COLUMBUS - The OHSAA State Wrestling Tournament kicks off Thursday at the Jerome Schottenstein Center with five local wrestlers making the trek to Ohio State University.
In Division II Steubenville Big Red is represented by a pair of sophomores.
Tariq Wilson returns to the state meet in an attempt to bring home the 113-pound crown. Last season Wilson placed sixth at 106-pounds and comes in this season with a 46-1 record including district, sectional, and OVAC championships.
In order to improve on last year's finish Wilson will have to maneuver a stacked 113-pound division.
"Every wrestler's goal is a state title, but he's looking at it one match at a time," said Big Red head coach Mike Blackburn. "He has a lot of good competition in his bracket. Eli Stickley from St. Paris Graham and Seth Beard from Napoleon are both very good wrestlers.
"Stickley finished third at 106 last year and sixth at 113 in 2012 and he'll have to get past Beard, who finished second at 106 last year, to even get to Stickley. He's got a lot of good competition and he'll have to wrestle one match at a time."
Joining Wilson from Big Red is fellow sophomore Shawn Livingston (39-11) at 145 pounds. Livingston earned his spot at the state meet with a third place finish at district after having claimed second place at sectionals and fifth place at the OVAC tournament.
"As young as we are we thought we could get one kid or all of them out of our district," said Blackburn. "Our district was real tough and we are so young. A lot of our kids were wrestling junior high last year. Shawn came in and wrestled the OVAC champ twice and beat him both times. He's peaking at the right time and showing the potential of how good he really is."
With two sophomores at the state meet and no seniors on their roster Big Red's wrestling future looks bright.
"Last year graduating nine, we knew we were super young and we had some ups and downs," said Blackburn. "We did a lot of good things as well as a few things we wish we could take back like losing in the first round of the state dual meet tournament. With these guys winning 4A in OVAC tournament and the OVAC dual title they proved that when chips were on the line though they were young they were there to compete.
"We had two juniors, seven sophomore, and five freshmen. We were a pretty young squad, and we're going to be pretty good the next few years. That's a testament to how well our elementary programs are run and how JoJo Saccoccia does with the wrestlers at Harding."
Harrison Central celebrated its move down to Division III this year by sending a pair to Columbus as well.
Junior Hunter Pizzino reached the state tournament on the strength of a second place district finish after winning a sectional championship. The three-time OVAC placer sits at 32-5 on the year.
"I honestly thought he'd have a good shot at making it with us being down a division," said Harrison Central head coach Bill Bryant. "We were Division II for the past two years. Hunter and few kids were close to reaching the state tournament last year. Hunter works very hard as far as what he did in the offseason. He's been training extremely hard to get to this point."
Also advancing to the state meet for the Huskies is sophomore 113-pounder Brandon White. White took third at districts to qualify for Columbus while also claiming a sectional crown and a fifth place finish at OVACs.
"Brandon was a little bit of a shock because we didn't know what we had with him," said Bryant. "He wrestled up a weight class last year. He's wrestled lights out since the OVAC tournament. Hopefully we'll go up there and come back with two state placers."
Also competing in Division III will be Steubenville Catholic Central senior 170-pounder Leo Herrmann. Herrmann put sectional and OVAC crowns on his mantle this season while going 44-2 and helping lead the Crusaders to an OVAC Class 3A crown. He placed third to advance to the state meet.
"This is our school's first state qualifier since Bobby Morris and David Bortz in 2005," said Catholic Central head coach Aaron Henry of Herrmann.
"Leo has had some good practices this week the team has stuck with him. They didn't fade away as the offseason started. A lot of kids are still around helping Leo. We're trying to stay in good shape because if we go to the third period we know we'll do fine. He's great at putting you on your back and looking for the fall. I'm praying for him to find the strength to make a good run.
He was definitely the favorite at districts other than the No. 4 guy in the state from Madison Plains who he lost to 7-4 in the semifinals and we were right there with him. He bounded back after that and won his third place match. I think we can do well. His spirits are up. He's always ready for that next match."
For the Crusaders, Herrmann's qualifying for the state tournament is the cap to an amazing season.
"This whole season has been a terrific season overall as a program," said Henry. "It was great to see how the team has come along as the season went on. These kids work hard and are so smart. This senior class set the tone. They enforced a drive in this team that was just great to watch. I'm proud of the team as a whole. Blake Kiedrowski and Isaac Sanford are alternates.
"Blake had a tough draw and Isaac came off an injury at OVACs. Both won their last matches as seniors. Punching six guys through the sectional into districts has never happened for us."