Understand this: Fitch’s Sutton getting better

Tribune Chronicle file / Joe Simon Austintown Fitch junior Gus Sutton, right, shown during the Eastern Ohio Wrestling League meet in February, has qualified for the state tournament for the second straight season. He will compete in the 126-pound weight class.

AUSTINTOWN — The slower things come to Austintown Fitch’s Gus Sutton, the faster he goes.

In a sport where complex movements and imperative reactions occur in the blink of an eye, Sutton is beginning to see things more simplistically.

“He’s really understanding the sport,” Fitch coach John Burd said. “The sport’s slowing down for him, and it’s making him a lot better.”

That’s impressive considering Sutton was already one of the state’s best at his weight class.

He caught a lot of people by surprise last year when, as a sophomore, he placed sixth in Division I at the individual state wrestling tournament and upset the top-ranked wrestler in his weight class. Since then, he’s accomplished even more.

In the offseason, he won a state championship in freestyle wrestling, a different form of wrestling that competitors use to help them improve in a number of areas. The title gave him the courage to compete in the Cadet Freestyle National Wrestling Tournament, which is held in Fargo, North Dakota and is considered one of the toughest offseason amateur tournaments in the country.

The surprises kept coming as Sutton impressed even himself by placing sixth (only two wrestlers in the Mahoning Valley have ever placed at Fargo).

That’s when Sutton decided to speed up his wrestling a bit.

“I’m trying to wrestle a lot more aggressive,” said Sutton, who added that he’s attacking more and brings a faster pace to matches than he did last year. “I’m scoring a lot more points.”

He’s winning more, too.

He’s 44-0, and he’s one of the favorites at this week’s OHSAA Individual Wrestling State Tournament in Columbus, which starts Thursday at the Schottenstein Center. Part of the reason he’s no longer an unknown up-and-comer like last season stems from the knowledge he gained over the last 12 months.

Aside from wrestling the nation’s elite competitors in the offseason, he travels to different wrestling clubs to compete, learning various ways to score from the top and neutral positions. Being twisted and contorted in all different ways gave him a better understanding of what to do when he faces similar situations.

“Every time you’re against that high-level competition, you learn how to wrestle in all positions,” said Burd, who also coaches a freestyle team known as the Green Machine in the offseason. “You see different styles, and that gets you to learn how to wrestle your style and adapt to everybody else’s style as well.”

Sutton agrees, but his adaptability isn’t a conscious endeavor.

He doesn’t watch film on other wrestlers to understand their style. He figures it out during the match, an impressive feat considering he’s in the process of aggressively attacking another state-level competitor.

“I never really think about it,” he said. “It just evolves as I’m wrestling.”

He’s not yet thinking about how things will evolve in Columbus — in the long term, at least. His focus is on Mike Daly of Oregon Clay, his first-round opponent. Even though Sutton is a returning state placer, a Fargo All-American and ranked as high as third in the state, he knows better than anyone that upsets happen all the time in Columbus.

“Anyone can beat anyone,” said Sutton, who was unranked last year when he defeated No. 1-rated Colin Schuster in the first round of last year’s state tournament before going on to beat another top-ranked wrestler in the next round. “You can never look past anyone.”

Sutton is now the one people are trying to upset, and he understands — and embraces — that mentality.

“It’s different,” he said. “Everyone’s watching you. You have a target on your back. They all want to beat you.

“I feel like it motivates me more to wrestle better.”

His coach notices the added confidence. He has seen it since Sutton returned from Fargo.

“Whenever you can wrestle against the best guys in the country and you find ways to win at the highest level,” Burd said, “when you’re back in your hometown in Ohio, you feel like you can beat anybody.”

They’ll find out if that’s the case starting Thursday.