By David Fong
MIAMI COUNTY — Steve Goudy will never forget his first time.
“That first one is always special,” the Troy Christian wrestling coach said. “You remember standing there welling up with tears because of that sense of pride you feel. To see all of that hard work come to fruition is a pretty special feeling.”
In 1996, Goudy, then the wrestling coach at Milton-Union, helped lead Joe Creech to a state wrestling title. At the time, Creech was just the second Miami County wrestler ever to win a state championship; Troy’s Todd Darbyshire was the first in 1982. From the first Ohio High School Athletic Association state wrestling tournament in 1938 until 1999, only three county wrestlers — Darbyshire, Creech and Tippecanoe’s Nathan Jackson in 1999 — managed to bring home state championships.
Since 2005, however, county wrestlers have combined to capture a total of 23 state championships — thanks in large part to Goudy and his staff turning Troy Christian into an Ohio wrestling powerhouse. In the past 13 years, Troy Christian has won 17 individual state titles (in addition to four Division III team titles), while Miami East and Covington each produced three individual state titles.
Despite Miami County’s recent uptick of success, however, bringing home an individual state wrestling championship in the state of Ohio remains one of the most elusive — and physically, mentally and emotionally taxing — accomplishments in all of high school sports.
The talent pool is deep and the pitfalls are myriad on the road to a state wrestling championship. No other high school sport puts quite the same demands —namely, being forced to maintain a specific weight for an entire season — on its athletes in quite the same way wrestling does.
Add in the fact Ohio annually produces some of the top wrestlers in the nation and it creates a blast furnace of both pressure and competition wrestlers have to navigate to get to the top of the podium at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus every March.
“It’s a big ocean out there,” said Troy wrestling coach Doug Curnes, who is looking for his first state champion. “You may be good in your city or in your league, but once you get to the state level, the waters are pretty deep. Anymore, it feels like a blessing just to get a kid to state, let alone get them on the podium or win a state title. It almost takes an act of God to win a state title anymore.”
Ohio, The Heart of it All
Last month at the Greater Miami Valley Wrestling Association Holiday Tournament, Troy 126-pound senior Joe Pascale ended up squaring off twice against Buford (Ga.) High School’s Kyle McCullough. Pascale won both matches, beating McCullough 8-3 in the semifinals and 4-1 in the match for third place.
Those two wins were significant in that Pascale has yet to qualify for the state meet in Ohio and currently is ranked No. 21 in the state in his weight class. McCullough, meanwhile, is a two-time state runner-up in the state of Georgia.
“I look at someone like Joseph Pascale,” Curnes said. “At the Holiday Tournament, he beat a two-time Georgia state runner-up and he beat him twice. To me, that says Joseph Pascale would be a state champion in Georgia.”
Some states are known for being better at certain high school sports than others. The most competitive high school lacrosse in the country is played on the East Coast, particularly in states such as Maryland and New York. If you want to find the best high school hockey in America, travel north to states like Minnesota and Wisconsin. Football? You can’t go wrong with Florida, California, Texas and Ohio.
When it comes to high school wrestling, most experts agree Ohio is right in the heart of it all. National high school wrestling websites such as intermatwrestle.com and flowrestling.org annually rank Ohio as one of the top five states in the nation for high school wrestling, usually alongside Pennsylvania, Iowa and Michigan.
At last year’s NCAA wrestling championships, wrestlers who graduated from Ohio high schools recorded 97 placement points, more than any other state. Pennsylvania was second with 95 points, while Michigan was a distant third with 50. Also, Ohio had more NCAA All-Americans than any other state.
“It’s one of the top five states for high school wrestling in the country,” said Miami East coach Mark Rose, who coached Ryan Gambill to three state titles in the early 2000s. “We’re right up there with Oklahoma, Iowa and Pennsylvania. I’ll put it this way — there are a lot of state champs from other states who come here for tournaments and don’t even place.”
Weight and See
At the state track and field meet, 100-meter dash champions are determined solely by the numbers on a timer, not the ones on a scale. No state golf championship ever has been derailed by a nasty case of ringworm.
The same cannot be said for wrestling.
Wrestling is the only high school sport that features weight classes. While restrictions have been put in place to eliminate the extreme — and often dangerous — weight cuts that used to be a black mark upon the sport, the fact remains that wrestlers do still have to cut some weight and maintain strict diets throughout the year in a constant battle against the scales.
Of course, that’s only part of the battle. Wrestlers also have to pass skin checks throughout the season. Wrestling teams work tirelessly to keep their practice and competition mats — in addition to the wrestlers themselves — clean throughout the season. Still, though, one infected cut or a case of an infectious skin disease such as impetigo can disqualify a wrestler, even at the state meet. Even if a dermatologist clears a wrestler to compete, the referees and meet officials reserve the right to disqualify him or her based on a skin condition.
“You’ve got to pass through skin checks,” Rose said. “You’ve got to pass through weight checks. You have to pass weight checks twice at state. You’ve got to maintain your weight all year. Any of those things can trip you up along the way. That’s something you don’t have to worry about in any other sport. One skin infection or one bad weigh-in at the wrong time in four years can end it for you.”
