Offseason is a dirty word for the elite high school wrestler.
While many wrestlers are in their third month of rest and relaxation after a grueling winter season, several area athletes are still spending weekend after weekend on the mats.
Such was the case last weekend when a handful of athletes competed in the Central regional freestyle/Greco tournament in Indianapolis, and will be this weekend when even more area wrestlers try their luck at the ASICS FILA cadet nationals in Akron.
“There’s probably a lot more going on now than when I was wrestling,” Elyria High coach Erik Burnett said. “They have open mats in so many places, and there weren’t the vast amount of clubs they have today. That’s a big difference I see. A kid has the opportunity to work out in so many different places.”
Burnett Trained Wrestling is one of the many clubs that make up the Northeast Ohio wrestling scene, and BTW took a group that included wrestlers from Elyria, Lutheran West and Strongsville high schools to Indiana last week.
Pioneers freshman Kevin Vough captured the heavyweight freestyle championship, while Longhorns freshman James Handwerk picked up 170-pound titles in freestyle and Greco.
Elyria sophomore Ben Darmstadt was the regional runner-up — losing 10-0 to Handwerk in the 170 freestyle final — and Pioneers freshman J.T. Brown took fourth at the same weight. Elyria sophomore Nico O’Dor went 2-2 at 126 in freestyle.
“I went into that final not expecting to beat (Darmstadt),” Handwerk said. “He took second at state last season and in practice he beats me most of the time. It felt really good to finally beat him.”
Handwerk also dominated Brown in a round-robin match to reach the final, and took down some of the top wrestlers from the Midwest during his two title marches.
“I’ve been looking at the matches from this weekend and I noticed that I did some things slightly different,” Handwerk said. “I’d never wrestled (the Elyria pair) before and it was nice to finally get to. They are both really tough.”
The placements helped Vough, Handwerk and Darmstadt qualify for the USA Wrestling nationals in Fargo, North Dakota, in July.
“Fargo is the pinnacle … that’s where guys want to shine,” Burnett said. “The nice thing about placing in the top three at regionals is not only do you get to go to Fargo, but you get to choose your weight class there.”
While Fargo is USA Wrestling’s premier event, the tournament being held at the University of Akron this weekend will help Team USA set its lineup for the world championships this summer.
“FILA is the world governing body,” Burnett said. “Cadets in USA Wrestling are 15- and 16-year-olds, while cadets in FILA are 15-17. If you win at the nationals this weekend, you get a shot at worlds, you get to go overseas and wrestle. That kind of experience is priceless.”
Vough will compete in the Greco competition today, and the freestyle bracket Saturday and Sunday. The other three Pioneers are expected to compete in freestyle, while former high school stars such as Elyria Catholic’s Cory Campbell and Amherst’s Alex Funderburg will compete in the University division.
“This is a big tournament, there’s some really good competition,” Vough said. “There’s a couple guys (in the field) that I lost to in Fargo (last year). But I really like wrestling against guys that beat me before. It shows me how much I’ve improved.”
Vough, who’s ranked in the top five nationally by several groups, has been on fire since losing in the Division I state quarterfinals in early March. He downed some tough competition to win the FLO nationals last month, dominated in several Ohio qualifiers and the state tournament and breezed to the regional title last weekend.
“He just continues to take it to another level,” Burnett said. “We’ve had (Massillon Perry’s) Billy Miller come in to work with him, (former Berea state wrestling champ and NFL center) Alex Stepanovich has been in working with him … everyone’s been in pushing the kid.
“I’m not going to lie to you, he’s had some tough days in the wrestling room. But I think it’s helping him … I know it’s helping him.”