It’s always a bonus to have a state qualifier return to your lineup, but when you have two of them — and you’re not a Division I powerhouse — it could translate into a special season.
Such is the case for Black River, which will be bolstered by two-time state placer Mike Hozan and 2012 state qualifier Sebastian Vidika this year.
“With those two in practice — and you add in (two-time district qualifier) Spencer White — there’s some serious battles in the center mat,” Pirates coach Corey Kline said.
Hozan has been a steady workhorse for the Division III program, improving each year. He was a 103-pound district qualifier as a freshman, made it to state and placed eighth at the same weight as a sophomore and moved farther up the podium last season with a fourth-place finish at 113.
“He’s a treat to coach because he has so much talent,” Kline said. “We’re treating him differently this year — we’re critiquing every mistake he makes. It’s frustrating for him, but it’s what he needs going into his senior year. You can tell coming in that he’s more ready, more prepared.”
Hozan’s success is a bit surprising because he didn’t start wrestling until the seventh grade. Most elite wrestlers in Northeast Ohio — one of the nation’s top hotbeds for the sport — have been on the mats since they could walk, but Hozan was preoccupied with another sport.
“I actually come from a gymnastics background,” Hozan said. “When I got into seventh grade, I was ready for something new. I liked a girl and her brother was on the wrestling team, so I joined up. It worked out OK.”
Hozan watched the careers of former state placer Corey Pfister and state champion Jesse Campbell, and began to fall in love with the sport. His quick success might have come from his ability in gymnastics.
“You use weird muscles in gymnastics that the only other sport you use them in is wrestling,” Hozan said. “So I already knew how to use those weird muscles. Plus, gymnastics teaches you a lot of things you can use in wrestling — work ethic, flexibility, balance and body control.”
Once Hozan got to high school, he began adding an offseason regimen to his routine. His favorite stop was The Barn in LaGrange, where he’d do battle with Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy’s Nathan Tomasello — a three-time state champion and Ohio State recruit.
“I’d go up there and get my butt kicked all the time,” Hozan said. “That does the job. He’s been the most helpful for me.”
Not that Hozan doesn’t get plenty of help in the Pirates’ wrestling room.
“Bast and Spence every day … you can’t beat it,” he said. “I don’t have a day where I can take a day off … ever.”
Things haven’t run as smoothly for Vidika. He sat on the sidelines during his freshman season, stuck at 103 pounds behind Hozan.
“I felt terrible for him because 90 percent of the guys out there he could beat, and he wasn’t in the lineup,” Hozan said.
Vidika has a different outlook on the lost season.
“My freshman year was frustrating while I was going through it, but now I look back at it and realize that it made me a stronger wrestler,” he said. “I got my opportunity as a sophomore, and it felt like a higher honor. It gave me more drive because I didn’t just get it handed to me.”
Vidika took full advantage, rolling through almost every opponent during the regular season and grabbing championships at the Division III sectional tournament at Northwestern and district tournament at Garfield Heights. He went 1-2 at the state tournament, but it wasn’t enough to temper a blockbuster season.
Kline said the junior will get a wake-up call this season.
“He beat a guy last week 11-4 and was extremely upset because he only won 11-4,” Kline said. “It was a little different last year because he was hidden behind Mike, so it looked like he came out of nowhere. He loses the element of surprise this season.
“I’m trying to tell him, ‘People know who you are … they’re going to run from you.’ His opponents are going to try to keep away from him, keep the match close and hope to catch something at the end to win the match. He has to mentally prepare for that.”
Vidika has physically prepared for anything.
After his freshman year, he began wrestling freestyle and Greco, and spent the last two summers working on those styles, culminating with a trip to the nationals in Fargo, N.D., this year.
“It was something different, a good experience,” he said. “There are people there from all over, a lot of different states. The competition at Fargo is good.”
It seems like a far cry from Vidika’s first year wrestling in the fifth-grade biddie program.
“I wasn’t fantastic when I first started — I was pretty horrible,” he said. “I won one match out of 20 my first year. I didn’t care for the sport at all.”
But he stuck with it, saw gradual improvement and the wins started rolling in.
It’s the same old story for many wrestlers at Black River. It’s a rare season when the Pirates don’t have a wrestler competing at the state tournament, and that success keeps building from itself.
“The younger kids see what the varsity kids are doing, see the work they’re putting in,” Kline said. “I tell them, ‘Do you want to know how to do this correctly? Watch these guys and see what they do. They make it happen.’”
They’ll be looking to make it happen again this season.