NORTH JACKSON - Their paths are different, but the destination is the same for the Girard and Jackson-Milton wrestling teams.
The Indians and Blue Jays struggled early on this season, with Girard suffering through injuries and Jackson-Milton battling the growing pains of a young team.
Those issues seemed like distant memories Saturday at the Jackson-Milton Invitational, where the Indians took second as a team and Jackson-Milton placed third in the team standings. Girard finished with a score of 159.5, just a half point behind tournament champion Cardinal. The Blue Jays were right near the top as well with 157 points.
Tribune Chronicle / Michael Taylor
Garfield’s Noah Heim, yellow, takes on Jackson-Milton’s Mitch Tikkanen. Tikkanen won the match, 2-0.
Both coaches admitted they were a bit frustrated earlier this year, but instead of allowing the disappointment to boil over and affect the long-term goals of their teams, they kept reminding themselves the finish is more important than the start in wrestling.
"Three weeks ago if you told me we'd be in the running (to become tournament champions), I would've said you're crazy," Jackson-Milton coach Dave Tomaino said. "We have matured at least a half a season in three weeks. We had a layover - we didn't have any matches since mid-December - so we got to really sit down and teach our kids stuff. And I'll tell you what, it really paid off today.
"When you get this close, you always want to win, but I'm looking at the bigger picture, and the bigger picture is the improvement we've made the past three weeks," he added. "If we improve that much three weeks from now, we're really headed for a nice peak, and that's what I'm looking for. I'm looking for that nice peak at sectionals."
The Blue Jays only had one champion on Saturday, 106-pound Mitch Tikkanen, but they finished with 10 wrestlers in the top four, more than any of the 12 teams at the tournament. Tikkanen, a sophomore and returning district qualifier, said the overall improvement was impressive for a team with only one senior.
"Honestly, they kind of surprised me," Tikkanen said. "Some of those kids you just didn't expect to do that well, and I'm proud of my team and what they did today. It's a great accomplishment."
So was Tikkanen's individual title. He finished second last year, the same place he earned at the Division III sectional tournament, but Tomaino said his offseason workouts started immediately after the season and didn't stop until October.
"He's a year-round wrestler," Tomaino said. "He dedicates himself. He leads a good, clean lifestyle - a straight-A student - and is just really in focus. He's the kind of kid that I wish the whole team could follow his example."
The trail Girard took to this point was a bit different. The Indians entered the year with several elite wrestlers returning from 2012, but an outbreak of injuries in preseason hit more than half the team and slowed their development, Girard coach Jim Cardiero said. Most of the wounded Indians returned over the past two weeks and gradually increased their workouts in hopes of avoiding a sluggish return. Their perseverance showed in a narrow loss to Poland, which boasts and 11-1 record, on Wednesday, and it became even more evident Saturday.
"We wrestled probably the best we've wrestled this year," Cardiero said. "We still have to get better, obviously, and there's definitely a lot of work to do, but as long as we're making positive strides every week then I'm happy. We just need to be ready for the postseason."
The Indians crowned three champions in 120-pound Zane Chase, 138-pound Garrett Bass and 152-pound Nick Cardiero, Jim's nephew. All three won in dominant fashion, with Chase securing a 10-3 victory, Bass claiming a second-period pin and Nick Cardiero winning 16-0. Their superiority from the top position - an area Girard is known for controlling - was a key reason for the wide margin of victory.
"That's my best position," said Nick Cardiero, who led just 2-0 after the first period but scored 14 straight points in the second. "I'm real good at turning guys on top, so I was confident I could pull it off. My main technique is riding legs, and once I got them in, I knew I was going to get a lot more points out of it."
Oddly enough, Jackson-Milton and Girard square off in an Eastern Ohio Wrestling League, Division III dual meet at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Jackson-Milton. Tikkanen said it's a benefit to have seen the Indians just days before the match.
"You realize what that team's main moves are, what you can work off that and see how you can fix your mistakes from the last match and improve," he said.