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Jackson wrestling team ready to compete in rugged Federal League

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent

JACKSON TWP. As the high school wrestling season gets underway, athletes and coaches are facing the same challenges as other sports have battled during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Knowing that it will be an uncertain year unlike anything before it, Jackson head coach Ronnie Hepner and his team are trying to stay focused on the task at hand.

"We have a lot of good returning letterwinners and we're pretty solid throughout all of our weight classes," Hepner said. "Our lightweights are especially solid."

The Polar Bears are led in part by a strong junior class and against what projects to be a tough Federal League this season, they'll need all hands on deck if they're going to find success in dual matches, invitationals and the postseason. Hepner pointed to returnees like Ethan Smith, William Maghes, Johnny Dimos, Aiden Castile, Griffin and Brenden McKinney and Colten Arnold as some of the familiar faces that anchor the roster.

Despite the difficulties that COVID-19 has brought to sports, the preseason has mostly gone well for the Polar Bears. They go through the same health and safety protocols as all of Jackson's other teams, with temperature checks, mandatory mask wearing, regular hand washing and sanitizing and social distancing part of the routine.

As part of the health guidelines currently in place, crowd size will be limited at matches and tournaments, affecting the atmosphere in a sport that is known for strong crowd support. However, as wrestlers learn to deal with what will be a quieter, less raucous environment, Hepner believes there could be some benefits.

"I don't think it will affect them too much ... they may be more loose now and ready to wrestle their own matches ... just able to focus more on what they need to do," Hepner said.

Entering any season in recent memory, every Federal League school has known that one of the biggest hurdles in its way is the league's perennial powerhouse, Perry. The Panthers have been state- and nationally-ranked often over the past decade and given that they tend to appear often on the schedule for Jackson not only at the teams' annual dual match, but also at tournaments over the course of a season, the Polar Bears know they'll have to be ready for battle.

"It's something we look forward to and we feel like we're ready for the challenge. It's always a great dual match between us and Perry," Hepner said. "Lake and GlenOak have also had some really good wrestlers and the whole Federal League is very tough."

With the season currently scheduled to kick off on Dec. 3, Jackson wrestlers and coaches are looking to maximize every minute they have to prepare. While the pandemic could lead to the postponement or cancellation of matches during the season and force everyone involved to be flexible and adapt to what comes along.

It could be easy for wrestlers to be worried with all of the stressors currently in play, Hepner's message to his team is to stay tuned into what's within their control.

"It's definitely been an interesting preseason, but we're just focusing on getting stronger, working on our technique and building off last year," Hepner said. "We're really just focusing on ourselves and our goal is to get one percent better every day. If we can do that, then toward the end of the year, we're going to have a great product."

While doing well within the Federal League and advancing as many wrestlers as possible as far into the postseason as possible are always goals, Hepner noted, tending to the day-to-day tasks of practicing, training and mentally preparing well for matches is the route to achieving those goals. The state tournament – the ultimate goal in high school wrestling in Ohio – is still months away and as the just-concluded fall sports season showed, a lot can transpire for teams and athletes between the start of the preseason and the end of their campaign.