Local wrestlers gear up for state finals
COLUMBUS — For 35 Ohio Valley Athletic Conference wrestlers, their dream of reaching the 82nd-annual Ohio state tournament has been attained. The goal now is to reach the podium Saturday night and earn all-Ohio status.
Nineteen of those competitors will be entered in the Division II portion of the three-division alignment. The remaining 16 are located in Division III.
Beaver Local leads the local D-II contingent with eight state qualifiers, while Steubenville is right behind with seven. St. Clairsville has three and East Liverpool one. In D-III, Martins Ferry and Shenandoah have three representatives each, while Barnesville, Bellaire, Bridgeport and Caldwell each have a pair. Buckeye Local and Toronto have one each.
Action gets under way Thursday inside Value City Arena at the Jerome Schottenstein Center on the campus of Ohio State University with championship preliminaries and first-round consolations at 3 p.m. Championship quarterfinal bouts will be contested at 10 a.m. Friday, along with second-round consolation matches. Championship semifinals and consolation quarterfinals will begin at 6:30 p.m. Friday. Matches for third, fifth and seventh place will be held beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday, with the championship finals in all three divisions to begin at 5:30 p.m.
The top eight finishers in each weight class earn all-state laurels.
Big Red qualifiers include district champions in sophomore Tyler Muldrew (132) and senior Anthony Rice (152). Other qualifiers are seniors Peyton Blasko (126) and Jacson Muldrew (138); juniors David Tuttle (182) and Keith Bodnar (195); and sophomore Ethan Pappas (160).
Blasko was seventh at 113 a year ago, while Jacson Muldrew was seventh at 132 after finishing fifth at 120 for D-II Shadyside two years ago. Rice has placed seventh and fourth at 138 as a junior and sophomore, respectively. Tuttle finished eighth at 170 last winter.
For the first time since 2010, St. Clairsville has more than one state qualifier as the Red Devils are sending sophomore Koen Kish (120), freshman Caden Stout (132) and senior Justice McCamick (220). All three are first-year state qualifiers.
“When we made that jump from Division II to Division III after the 2015 season, it was hard for me to get these guys to understand that there is a difference between the divisions when it comes to this time of the year,” St. Clairsville head coach Joel Sansone said. “We kind of took our lumps but I really think changing our schedule to get more matches against D-I and D-II kids has helped prepare them for the end of the year.”
Kish, 44-5, finished second in the Heath District after defeating a familiar foe — West Holmes’ Tyler Masters — in the semifinals. He lost to Beaver Local freshman phenom Logan Ours in the finals.
“Koen has been wrestling really well all year,” Sansone said. “We keep stressing to him that he can’t leave any doubt in his matches. He’s been wrestling his entire life, traveling all over the United States. Now it comes down to him trusting his training and believing his hard work will pay off.
“He’s got a really good draw,” Sansone noted. “Getting to the district finals was huge for him. The kids that finished third and fourth from our district got tough first-round draws.”
Stout, 41-14, was a third-place finisher at Heath.
“Caden was a surprise to everybody but us as a coaching staff,” Sansone said. “He has a lot of heart and determination. When he wants something he doesn’t give up. He was winning on Friday but got pinned. However, he bounced back and won five straight matches on Saturday, including redeeming himself in the ‘blood round’ to go to state’s against the kid he had lost to previously.
“His path wasn’t easy. All five of his matches went the distance, with two of them going into overtime. He beat three top 10 kids to get there.”
Justice, 43-13, finished fourth in the district to punch his ticket to Columbus.
“Before his ‘blood round’ match with the kid from Minerva that we had beaten in North Canton, I told him it was his senior year and he couldn’t leave anything out there (on the mat). He went out there and attacked … attacked. He took the kid down at will and eventually kept building the lead until the kid gave up,” Sansone recalled.
“I’m super proud of Justice. He has come a long way from his freshman year when he only won five matches. For him to finish with 100 career wins and make it to state, he’s come a long way.”
Representing the Beavers are freshmen Mark Emmerling Jr. (113) and Logan Ours (120); juniors Cole McComas (126) and Skyler Lasure (145); sophomore Logan Krulik (152); seniors Beau Smith (170) and Garrett Givens (220); and junior Daniel Wirth (285).
McComas is a two-time state runnerup, while Lasure was fourth at 132 last year and seventh at 120 as a frosh. Smith was fourth at 145 a season ago.
The Potters’ Skylor Wooley (220) is 40-8 as a junior.
One-fourth of the 16 state-bound grapplers were district champions. They are Barnesville’s freshman-senior duo of Griffen Stephen (106) and Brylan Clouse (182). Bridgeport senior Mason Kuneff (160) and Martins Ferry senior Drake Dobson (195) are the others.
Stephen, 36-8, captured the Buckeye Local district when he decisioned Shenandoah’s Alex Overly.
“He’s gotten better from one extreme to the other and it’s showing,” Stephen said of his oldest of four sons. “He’s learning a lot more and he’s listening a lot more. He’s a hard worker and it is starting to pay off.”
“It feels pretty good to come out and get first as a freshman,” the younger Stephen said of his district crown. “I’m looking forward to the state tournament to see what I can do there.
