David vs. Goliath a familiar sight in EOWL

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Howland’s Isom Julian (top) wrestles against Dimitrius Mitchel of Painesville Harvey during the Howland Invitational in January. Julian and the Tigers join the rest of the area’s wrestling schools in the Eastern Ohio Wrestling League championships tonight and Saturday at Austintown Fitch.

Ever wonder if the best athlete at a small high school, say, Jackson-Milton, could compete with the best from a Division I school like Austintown Fitch?

The question has probably crossed the mind of most area high school sports fans — and athletes — and the answer is yes. Where’s the proof? It’s at the Eastern Ohio Wrestling League Tournament.

Jackson-Milton, a school that has 87 males in it, according to the OHSAA school directory, has boasted countless champions in a field that encompasses teams like Fitch (665 boys), Boardman (548), Howland (343), Canfield (323), Poland (278), Hubbard (242) and so on.

There are 25 teams, mostly from the Mahoning Valley, and hundreds of athletes that compete in 14 weight classes at the two-day wrestling tournament, and there’s no hiding from anyone — big or small. Every team is placed in the same bracket, and the winner can come from anywhere. While the larger schools generally sit atop the team scoring, individuals from some of the smallest schools in the area take down Division I athletes on a regular basis.

For instance, just two years ago, Mitch Tikkanen of Jackson-Milton was the champion of the 113-pound weight class. Wrestlers from all the aforementioned big schools were in his weight class, but Tikkanen was the best. That’s not an uncommon feat at the EOWL, which takes place today and Saturday at Austintown Fitch High School (wrestling starts at 5 p.m. today and continues at 10 a.m. Saturday).

The little guys’ success doesn’t take away from the big schools. Canfield, the Division II state runner-up last year, boasts another stacked lineup loaded with state-ranked wrestlers. Fitch, one of the most tradition-rich wrestling schools in northeast Ohio, was undefeated in dual meets for most of the season until a recent loss, and teams a little farther outside the county lines, like Beaver Local and Alliance, are two of the other favorites at this year’s event.

The point being is this event is unlike any other — and more difficult than most too. One of the more telling facts to back up that statement is that former two-time state champion Johnny Matacic, a Jackson-Milton graduate, never won the EOWL Tournament in four tries. He’s one of only a handful of league wrestlers to win back-to-back state titles, and yet he wasn’t able to earn an EOWL crown (although something tells me he’s OK dealing with two state championships).

Now in its 50th year of existence, the EOWL, formed in 1967, has two wrestlers on the cusp of something never done before. Andrew Fairbanks of Austintown Fitch and Georgio Poullas of Canfield can both win their fourth straight league title. Two wrestlers have never accomplished the feat in the same year. In fact, only five wrestlers in EOWL history have claimed four consecutive titles. Poullas, a returning state champion, is a heavy favorite to repeat, and while Fairbanks will be a top seed at his weight class, his road to a fourth title won’t be easy.

The path to a championship never is at the EOWL. With 25 teams, even schools that aren’t well known in the wrestling circuits bring a few elite wrestlers. That’s another intriguing part of the event. Wrestlers and coaches often hear how good John Smith from Podunk High is, but because they compete in different geographical areas, they often don’t get a chance to see them up close. The EOWL gives them that chance, and it also creates rivals that aren’t normal.

A kid from Grand Valley might be out for blood against a wrestler from Girard because of a last-second loss back in junior high. The best wrestlers usually have years of experience and often remember losses from pee-wees that still haunt them. That lingering anger comes out at the EOWL, and, like it or not, it’s fun to watch.

Not many stories of David vs. Goliath still exist, but the EOWL gives everyone that chance.