Ohio's state wrestling tournament is a spectacle unlike any other.
The top 336 grapplers from all around the state make the trek to Columbus for three days of action-packed wrestling. Tens of thousands of fans from all around the country flock to the Schottenstein Center. Groups of friends and families with no affiliation with any school or wrestler make the annual pilgrimage to see great wrestling. Last year, the three-day event brought over 53,000 fans to "The Schott" for 1,218 matches.
This year, at the 82nd Annual State Wrestling Individual Tournament, fans will have three Wildcats to cheer for. Johnny Novak (106), Matthew Whipkey (126), and DJ Huff (145) will represent the Mat Cats.
The wrestling will begin in earnest on Thursday evening. The Division I Championships Preliminaries will start at 5:35 pm following the Division II and III prelims. If you win, you're done for the night, and you wrestle on Friday morning (starting at 11:20 am). If you lose, you wrestle in the first round of the consolations on Thursday evening (starting at 8:20 pm) for the right to continue wrestling in the consis on Friday (starting at 1:35 pm).
Novak will take the mat close to 5:35 pm as a 106 pounder. Novak, the No. 2 seed out of the North Canton Hoover district, carries a 38-8 record into his opening bout. The junior will face Cael Saxton of Avon. Saxton carries a 45-4 record after earning the third spot out of the Mentor district. Should Novak win, he would face the winner of the Cole Skinner (LaSalle) vs. Corey Crawford (Dublin Coffman) on Friday. If Novak loses, he'll face the loser of the aforementioned match on Thursday evening. With a 27-0 record and the top qualifier from the Kettering Fairmont district, Skinner is the favorite in his first round contest.
Whipkey will wrestle soon after Novak's match ends. The senior holds a 33-13 record as the third qualifier out of Districts. Whipkey will match up with Jacob Reed, the second seed out of Hilliard Darby. Reed, a sophomore out of Lancaster, enters with a 46-9 mark on the year. The winner of the match advances to face the victor of Dylan Shawver (Elyria) and Jack Collins (Elder). With a 44-4 mark, Shawver is a favorite as the top finisher at Mentor, beating Angelo Rini of St. Edward.
Huff will be the final Wildcat to wrestle at 145. The senior owns a 19-5 mark after overcoming an early season injury. On account of his record, Huff draws a very difficult first-round matchup with Bryce Andonian. The St. Edward senior has a near-spotless mark of 32-1 record this season and cruised through Districts, pinning all of his opponents in the first round. Depending on the outcome, Huff will face either the winner or the loser of Brady Pethel (Olentangy) vs. Andrew Knick (Clayton Northmont).
A fourth Wildcat will make the trip down I-71 with his teammates – Patrick McGraw. The senior and team captain took fifth place to earn State alternate status.
"When it comes down to one match, if you make it to State or not, it's highly emotional. It's either heartbreak or ecstatic," said Head Wrestling Coach Mark Sullivan. "In Matt Whipkey's case, he had to beat a highly ranked kid to go to States, and he did it in the last few seconds of the match. Everybody is jumping around with joy happy for him. Then you have Pat McGraw, who's the hardest working kid on our team, who runs into a high-quality kid who wrestled a little better on that day, so it's heartbreak."
Fellow senior Zach Morgan also plans to head to Columbus to cheer on his teammates. Morgan did not place at Districts, but enjoyed a memorable season.
"Zach Morgan has been a 4-year starter for us. He worked extremely hard," Sullivan said. "He's a very gifted pole vaulter for the track team. We appreciate all of his efforts and what he gave us in the room for the last four year."
Anytime you make States, it's special. But earning a ticket to Columbus was particularly satisfying for Huff and Novak.
Both Huff and Novak came so close to punching a ticket last year, but fell short at Districts. The two men watched from the stands longingly last year, internalizing the feeling as motivation for next year.
Following a full year of work, both Huff and Novak secured a spot in the state tournament.
"Those are the kinds of the guys who are easy to coach," said Sullivan. "They show up all offseason, they put in the hard work, they hit the weights, they're great in the classroom. They listen and they're coachable. We try to stay out of their way and to help wherever we can with motivation. It's very exciting to see both of them make it to States and their families are so happy for them."