Juggernaut on the mat

Canfield dominant in EOWL

Tribune Chronicle file / Joe Simon Canfield’s David Crawford reacts after winning a Division II district title on March 4 at Alliance High School. Crawford went on to win the state title at 170 pounds and returns as a favorite to win another one.

They’re hard to overlook, even though some people may want to, just out of spite.

It’s like the New England Patriots in the NFL. There are a lot of great teams and spectacular players, but deep down, everyone knows the Patriots are the team to beat, even if they don’t want to admit it.

There’s a similar situation evolving in the Mahoning Valley, and the scenario is taking place in the Eastern Ohio Wrestling League.

The EOWL may not be well known to those who don’t follow the sport, but as it enters its 51st year, a league loaded with some of the state’s — and country’s — elite high school wrestlers has a Patriots-like team emerging.

The Canfield Cardinals have always possessed a good program. Even before their recent surge, they boasted multiple state champions and league titles, but as of late, they’ve become a juggernaut.

While there isn’t a history book to chronicle every season of the EOWL, Canfield was widely believed to be the first league team to finish as state runner-up in 2016. Then they repeated that feat last year and crowned individual state champions in back-to-back seasons to cement their reign atop the league (no other EOWL team finished in the top 10 of the team standings last year).

That’s not to say the Cardinals aren’t — and won’t be — challenged. Even with three legitimate state-champion contenders on their team, the league won’t be intimidated. In fact, Austintown Fitch has defeated the Cardinals the last two seasons in dual meets and claimed what’s known as the EOWL dual-meet title in Division I. The league tournament, however, again belonged to the Cardinals, who have won it three of the last four years.

Coming off another spectacular year in which it tied a school record by sending six wrestlers to the state tournament (they sent six the year before as well), it’s hard to believe Canfield may be even better this season. That’s difficult to fathom because the last five years have been the school’s best — by far — in the sport of wrestling (they had two league titles total prior to 2015). While they had about five or six elite wrestlers the last few years, including a four-time state placer and the school’s most decorated wrestler in Georgio Poullas, the Cardinals possess even more this season.

There always seemed to be an ever-so-slight weakness in the Cardinals’ lineup in years past, but that’s not the case in 2017-18. There are at least 10 wrestlers who can place at almost any tournament in which Canfield participates, impressive considering it possesses one of the state’s more rigorous schedules. With 13 total weight classes, the Cardinals are stacked from top to bottom. Heck, even their back-ups are solid.

Much like today’s Patriots and the New York Yankees of the olden days, other teams usually aren’t fond of a powerhouse, and they’re going to do all they can to bring them down. The EOWL has seen winning stretches that have come and gone before, just not at this level.

Fitch was dominant for quite a while and continues to be a force today. West Branch had a few impressive runs, as did Howland and Beaver Local. Alliance seems to be the new kid on the block, out to show it, too, can hang with anyone at anytime. There is a deep-rooted sense of pride within the league, and any attempt to rule over the rest often brings out ferocity in others. That’s part of what makes this situation so intriguing.

Teams can huff and puff all they want, but in wrestling, the only way to do something about is with a ridiculous amount of hard work and talent. There’s not one “player” who can dominate over others like Tom Brady of the aforementioned Patriots. It’s going to take a team of absurdly talented individuals to dethrone the Cardinals, and while that may happen in the future (Beaver Local has that potential), don’t expect an immediate challenger to the juggernaut that’s been created in Canfield. They’re just too good to do anything about it.

They’ll be led by a different coach this year as Dean Conley, the architect of their recent rise to stardom, stepped down last year to spend more time with his family. Assistant coach Stephen Pitts took over. Pitts is what you might call a wrestling guru. He studies and follows the sport year-round and travels around the country to different tournaments in the offseason. Yet, he’s not necessarily what makes Canfield tick.

The Cardinals have three different former head coaches on staff (not including Pitts) and several other former standout wrestlers to guide the different levels of the program. That’s a lot of knowledge and dedication, and that’s what separates Canfield at the moment.

Things change quickly in the EOWL though. Kids move. Coaches leave. Communities change. The Cardinals are young, skilled and overflowing with talent, but all good things must come to an end.

Or do they? Bill Belichick certainly doesn’t think so.