The fact that the Canfield High School wrestling team came into the season ready to wrestle really doesn't sound like groundbreaking news to most.
Cardinals coach Dean Conley begs to differ. Conley, in his 14th year at Canfield, said it's rare to have a wrestler enter the season conditioned to the point where he can complete a whole match. It's just as unusual for an athlete to be fundamentally sound with his moves at the outset of the season.
So, when the majority of the Canfield team came into practice polished and in shape, Conley was a bit surprised.
"This is the first time that has ever happened," he said. "We've always had a few kids in wrestling shape, but the whole team was ready to start working hard in October."
Conley says Canfield's dedication in the offseason is why they're so well prepared, and it's also the main reason they're off to an 11-2 start. The Cardinals dominated the competition in most of the 11 victories, and their only two losses were against St. Paris Graham, the 12-time Division II state champs, and Richmond (Mich.), which has won the last three Division III state titles in Michigan.
The Cardinals' wins were resounding, with lopsided victories over Austintown Fitch, Boardman, Beaver Local and Southeast - all of which are well-respected wrestling programs - just to name a few. They also toppled Poland, 42-24, in what was their closest victory of the season.
Conley wouldn't go as far as calling this is best team, but he's aware of their potential. The freshmen class was part of a junior high team that won the Ohio Athletic Committee, White Division dual-meet state title last year, and they've joined an experienced group of juniors and seniors - three who advanced to the district tournament last year - to form one of the stronger teams in the area. He said the biggest reason for their early success isn't necessarily talent, it's sticking with the sport throughout the summer.
"What's been nice is that our coaching staff teaches greco Roman and freestyle during the offseason," he said. "That stuff has a little different feel, so there's no pressure or practice scenario when they're there. It's important to get kids to understand that it isn't necessarily your wins and losses in the offseason, but just getting on the mat and trying new things."
The Cardinals' success has come without their top wrestlers, junior Korey Frost, who's been sidelined with a knee injury all season.
"He's been accelerating his elliptical and bike time," Conley said. "We think he'll probably go to the doctor on Friday, and we'll get an idea when he can return."
The Cardinals are at the Pin City Wrestling Tournament at Perry High School n Jan. 4-5 before a huge showdown with Howland. The victor will be a heavy favorite to win the Eastern Ohio Wrestling League dual-meet title in Division I.
EAGLES STARTING TO SOAR: Third-year Hubbard coach Donnie Newell admitted he expected a slow start to the season. The majority of the Eagles' roster is young and vastly inexperienced, so a few growing pains were inevitable.
Hubbard endured a few rough matches in the first few weeks, but the Eagles turned things around in a big way on Dec. 19 against Liberty. Hubbard came into a hostile environment against the returning Division III EOWL dual-meet champions and walked out with a huge, 56-24, victory.
"They had a Blackout Night and there was a bunch of stuff going on there," said Newell of the atmosphere, which included a spotlight over the mat. "They were excited and pumped up. That's our rival, so it was big for our guys. But we can't live off that."
Newell said he's slowly bringing along a team that is still learning the many facets of the sport. The Eagles will participate in their first individual tournament Jan. 4-5 at the Chippewa Invitational. He said several of his wrestlers have never taken part in a high school tournament.
"With a young team, there's so much for them to learn in a short period of time, so you can't overwhelm them with all aspects of the sport," he said. "They're a little nervous because they don't really know what to expect. The kids have to understand where they're at. But I'm happy so far with what's going on - better than what we expected."