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Wrestlers battling more than opponents

Simi Moananu was drenched in sweat. His shirt was a darker shade of gray than when Liberty’s wrestling practice first started.

The big, burly Moananu pushed through the final minutes of the conditioning portion of practice and seemed rather elated to hear the final whistle blow. He brought the team together for a break that signified the end of practice.

Well, the first practice.

Moananu, like so many others around the state, went to another practice a few hours later as the state-tournament hopeful prepares for the final stretch of a long, grueling season. The mat burn, the bruises, the strains, pains and pulls take quite a toll on high school wrestlers, even some of the biggest and strongest, like Moananu, who is ranked in the state in the Division III 285-pound weight class.

Surprisingly, the physical beating these kids take often doesn’t compare to the mental fatigue. Just showing up to practice is a battle. They closely watch their diet for more than four months, spend a few hours pushing the limits of the human body and then partake in one-on-one combat against some of the state’s best athletes — who are usually rather angry because they’re going through the same things.

The brutal reality of the sport is that it’s not always the funnest out there. In fact, it can be miserable at times, and the frustration on the kids’ faces becomes evident as the year wears on.

And yet here they are, going to a second practice after months of training. Why? Well, because while wrestling isn’t always fun, the gratification a victory brings is unlike any other sport. When all that work pays off, it’s a glorious moment.

A couple hundred local athletes will seek glory over the next three weeks as the postseason commences today with the individual sectional tournaments. The top four placers in each weight class qualify for the district tournament. That’s where the competition really stiffens and only the elite are able to again finish in the top four and advance to the state tournament.

The Mahoning Valley — and neighboring regions — have a large contingent of elite wrestlers. Those who compete in Division I and II were highlighted in recent articles, and Division III’s contenders are equally impressive.

It’s another long list. It starts with the up-and-coming South Range Raiders — the only area school to qualify for the state wrestling dual team tournament earlier this month. South Range has several state contenders, beginning with senior Anthony Czap. The 220-pound Czap is a returning state placer (sixth) who is 28-3 and the leader of a young, talented team.

Sophomore Michael Markulin (32-3) is a budding star. He’s another returning state qualifier, an extremely rare feat for a freshman, and he powers an impressive young core for the Raiders. Part of that core are Nassem Maali, a 138-pound junior who’s 32-7, sophomore Logan Cormell (25-6, 152 pounds) and freshman Jacob Starkey (31-11, 145). They help form the area’s top D-III team.

A team that’s been one of area’s best in D-III over the last decade is Pymatuning Valley. The Lakers boast another strong foursome. They’re led by three-time state qualifier Jake Edelman, a 120-pound senior who’s 23-3. William Campbell has enjoyed a mostly dominant senior year as well. The 132-pounder is 27-6 and looks primed to follow his older brother, Noah, to the state tournament. Fellow senior Kenny Crouch wasn’t a well-known entity until this year. The 195-pound Crouch is 30-7 and ranked fourth in the state in D-III. Junior Victor Verba, 285, rounds out the group with a 21-5 record.

Liberty’s Moananu is the main threat for the Leopards. The powerful senior was close to advancing last year and is 36-5 this season. Seniors Jake Scoville and Gio DiNardo are in the mix as well. Joining Liberty and PV at the Berkshire sectional are Grand Valley and Brookfield, among others. GV’s Trevor Meeker, a 126-pound junior, is 21-13, and Brookfield’s J.P. Webb, also a 126-pound junior, is 24-9.

Jackson-Milton, Crestview and Columbiana are at the Rootstown sectional with South Range. J-M’s Ryan Staton is having an impressive senior year. The 138-pound Staton is 27-10. Crestview is led by junior Wyatt Babik, a 285-pound junior who’s 27-10, and Roclen Bettura, a freshman who’s 13-5. Columbiana junior Cutter Green is ranked in the state at 145 pounds. His twin (they’re actually part of triplets), Creed, is 24-9 at 160 pounds. Jacob Kamperman is an impeccably built 285-pounder with a 20-2 record.

Chalker’s lone wrestler, Landen Duncan, is a freshman phenom. He’s 22-4 and ranked seventh in the state at 106 pounds.

He ends a long list of state hopefuls who are battling more than just their opponents at this time of year. The best of the best push through the physical and mental struggles because they know the glory will be worth it at the end. The path to that triumphant moment starts today.

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