“Working hard really pays off and having my dad in my corner helps me a whole lot,” he added. “He knows a lot and it helps me knowing that he’s there guiding me through it.”
Clouse, 31-2, had gotten close to qualifying the last two seasons, but had fallen just short both times.
“My first two years were disappointing. I made the (district) semis my freshman and sophomore years but did not make states. This year is all about redemption and using my last shot the best I can.
“Hopefully, I can attain my goal of winning the state title.”
Stephen is proud of Clouse.
“He finally got over that hump,” Stephen said. “He worked for it and was pretty dominating out there. He looks good for next weekend.”
The Shamrocks finished as the district runnerup with only two qualifiers.
“That’s a good thing coming out of districts. You want to be a champion. Hats off to those two,” he said. “They’ve both worked really hard. We had a couple of kids finish as alternates in the fifth spot and a couple sixth. I wish we could’ve got a couple more into the state tournament. I think we would’ve won the district then.”
Kuneff, 43-5, is making a repeat trip to Columbus after a dominating performance in the district tournament.
“It feels good to get back to Columbus,” Kuneff, who recorded his 150th career win during the districts, admitted. “I have to give a lot of credit to my practice partner, Tino Kusic. He pushes me every day to be the best I can be.”
Bridgeport head coach David Nelson couldn’t be any prouder of Kuneff.
“He works so hard every day in practice,” Nelson said. “He wants to be a state champion. He has his sights set on it.”
Dobson, 38-4, has been impressive in the postseason.
“Drake’s goal is to get on the podium,” Martins Ferry first-year head coach Chad Ware stressed. “Not only does he want to get on the podium, but he wants to get up there pretty high. He’s been wrestling his best and getting better every week. Hopefully he can use his confidence this week.”
Dobson went 1-2 at last year’s state tournament.
“Going in there as a No. 1, again, is a good feeling. It gives me a lot of confidence going into the tournament,” Dobson said. “If I take what I did at the sectional and district tournaments with me, I think there’s a pretty good chance I can come out where I want to be.
“Winning a match actually gets me into the mood. I won’t be distracted about the big lights or the atmosphere. It definitely benefits me being there last year.”
It’s been since 2012 that Bellaire has had a state qualifier. The Big Reds have a pair in senior Joseph Bonfini (120) and junior Cody Albaugh (160).
“We broke a 6-year drought. Both of the guys had tough matches in the finals, but we’re going to lick our wounds and get back to working on correcting our mistakes,” Bellaire head coach Andrew LaMotte said.
Both wrestlers finished as district runnersup.
“Joseph deserves whatever he gets. He works hard. He works in the off-season,” LaMotte added of Bonfini, now 35-8. “This is his only sport and he wants to wrestle in college, so he has got to place at the state tournament level to get him some more college looks.
“Cody is a very young junior. Actually, he should probably be a sophomore, but that doesn’t matter,” LaMotte continued. “He just has to come out and wrestle hard. That’s all he has to do.”
Having wrestlers back in the state tournament is a step in the right direction for the Bellaire program.
“Hopefully, this turns our program around and opens some eyes that we’re just not a football school anymore,” LaMotte continued.
Bridgeport’s Tino Kusic (170) makes his fourth trip to Columbus. He finished fourth last year at 160 and is ready to make the most of his final attempt at a state title. He was a district runnerup.
“Tino knows what he has to do to accomplish his goal,” Nelson said. “He had a tough match in the (district) semifinals, but sometimes a loss helps you out at this point in the season. He’s been there before and he got to the podium last year.”
Another individual who has been there and placed is Buckeye Local sophomore Brian Palmer Jr. (132).
Palmer Jr., 43-4, finished sixth a season ago at 120. He was a district runnerup and is looking to improve upon last year’s position.
“He took third at districts last year and got second this year in a very close match with a very good wrestler in (Klay) Reeves from Johnstown-Northridge,” Buckeye Local head coach Willie Saxton noted. “It shows how much he wants to be a state champ. I’m happy how he wrestled. One minor mistake was the key. That’s going to happen sometimes as a sophomore.
“A lot of kids have sophomore slumps. He definitely didn’t have one. All of his losses have come to high-caliber kids. You can’t ask for anything better than that.”
Martins Ferry junior Richard McFarland (182) is also hoping his experience there last year can aid him this season, while teammate Kameron Hughes (170) opened some eyes with his district performance. Both finished fourth.
“Richie has that confidence. He reached the state last year and he wanted to go back,” Ware said of McFarland, 30-16. “We’re looking to do a little better than last year. Being there won’t be a big shock to him.
“Kameron was a little bit of a surprise. He’s been wrestling really well the last few weeks and he really turned it on at the end of the year. I just told him that this is the best he’s wrestled all year and it showed,” Ware noted. “In the consolation quarterfinals, he wrestled a pretty good kid from Marion Pleasant and he took it to him. He wanted it.”
Hughes, a 30-16 sophomore missed most of last season with an injury.
The Zeps representatives, in addition to the aforementioned Overly, are senior Dalton Rice (220) and junior Easton Hitchens (285).
The Redskins are led by senior Marshal Niswonger (113) and junior Collin Wiley (132).
Representing the Red Knights is sophomore Garrett Dozier (138).