Wrestlers ready for district battles

One of the most unforgiving days of the season is nearly upon high school wrestlers.

The goal of every wrestler who steps on the mat this weekend at their respective district tournament is to qualify for state, but only the top four in each 16-man weight class advance. It’s when the numbers dwindle to six that things get interesting.

In the wrestling community, it’s known as the “go-to match,” and the battles are simply epic — and brutal. There are two wrestlers who compete for first, and that matchup is determined earlier in the semifinal round.

The two losers in the semifinals fall down to the consolation bracket and must wrestle a winner-take-all match. The victor of this go-to match advances to state (he moves on to wrestle for third place), while the loser falls to the fifth-place match and comes just short of reaching what was likely his dream.

The go-to matches are often incredibly close and every call is critical — and scrutinized. It has to be the toughest match for a referee to officiate, and I feel for them, but not as much as I feel for the loser. Wrestling takes unrelenting dedication to simply be average, and it demands an unexplainable amount of commitment to be in a position to reach the state tournament.

That’s part of the reason parents will undoubtedly scream at referees. Kids will throw their headgear with every fiber of their being, and coaches will look on dumfounded and speechless because there’s nothing to tell a kid who just had his season — and often times his career — come to a screeching halt.

The Mahoning Valley will certainly be sending a large contingent to the state tournament at the Jerome Schottenstein Center in Columbus, but it won’t come easy. That’s part of what makes the area’s recent success so impressive.

The Valley has two returning state champions in Girard’s Jack DelGarbino and Canfield’s Tyler Stein, but they’re only part of what makes northeast Ohio wrestling some of the best in the state. The Eastern Ohio Wrestling League had five teams win sectional titles last weekend — with Liberty, Canfield and Austintown Fitch being from Trumbull and Mahoning counties, and Beaver Local and Louisville being just outside. Overall, 32 EOWL wrestlers captured individual sectional championships, and there were 147 who qualified for district tournaments.

However, reaching the district isn’t what drives wrestlers to push through grueling practices that seem to last a lifetime and spend their offseasons at camps that require them to wake up at 6 a.m. to start training. It’s the thought of walking out of the tunnel at the arena better known as “The Schott” that fuels these kids.

It’s wrestling in front of nearly 20,000 people and flexing after a win while veins pop out of their skin. The thrill of the state tournament is unlike any other.

The good thing for area fans is that there should be plenty of wrestlers to follow. According to the 2019 Boro Fan Almanac, a postseason ranking list by Billy Schaefer of BorofanOhio.net, there are 54 wrestlers from the EOWL who are state ranked, with 32 projected to reach the state tournament. Schaefer predicted 19 state placers from the league, seven finalists and five state champions. The EOWL, which is in its 52nd year of existence, boasted four champs last year — a league record. This season could be even better.

Let’s take a closer look at a few local wrestlers who have legitimate chances to win it all. Stein, an Ohio State commit, and DelGarbino, a Princeton recruit, are ranked No. 1 by Schaefer and most other prognosticators. Repeating is never easy, but both are clear favorites at their respective weight classes (Stein is at 220 pounds, DelGarbino is at 285 and both are in Division II).

Canfield junior Anthony D’Alesio is another No. 1-ranked wrestler. The two-time state placer (fourth in 2017, third in 2018) competes at 182 pounds, and he has several high-end colleges recruiting him. He has shown the ability to win at the highest level, so a title is well within reach.

The same could be said for teammate Nick Crawford, another junior for Canfield. His brother, David, won his second straight title last year before heading to Pitt, and Nick has similar potential. He’s ranked third at 195 pounds, but rankings don’t mean much when the whistle blows. Crazy things happen in Columbus (not just after Ohio State football games), and Crawford has the skills and the pedigree to make history for the Cardinals.

Christian Wayt of West Branch and Jax Leonard of Louisville are the other EOWL wrestlers picked to win a title, but they fall outside of the Tribune coverage area. Still, it’s an impressive list for the Valley. It’ll be fun — and excruciating — to see how many make the trip to Columbus. One thing’s for sure, it won’t come easy.