“He was really good last year, and he seems better this year,” Stein said of Willis. “I’m just going to try and score more points and have fun.”

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