Having a young team is sometimes seen as a negative thing.
Not so, say Mark Sullivan and the Mat Cats.
This year's edition of Saint Ignatius wrestling will be young, hungry, and dangerous. The Wildcats lost a number of wrestlers in the offseason, namely six seniors to graduation. That doesn't phase the returning members of the squad.
"Be ready for Ignatius wrestling," says senior Patrick McGraw. "We're going to surprise some people. Watch out, we're coming and we're ready."
A 30-year coaching veteran entering his 15th year at the helm, Sullivan has seen his fair share of wrestling squads. Sullivan believes this year's team is special.
"Every year, I try to look at, 'What can make our team better?' Every team has a different dynamic," Sullivan explained. "Some are self-motivated. Some are team-motivated. This is definitely a team-motivated group. They push each other, they work off of each other's enthusiasm. It's a very high work ethic group. By the end of the year, you'll see a lot of improvement.
"We're a really young team, which is exciting. Then you see the growth from beginning to end and in the next few years. The best way to assess this team is as a hard-working, enthusiastic team with high goals. It's exciting to coach a team like that."
Leading the way for the young squad is a group of grizzled veterans.
DJ Huff, Patrick McGraw, Matthew Whipkey, Zach Morgan, and Tommy Gill will set the agenda for the team. These five seniors will show the younger members of the team how to win.
"That's a great group of seniors with a lot of talent who work hard and are good examples for young kids on the team," Sullivan said.
McGraw is one of the top dawgs on the team. The middleweight posted a 27-12 record in 2017-18, earning 140 team points. McGraw defined himself as a Houdini wrestler, leading the team with 50 escapes. McGraw credits his success to his diligent nature.
"I'm meticulous, they joke around about it a lot. I'm very robotic sometimes in my motions," McGraw said. "I have a routine I stick to every day. I feel like that's where a lot of my success has come from. We follow a routine in here every day – we have certain drills we go through to make sure we're prepared for certain situations. You gotta work hard every day, it's day in and day out."
On and off the mat, McGraw takes his leadership responsibility seriously.
"My job is to motivate these guys and get them ready for the competition," McGraw said. "I have my own personal goals, but I have goals for this team. We have goals we want to reach, and everyday it's my job to get them ready, to motivate and prepare them for what's coming. So far, the guys have done really well. I'm excited what we can do this week and this year."
Beyond McGraw, Huff is another Wildcat to watch. An incredibly hard worker, Huff earned a spot at Districts last year like McGraw. Huff finished last year with a 14-10 record and will look to stay healthy and fight his way to Columbus.
Whipkey missed out on the District Meet last year, and will look to wrap up his Wildcat career well. Whipkey notched a 19-11 record last year with 18 nearfalls and 9 pins.
Morgan (16-16 record in 2017-18) and Gill (23-12 record) are wily wrestlers with plenty of experience, too. These two quality young men will make noise this season, and hopefully in Columbus, too.
Juniors to look out for this season include Johnny Novak and Josh Dinya.
Novak, in particular, has a chip on his shoulder this season. Novak just missed on qualifying for States last year at 106. Novak will again wrestler at the 106 weight class, following a 25-11 campaign last season. Novak tallied 144.5 team points, fourth on the team in 2017-18 and tops amongst returning wrestlers.
"I'm very excited. I think I can have a very good season, and the team can have a great season, even though we're young," Novak said. "The goal is to place at States. To get there, I'm just working hard every day. Just having mental mindset that I can do it, and nothing can stop me.
"As a team, we have a lot of heart," Novak continued. "A lot of people work hard in this room. We won't give up. That will surprise people. We won't quit. I'm excited for this year."
Much of the Wildcats' squad is sophomores and freshmen.
Sullivan is excited about the number of wrestlers and the vast potential on the roster. A slew of young wrestlers will start and have an impact this season.
Chief among those youngsters are Jack Bush at 120 and Anthony Santagata, the cousin of legendary wrestler and now assistant coach George DiCamillo. Freshman Teandre Allen will also be a Wildcat to watch at 113 pounds.
Two sophomore football players, Andrew Chime and Bennett Adler, have also joined the team this year and are doing quite well.
"They like it, and they're going to be good. You'll see them on the mat on varsity," Sullivan said of Chime and Adler. "I threw them into the scrimmage last week vs. Mentor and they did well. I was pleasantly surprised, especially for upper weights who have never wrestled before. Wrestling is a mindset. If they like it and they're aggressive, it's innate for a lot of kids. They just want to roughhouse it – go out, have fun, and break a sweat. That's what a lot of wrestling is."
As per usual, the Mat Cats will have a loaded schedule.
The season starts on Friday with the start of the Solon Comet Classic. Next weekend, the Wildcats will participate in the Ironman Tournament at Walsh Jesuit. That's a lot of quality competition in the first two weeks of the season.
The Wildcats will host the home opener on December 14 at 6 pm in Sullivan Gym, bringing Walsh Jesuit and Bedford to the mats for a tri-match. St. Edward then comes to the corner of West 30th and Lorain on December 20.
Other highlights of the season include the Brecksville Holiday Tournament on December 28-29, the Minuteman Duals on January 12, and the Catholic Invitational Tournament on January 19-20, hosted this year by Toledo St. John's Jesuit.
The regular season concludes with Senior Night on February 16, leading into Sectionals on February 23.
"The goal of high school wrestling is who gets to the state tournament, who places, and the state champs at the end of the season. We always train our guys to be able to do so," Sullivan said. "Some kids don't have the athleticism or coordination to do that. But they can train at that level of a state champ and get great discipline in this sport.
"I talk all the time about peaking. Historically, we are a team that peaks at the state tournament. We base that on how we train, when we train, and when we have rests in between training."
In the last few weeks, new faces have found a home at Gibbons Hall.
A host of rugby and football players have joined the wrestling team's workouts to prepare for upcoming seasons. The idea, hatched by Head Rugby Coach Dan Arbeznik '00, has been met with open arms by Sullivan.
"Coach [Dan] Arbeznik asked me if some of his rugby guys could train with wrestling to become better athletes," Sullivan said. "I said absolutely. I'm trying something new. I devised a program – on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, some of the selected rugby guys are coming to practice and getting intensive workouts. The kids love it. They love to work hard. They're already seeing benefits athletically."
Wildcats fans might recognize some of the names of the student-athletes participating in the workouts – Ricky Rose, Michael Mangan, Seamus Cooney, Xavier Everett, and yes, Tommy Eichenberg.
"A few of them might end up wrestling in a couple dual meets," Sullivan said. "With a school the size of Ignatius, we have to welcome and encourage multi-sport athletes. I recently read an article that said multi-sport athletes have fewer injuries. It diversifies the body, the core strength, and the balance. I think it's great when we have multi-sport athletes. It's great for the kids. They're only young once. They get the experience of a different sport."
The Mat Cats have high goals for this season.
At the end of the year, the Wildcats want to be amongst the state's best. Pundits from across the state recognize the team's potential, ranking six Wildcats amongst the top wrestlers in the state.
McGraw is one of them, and wants to turn potential into results.
"My goal is to be on the podium in that second week in March," McGraw. "For this team, and for myself, it's to get better every practice. No practice can be wasted, we can't afford that. We need to come in with a goal each day, to improve every single day. If we improve everyday, as Coach Sullivan says, we'll be peaking at the right time in March."
If the Wildcats keep working as hard as they are now, look out for the Mat Cats in Columbus in March.