If Clay senior Justin Wharton earns a medal at this year's state wrestling tournament, former St. Francis de Sales wrestler Maks Babuder should take some of the credit.
A year ago Wharton beat then-senior Babuder for the 160-pound title at the City League tournament. They met again at districts, and Wharton beat him again.
"Wrestling a good guy so many times, it's hard to beat him," Wharton said. "I hit him with the same move I hit him with throughout the City League and districts. I beat him in overtime for third at districts, and then we met at the state tournament."
Wharton got pinned in his first-round match at state, but he then won by decision in the consolation round. In the third round, Wharton faced Babuder again, with the winner earning at least an eighth-place medal.
"I hit a nice single-leg right off the bat," Wharton recalled. "He tried this move on me, kind of a quick roll move, at the City tournament and failed. This time he caught me on my back and pinned me."
In 25 seconds.
A devastated Wharton said he would trade his CL title for a state medal in a heartbeat. Losing that match, he said, "made me work."
"I worked a lot over at Eastwood with the Mat Rats program and I worked with Coach Troy McLaughlin and Marty Naufel at Lake Erie Wrestling," he said. "I just tried to lift weights and improve my stamina. I think about it every day, just how close I was to placing at state. It went away in 25 seconds."
Wharton, the Eagles' captain, is doing everything he can to make sure last season's disappointment doesn't happen again. In fact, he is securing his legacy at Clay.
Heading into a tri-match on Wednesday against host Start and Central Catholic, the 5-10 Wharton was two wins away from becoming Clay's career leader in victories. Buck Miller, a 135-pounder, had 108 wins before graduating in 1991.
"It means a lot," Wharton said of the record. "When I walked into the Clay program, that was one of my goals. My freshman year, I got 32 wins and thought I could really do it. Then I got hurt my sophomore year (concussion). When you set a goal and you reach it, it makes you feel really good about yourself to do something like that."
Wharton, the fifth Clay wrestler with 100 career wins, has a 20-6 record at 160 pounds this season and is 107-27 for his career. He finished 37-7 as a junior.
Clay coach Gerry Anthony praised Wharton's dedication to the sport.
"He's just a real hard worker and he has great balance," the coach said. "His work ethic is second to none. He's kind of a quiet kid, but he leads by example. He works out twice a day. He comes in at 6 a.m. on Tuesday and Thursday and wrestles with one of my assistants, Adam Morris. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, he lifts weights on his own. That's all above and beyond what the normal kid has to do."
Wharton said teammates Mark Orth (135) and Dan Fisher (140) join him at those 6 a.m. practices.
"I try to get to bed around 9 or 9:30, but that's hard to do since I'm an 18-year-old," Wharton said. "My alarm goes off around 5:15 and I hit the the snooze button. I take a shower, get ready, go to the school and arrive about 6 o'clock. Ten minutes later, Adam Morris walks in and we drill and go live until about 7 o'clock.
"Last year and the year before, he was there every day for (after-school) practice. Now his wife is going to school and he doesn't have time. We talked about going in the morning together. I love working with him. Since we grew up in the same biddy club, our styles are so alike that it's like drilling with myself. He's such a great drill partner for me."
Wharton was a 180-pound linebacker his sophomore and junior year, but he gave up football last fall in order to concentrate on wrestling. He was an AAU All-American two years ago, and last year he was one win away from earning that status at the Junior Olympics in Orlando, Fla.
"I'm real pleased with how my senior year is going," said Wharton, who wants to wrestle in college. "Anytime you get losses, you want to fix those losses. I'm trying to be a big risk-taker. This is my senior year and I'm leaving it all on the line."