After the first state wrestling tournament was held in 1938, it took 41 years for a wrestler to become a four-time state champion, with Mark Zimmer winning four crowns for Columbus St. Francis DeSales from 1976-79.
For the first 40 years of the state tournament, there were no four-time state champions. From Zimmer’s fourth state title in 1979 through the end of the century in 1999, there were 12 four-time state champions in Ohio history. In the 17 years since the turn of the century, there have been 16 four-time state champions.
What once was an anomaly has become almost a yearly occurrence. Wrestling is getting tougher at the top of the heap as some of the best wrestlers not only in Ohio, but in the nation, are dominating weight classes for three- and four-year stretches, chewing up opportunities for other wrestlers to stand atop the podium.
In the past 10 years alone, Ohio has produced NCAA national champions such as Ohio State’s Logan Stieber (one of only four four-time national champions in NCAA history), Penn State’s David Taylor, Oklahoma State’s Dean Heil and Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello.
In wrestling parlance, they are known as “hammers,” and of late, Ohio has been producing them by the bushel.
Most wrestling coaches attribute that to wrestlers starting younger and focusing solely on wrestling — also known as “sports specialization” — at a much younger age. Like most other sports, wrestling at an elite level has become a year-round endeavor. Most of the top tournaments in the nation take place during the summer months.
“It used to be easier. But now you have kids wrestling 24/7, 365 days a year,” Curnes said. “Those are the kids you see at the top of the podium, and there are a lot more now than there used to be. In the 1990s, sports specialization became more prevalent and you had kids who did nothing but wrestle. Not a lot of kids are willing to do that, so you see a lot of the same kids at the top every year. It makes it hard for a kid who isn’t willing to do that to win a state title.”
“Kids are starting earlier,” he said. “There’s a lot more specialization taking place. I’m not a big fan of that, because you are only young once. I would rather see kids do multiple sports. I think if you are an offensive lineman who plays football and you don’t wrestle, you are an idiot. But most of the kids who you do see at the top of the sport — the four-time state champs who are getting college scholarships — a lot of them are kids who start early and they do wrestle all year.”
Troy Christian graduate Jordan Thome went on to wrestle at the Division I college level for the United States Military Academy, where he was an NCAA qualifier, making him one of the best college wrestlers in the nation.
He never won a state title in high school.
For much of his high school career, he was stuck in the same weight class as Gambill, East’s three-time state champion. His senior year — with Gambill having graduated the previous year — the path to a state title seemed a little clearer for Thome.
That was until he fractured his ankle shortly before the state meet, however. Despite the injury, Thome would gamely compete at state that year — he even won a match, which would prove crucial to his team winning the state team title by half a point — but nobody wins a state title on a busted wheel.
He is living proof that a wrestler can do all of the right things — eat right, train daily and maintain weight — and still not manage to bring home a state championship.
“No doubt about it. When you look at what he went on to do in college, he absolutely should have been a state champion,” Goudy said of Thome. “But he just happened to be in the same weight class as a three-time state champ for three years. Then his senior year, he broke his ankle, but still managed to make it to state and win a match.
“There’s a lot of intangibles that go into winning a state title that you don’t necessarily see in a lot of other sports. Sometimes you’ve got to get the right draw. Sometimes it’s who is hot and who is healthy at the right time of year. Who has has been controlling his weight the right way? Who is living the right lifestyle and giving total commitment to the sport? You never know what’s going to happen when you get over to Columbus. It’s a whole different world, brother.”
Curnes — himself a state placer during his own high school career at Martins Ferry High School — knows all about the potential pitfalls along the path to a state championship. His own bid for a state crown ended in 1999 when he met up with Cuyahoga Falls CVCA’s Harry Lester in the semifinals. Lester was a four-time state champion who would go on to represent the United States in the 2012 Summer Olympics.
“A lot of stars have to align for you to become a state champion,” he said. “You’ve got to live right physically, mentally and spiritually all year to do it. You don’t just roll out of bed and win a state title.”
The Quest for Titles
In a few weeks, dozens of county wrestlers will begin their quests for a state title.
No local wrestler has won a state title in either of the past two years. Last year was only the third time the county has not had a state champion wrestler since 2005 and the first time since the 2003 and 2004 seasons the county has gone two years in a row without a state champion.
Will Miami County break that trend this season and produce a champion? If there’s one thing Rose has learned in his time as coach at Miami East, there are no guarantees. Rose’s first year as Miami East’s head coach, Gambill won his first state title, along with two more after that.
Since then, East has had several wrestlers come close, but none have been able to bring home the gold. Rose knows how much it will mean if one of his wrestlers — several are ranked near the top of their weight classes — wins it all this year.
“I remember talking to (Miami East) volleyball coach (Dan Peterson) about it one time,” Rose said. “I had a wrestler win a state title my first year and he had a team win a state title his first year. I told him, ‘It’s all downhill from here.’ It’s hard to get back to the top. I think that’s why winning that state title is a very special thing. You never know when — or if — you are going to be able to do it again.”
Contact David Fong at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @thefong