Route 224 rivals: Canfield hangs on against Poland

CANFIELD – The look on the face of Canfield coach Dean Conley after a heartwrenching match against Poland didn’t say a thousand words.

It said five, and then, so did he.

“I’m just happy it’s over,” he said.

That was the sentiment of a relieved Conley after his Cardinals narrowly beat upset-minded Poland, 36-22, in a Division II, Region 11 quarterfinal at Canfield High School. Canfield advanced to the regional semifinals with the win. They’ll take on Mentor Lake Catholic at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Mentor Lake Catholic High School.

The No. 3-seeded Cardinals had to go through their cross-town rival, the Bulldogs (15-2), to get there, and that was no easy task. Poland, the No. 6 seed, held the lead for most of the meet and was up 22-14 heading into the marquee matchup of the night. Two of the top 170-pound wrestlers in the state, Canfield’s John Poullas and Poland’s Mike Audi, squared off in a classic battle.

Audi fought back from an early 5-0 deficit to tie the match, 8-8, but Poullas, a senior captain with a 35-5 record, reversed Audi and put him to his back with 12 seconds remaining to win, 13-5. The victory gave the Cardinals (15-2) the momentum they needed as they won the last five matches of the dual.

Conley admitted he was weary of the Bulldogs, who wrestled Canfield tough in an earlier match this season.

“They’re tough, and they’ve got the right guy over there in (Poland coach) Tony (Stellato),” Conley said. “He’s really got them going. That Poullas match at 170, that made me feel like, ‘OK, maybe we have a chance here now.’ Because if we lose that one, it could have changed things.”

Another major factor was Canfield securing three pins to just one by Poland (a pin is worth six points, the most that can be earned by a wrestler). One of the Cardinals’ pins was a bit unexpected. Canfield freshman C.J. Frost reversed and pinned the Bulldogs’ Bruno Spottleson in the first period of a bout both coaches expected to be very close.

That was one of a few matches where Stellato felt his Bulldogs underachieved.

“It came down to heart and those who can finish, and we did not have that today,” he said. “We don’t have pinners. That’s the difference. When (Canfield) put someone on their back, they pinned us. When we put someone on their back, they were able to fight out of it and shave points. That was the deciding factor.”

The decision by Poullas came at a key moment for the Cardinals. Canfield lost three straight matches by a combined four points, including two in the final seconds. Another loss, especially one by arguably their best wrestler, could have been a crippling blow.

“We all knew he was going out against someone really good,” said fellow captain Hayden Smith, who followed Poullas’ win with a 17-5 major decision at 182 pounds. “But there wasn’t a doubt in our mind that he was going to lose, and when he won, everybody in the room knew we were going to have it.”

Canfield now faces No. 2-seeded Mentor Lake Catholic, ranked ninth in the state. Conley said the Cardinals, who were without a few starters on Wednesday, need to get healthy to have a chance against the Cougars. Canfield would wrestle again on Wednesday if it beats Mentor Lake Catholic. The Cardinals would square off against the winner of West Branch and Perry.

Such a scenario never would have transpired without the help of a few unheralded wrestlers.

“I’ve got to give credit to Nathan Buttle, Nick Borucki, Bryan Batton and even Hayden Smith at 182,” said Conley of guys who filled in and performed well at weight classes they normally don’t wrestle. “They care about this team, they care about this season and they work just as hard as anyone else.”

The work paid off Wednesday.