Taking on Genoa and Fremont Ross on Dec. 16 must have seemed like a
cakewalk for Oak Harbor's wrestling squad after what it went through less than a week earlier.
The Rockets crushed Ross 67-6 and manhandled Genoa 56-14 just four days after competing in the Ironman tournament at Walsh Jesuit High School. The Ironman is considered the toughest wrestling tournament in the nation.
Coach George Bergman's Rockets took 14th place out of 48 teams and had two individual place-winners in juniors Ian Miller and Konner Witt.
"This was our fifth year in a row there as a team - we've sent individuals before - and this was the best finish we've had," Bergman said. "It gives our guys some goals and lets them know what the best wrestling in the country is like.
"For our top-end guys, it shows where they're at, too. If we have anybody on our team undefeated at this point, then we have a scheduling problem. It lets us know what we need to work on, as a team and as individuals. If your kids perform well at the Ironman, they're nationally noticed. By placing at that tournament, they receive a lot of interest with Division I programs."
Blair Academy, located in New Jersey, defended its Ironman title by scoring 196.5 points, followed by St. Paris Graham with 157.5.
Twenty-three schools from Ohio participated, and Oak Harbor (70 points) finished higher than all of them except for Graham, Lakewood St. Edward, Wadsworth, and Monroeville. The Rockets outscored other big-school Ohio teams such as Cincinnati Moeller (68.5), Walsh Jesuit (68) and Cleveland St. Ignatius (64.5).
Miller took second place at 140 pounds, losing to Blair Academy senior Chris Villalonga in the finals in a triple-overtime thriller. Villalonga, who will wrestle at Cornell University next year, went 42-0 as a junior.
Miller knocked off three other eventual top-six place-winners, including the No. 2 seed, en route to the finals. Miller was 45-3 with 26 pins last season at 135 pounds and took third at the Division II state tournament.
"Ian is blessed with a lot of ability," Bergman said. "He has unbelievable strength in his hips and legs and he has good balance. He's worked at it. Every year he's made less and less mistakes. He looked real good at the Ironman, where you're being tested from the first round on. In his second match he had a kid from Graham who was third in the state last year.
"That's a big reason why you go there, because you want all the top-notch guys in your program to get tested like that and see what they need to work on."
Witt took sixth at 160 pounds at the Ironman after placing fifth last year. The two-time state qualifier was 38-9 with 19 pins as a sophomore.
"He was in a brutal weight class," Bergman said. "The top six guys were all from Ohio. For Konner to place for the second straight year, he had a great weekend. He wrestled well throughout the two days."
Also winning matches for the Rockets were Alec Bowlick, Tyler Hackworth, Drew Stone, Alex Bergman, Zach Bergman, Mike Mallernee and Sean McGee.
"They were competing, and that's what you ask," coach Bergman said. "I tried to convey to the team that whoever they wrestled, the other guys didn't know who you were, either. You're wrestling a guy and you want to do the same technique as you do in Ottawa County. Our kids did that. They didn't get intimidated and they went after people, so I was very happy with our performance."
Two of the Rockets' top wrestlers are seniors Stone, at 125 pounds, and Mallernee at 171. Stone, who was second in the state at 119 last season (39-3, 18 pins), is a team captain along with fellow seniors Zach Bergman (135) and Zach Sandwisch (285).
"He's been accepted to wrestle at Ohio State," coach Bergman said. "He's at 125 this year and that's a good weight class for him."
Mallernee will look to improve on last season, when he placed eighth in the state at 160 and finished with a 36-11 record with 15 pins.
"Mike has a history of always starting the season out slow," Bergman said. "He had a great football season and it takes him a while to get going. He's coming around. He always seems to peak around league time."
Stone and Mallernee are both three-time Sandusky Bay Conference champions. Cody Magrum and Keith Witt are Oak Harbor's only four-time SBC champs.
The Rockets, who took fifth in the state last season, are aiming for their fourth straight SBC title in 2009-10.
To accomplish that, they will need production from their younger wrestlers such as freshmen Luke Cramer and Bowlick.
"Luke has looked good," Bergman said. "He took second to Tyler Hackworth at our invitational at 119 and he wrestled at 112 against Genoa and Fremont Ross. We're excited about him. He was a junior high state-placer who's going to be a good one.
"Bowlick has done well at 103. He had four team points at the Ironman and he took second at our invitational."
The Rockets crowned seven champions at the Oak Harbor Invitational to take the team title. The Rockets scored 279.5 points to beat runner-up Kettering Fairmont by 56.5 points.
Oak Harbor's individual champions were Hackworth, a junior, at 119 pounds, sophomore Alex Bergman at 130, Zach Bergman (135), Miller, junior Jake Cramer (145), Witt and Mallernee.
Coach Bergman said he likes what he's seen from his squad so far. The Rockets will compete at the Medina Tournament on Dec. 28-29.
"We have 11 upperclassmen who are starting," Bergman said. "That's a lot. We haven't had that in a number of years. We have a lot of experience on the team. A lot of these kids have been wrestling since they were 5 years old. They've been together and they enjoy each other's company.
"We went to the Disney Duals over the summer and we took 17 kids, and our team was fourth in the Division I (big school) bracket. We wanted more of a challenge so we went Division I. We had 14 matches over a week and placed fourth. That was a good experience for the kids and there was a lot of team bonding."