Wrestlers go after state glory on weekend
Some things in sports are tough to watch, and other things in sports are downright excruciating to watch.
In the last year, most fans just want any sport to watch (I saw the “Blue Jays” take on the “Cardinals” in an epic duel at the bird feeder during the quarantine). Now that most sports are back, the watching has returned — and so has the agony.
This past weekend provided a tough moment for a local wrestler. Hubbard’s Nick Bowser had done the unthinkable and qualified for the state tournament as a freshman — a rare accomplishment that, according to Eagles coach Ralph Streb, had never been done at Hubbard before Saturday. Bowser won his consolation semifinal match, 11-7, at the district tournament to officially qualify for state (the top four in each weight class advanced).
The 285-pound wrestler was all smiles as he warmed up prior to his third-place match, which merely decides a wrestler’s seed at the state tournament. It’s important, but to a wrestler, reaching state is the goal, not the seed. So, Bowser laughed and showed his humorous personality when I asked him to stick around for an interview after his bout. It was obvious he was excited.
When the whistle blew to start his match, Bowser went right after his opponent and locked up a bear-hug within seconds. As he stepped in and started to turn his hips for an upper-body throw, Bowser took a misstep and his ankle turned badly. He fell to the ground screaming. His shriek echoed in a mostly empty gym, and while some of the shrills in his voice were because of obvious pain — you could almost hear the disappointment exuded.
Just like that, Bowser’s state dreams were dashed, and everyone was reminded of the cruel nature of sports. The good news is Bowser avoided a broken bone, suffering a severe sprain instead. Also a standout football player, Bowser should be fully healthy in a month. Only a freshman, coach Streb insists we’ll see Bowser down in Columbus the next three years. I don’t doubt it.
What we see in Columbus this year will be quite different than in others, as each division will be held at a separate location, but the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat will remain the same. There are 24 area wrestlers in the three divisions (see Page B3) who will likely endure both emotions as they battle for a state title. The Mahoning Valley is always well represented at the state tournament, but this is the first year in quite a while that there isn’t a clear-cut favorite to win a state championship. Let’s analyze some of the best possibilities.
We’ll start with one of the area’s most consistent wrestlers in Austintown Fitch’s Colin Roberts. The senior is 47-2 and recently became a four-time state qualifier — another extremely rare feat. He won the Eastern Ohio Wrestling League tournament with a most impressive victory over Davin Rhoads of Louisville, a state champion in 2019.
Roberts is a exceptionally polished and technical wrestler who possesses a devastating single-leg takedown. Ranked No. 3 at 138 pounds in Division I, his relentless attack and will to win make him a prime candidate to be Fitch’s first state champion since the legendary Tony Jameson in 2008.
The only other area wrestler in Division I, Jake Powell of Boardman, has an outside shot at a title as well. He has made huge strides as a senior at the 285-pound weight class. He’s 47-3 and ranked No. 6 in the state. Powell, whose brother, Justin, won a state title in 2007, lost to the No. 3-ranked wrestler in overtime last week in the district championship match, so he’s not far off from the top-ranked wrestlers at his weight.
For the first time in a very long time, there isn’t anyone who sticks out as an expected champion in Division II. Canfield had a state champion four straight years from 2016 to 2019, and it almost certainly would have been five if last year’s state tournament had not been canceled (Anthony D’Alesio was heavily favored to win his second consecutive title). The Cardinals graduated another impressive class last year, and while they and the rest of the area teams in Division II create an impressive group, no one is projected to finish as a champion. Don’t be surprised if someone makes a run though.
Division III has a couple possibilities. It starts with South Range junior Raymond Cmil. He’s ranked as high as No. 3 at 120 pounds and is 42-2 on the season, with one of those losses being a one-point defeat last week in the district final. Cmil is a well-balanced wrestler who can score from all three positions, so it will be hard to prepare for his style. This is his first trip to the state tournament, so he’ll need to be ready for the nerves that come along with it.
His partner at practice, junior Michael Markulin, can give him some advice. He wrestled at the state level as a freshman and returns at 126 pounds with a 41-5 record. Markulin is in a weight class where it appears any of the top-10 wrestlers ranked in the state could claim the championship. He narrowly lost to the projected state champion at his weight class, 5-4, at last week’s district.
Garfield’s Keegan Sell, a district champion at 152 pounds, is in another wide-open weight class. The freshman phenom has been opening eyes all season and could do the same at the state tournament. While that’s a lot of pressure for a freshman, Sell (29-2) has been around the sport since he was an infant and might not be fazed by the moment. He’s mostly unknown to the wrestling world, which also should work in his favor.
One of the final area hopefuls is Pymatuning Valley senior Victor Verba, another 285-pound wrestler. Verba, ranked 11th, put on a show at the district tournament, pinning all four of his opponents, including No. 3-ranked Ryan Elrod and eighth-ranked Travis Owen. It was one of the most jaw-dropping runs at the district. Verba (21-2) may be peaking at the right time, and that could lead to an epic run on the biggest stage.
Those “stages” will be at three different locations starting Saturday, and not being at Ohio State University’s Schottenstein Center (the usual site for the tournament) will make things even stranger, but at least a few fans get to watch. While the greatest of moments can often be followed by the biggest letdowns,that’s part of what makes watching so tough — and exhilarating.