Jackson wrestlers tuning up for Fed gauntlet

Greg Kohntopp
The Suburbanite

JACKSON TWP.  Much of high school wrestling is built around tournaments.

Whether it's invitationals, league tournaments or the postseason, getting several – or even a dozen or more – squads together creates the sort of big-event feel that ups the intensity and leads to memorable moments on the mat.

But in a year where COVID-19 has altered so many aspects of life, the big-name tournaments that are staples on the local high school wrestling scene have largely been sidelined and that's made for a much different experience for teams such as the Jackson Polar Bears.

Two weeks into the regular season, the Polar Bears have been able to compete in one tournament, but already know others have been scratched from their slate.

"We wrestled at the Edison Invitational two weekends ago and then wrestled Northwest, Hoban and Coventry this past weekend," veteran head coach Ronnie Hepner said. "A lot of tournaments haven't been happening and as for the Hoover Holiday tournament, which is one we really enjoy, that isn't happening and we also won't be going to the tournament at Wheeling Park, because that won't be happening."

Hepner noted that there is still hope for the Josh Hephner Memorial tournament later this season in Austintown, but no final decision has been announced yet. Having been able to get on the mat and compete has been a blessing in and of itself for the Polar Bears, who have five wrestlers who have amassed at least six wins and have one or no losses on their record so far this season.

William Maghes (120 pounds), Jonathan Dimos (126 pounds) and Ben Holzapfel (220 pounds) have all gotten out of the gate quickly through two weeks, anchoring the lineup at the upper and lower ends of the weight class spectrum. Colton Arnold is another quick starter for Jackson and for a team that defeated Northwest, Hoban and Coventry by 40-plus-point margins and placed fifth at the Edison Invitational, there are reasons to be optimistic for the weeks ahead.

"They're just wrestling really tough and doing a good job of pushing the pace and applying what they've been working on in the (wrestling) room," Hepner said.

For a district that has gone entirely online with classes, this current school year has been a different world for all of the wrestlers on the roster, regardless of their weight class or grade level. Hepner estimated that there is a fairly even split among his athletes in terms of who enjoys having solely online classes and who would prefer to be in school in a typical classroom setting.

Some, he noted, wake up early as they would on a typical school day and get their course work done in the morning so they can spend time with their family or other activities later on. Others elect for a later start, but either way, all are thankful to be able to be around their friends and teammates when it comes time for wrestling.

"We are just grateful to compete. This season has been a big roller coaster, but Northwest, Hoban and Coventry were great competition and it's nice to see someone we don't usually compete against, someone we won't see in the postseason," Hepner said.

However, the competition is about to look much more familiar because the start of Federal League matches is near. The intensity for those matches is definitely one a higher level, Hepner noted, and while there is respect among league rivals, there is no question that battling the likes of Perry, Lake and Hoover forces wrestlers to up their game if they want to win.

What remains to be seen is what impact the pandemic will have on the schedule going forward and how the smaller number of major tournaments during the season will impact teams and individual wrestlers once the postseason begins. Events like the Hoover tournament and others similar to it offer the large-scale, high-intensity settings that serve as great postseason tune-ups and often pit wrestlers against elite rivals they may see in the sectionals or districts once tournament time arrives.

With all of those questions and uncertainty swirling around, it also serves as a reminder to appreciate each practice and match as it happens, something that has been driven home early in the year for the Polar Bears. They've worked to make the most of their chances to compete thus far and with the pace set to pick up in the weeks ahead, they're aiming to build on their solid start and keep stacking wins.