JACKSON TWP. The three-week grind that is Ohio high school wrestling’s postseason is about to begin.
The Jackson Polar Bears are among the teams looking to battle their way through one of the state’s toughest regions and emerge from sectional and district tournament competition in Northeast Ohio with as many state qualifiers as possible.
One of the Polar Bears who believes he has a strong chance to reach Columbus is junior 170-pounder Zenik Vovk, whose path to the state meet looks much different than the one his teammates have traveled. Vovk, who attended Perry before his family moved to Jackson in middle school, is originally from Ukraine.
His family moved to the United States when he was 10 and his athletic background has strongly shaped his style.
“I have a different style and not growing up being taught to wrestle the way coaches teach their guys here; I have a different approach,” Vovk said. “I feel like if I add some more to my defensive skills, I can compete with anyone.”
Vovk entered the final week of the regular season with 28 wins and has been one of the most consistent performers for a team that has a chance to clinch second place in the Federal League with a win over Lake. The only losses Jackson has sustained this season have come at the hands of Perry, the reigning kings of Federal League wrestling and one of the top teams in Ohio over the few past decades.
The Panthers bested the Polar Bears in a league dual match in mid-January, then topped them a second match one week later as part of the Ohio Dual Team tournament.
Having wrestled for Perry when he first came to the area, Vovk is familiar with the Panthers. His two older brothers, who are now in college, both wrestled for Perry. While Perry remains unbeaten on the season and is among the top contenders for the Division I state title, Vovk believes he and his teammates are willing to outwork anyone they face.
“This season as a team, the whole season really, we’ve been working hard. We might not always have all of the best guys, but we feel like we’re the hardest-working team in the Federal League,” Vovk said. “As a team, we started the season strong finishing first at (the) Granville (Duals) and we were doing pretty good in the league too, even though we lost to Perry.”
Wrestling’s postseason is such a grind because in requires a competitor to win three or more matches three straight weekends in order to win a state title. The competition becomes increasingly tough with each round and in the noisy, sweaty, intense setting of a high school gym for the sectional or district tournament, the energy from multiple matches going on at once creates a pressure-packed environment.
A loss doesn’t necessarily mean a wrestler won’t advance, but the intensity required to win against the best in the state still makes for a mentally taxing trial.
“Sectionals and districts are definitely going to be the hardest matches of the season,” Vovk said. “For me personally, the whole season I’ve been working hard and now I’m trying to reach the peak of my performance and get to the state meet.”
Entering the postseason, Vovk and senior Braxton Freeman are considered Jackson’s most likely competitors to reach the state meet, but strong performances throughout the season from across the roster have the team aiming to get more than two wrestlers to the state meet.
For Vovk, the round that has him the most concerned is the district meet. He’s confident in his ability to get through sectionals, but knows that the degree of difficulty will rise exponentially should he make it to the second weekend of the postseason. Often, winning and advancing at the district and state level means defeating wrestlers with more wins, more experience and a talent edge.
The key in those matches, the junior noted, is removing potential distractions and mental blocks from the equation.
“I know that I may have to beat guys better than me at districts … my freshman and sophomore years I came close to getting out of districts … I think I missed out by one match,” Vovk said. “But in those matches, records don’t matter and rankings don’t matter.”
What does matter for Vovk and his teammates is to continue stacking up wins for as long as possible, each taking them a step closer to where they - and hundreds of wrestlers across every weight class - want to be when the season comes to a close.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB