The key to why Pickerington High School North wrestler Payton Gutierrez has had such a strong junior season might be found in simplicity.

The key to why Pickerington High School North wrestler Payton Gutierrez has had such a strong junior season might be found in simplicity.

Gutierrez, who competes in the 106-pound class, enters the Panthers' OCC-Ohio Division dual Thursday, Feb. 2, at Pickerington Central with a 32-2 record and back-to-back state tournament appearances on his résumé.

"He's been doing this a long time. He's got a lot of mat sense," Panthers coach Brad Harris said. "He knows more moves than anybody else on the team. That gives him a huge advantage. Our big thing is breaking it down and putting everything together and coming up with more of a game plan, being more strategic with the tools he has."

The Panthers also have an undefeated heavyweight in senior Pat Elflein, who is 24-0.

"It's been a lot of fun," Gutierrez said. "We have a pretty good team. The atmosphere is great. I've been wrestling well."

Gutierrez, who wrestled for DeSales the previous two seasons, went 0-2 at state his freshman year and was seventh at state in Division II at 103 last year. He defeated Toledo Central Catholic's Matt Pool 9-4 in his final match to finish 3-2 in the tournament.

Considering that DeSales usually draws up tough schedules regardless of sport, Gutierrez's first season in Division I hasn't been a culture shock. His only two losses this season have come in tournament championships - 14-2 to Massillon Perry's David Bavery in the Medina Invitational Tournament on Dec. 29 and 13-7 to Marysville's Taleb Rahmani in the James Horning Memorial Invitational on Jan. 21 at Mason.

"I'm used to big matches and that competition," he said. "I feel like I'm a legitimate contender to win a state title. The last two years I looked down the list (of other contenders) and felt like I could be there, but I wasn't at that level. Now I think I am. For sure, it's a motivation. I want to be a state champ."

First, there's the matter of North's OCC-Ohio title hopes, which took a hit with a 46-23 loss at Lancaster on Jan. 26. The Panthers, who are 5-1 in the league, will have to beat the Tigers, who are 5-0, then hope Lancaster does the same Feb. 9 in a dual that was rescheduled from Jan. 19 because of weather.

North got past the loss to Lancaster by winning Groveport's Cruiser Invitational on Jan. 28, scoring 202.5 points on the strength of titles from Gutierrez, Elflein and Matt Kitchen (195).

Even before last week's competitions, the Panthers and Tigers acknowledged keeping an eye on the other side of town.

"We want to win the OCC, for sure," Gutierrez said. "Obviously we want to beat Central and beat Lancaster. They're top-tier in the league. Winning the league going into districts would be a huge boost for our guys."

As well as redemption from Feb. 3, 2011, when Central defeated North 37-30 en route to winning the OCC-Ohio championship.

"That's a rivalry, so to speak, and their kids are upset (about last year)," Tigers coach Jason Allen said. "They lost to us last year and they're looking for redemption. We know that. We'll prepare for that and take it as it comes.

"Nobody around here has lost sight of the ultimate goal, and that's the postseason. We use duals as teaching tools to get ready for what we believe is the most important thing - the postseason."