The Thomas Worthington High School wrestling team is looking to take care of what it can control when it plays host to Central Crossing on Thursday, Feb. 7, in its final OCC-Central Division dual.
The Cardinals are second in the league at 5-1, behind Marysville (6-0) and ahead of Hilliard Davidson (4-2), Olentangy Liberty (3-3), Central Crossing (2-4), Dublin Coffman (2-4), Upper Arlington (2-4) and Westland (0-6).
Thomas will earn a share of the OCC-Central championship if it beats Central Crossing and Marysville loses to Liberty that same day.
"We'll either finish second or share for first," coach Mark Gundling said. "We can only control what we can control. We've got to be ready to go out and take care of our business."
Gundling believes league wins over UA (43-33 on Jan. 31) and Davidson (34-33 on criteria Jan. 11) are signs that the Cardinals' program is on the rise. Last season, the Cardinals finished 1-6 in the OCC-Central to tie Central Crossing and Westland for sixth, behind champion Davidson (7-0).
"Three years ago, we had nine guys on the wrestling team," Gundling said. "We beat UA for the first time in 10 years and we beat Hilliard Davidson for the first time in 12 years.
"It had been a long time since we placed in a tournament when I took over three years ago. This year, these kids have won three tournaments and been runner-up at two others. It's been a wonderful year and we want to finish it strong now."
Depth has played a major role in the turnaround. The Cardinals had 42 wrestlers in their program at the start of the season.
"Last year, we had Andrew Shackleford winning (at 182 pounds), but the rest of the guys (in the upper weight classes) were taking their lumps and learning," Gundling said. "We had some (with records) around .500, but that was it. Andrew is a team captain and a physical and mental leader for us and he leaned on those guys -- Brooks Gilmore, Phil McKinney and James Ford -- and they all responded.
"They put in the work in the wrestling room and weight room and went to wrestling clubs and got motivated. Wrestlers aren't born. They earn it through hard work."
Shackleford enters the match against Central Crossing with a 27-4 record. Also with at least 18 wins are Gilmore (25-6 at heavyweight), Noah Messerall (25-4 at 132), Ben Hooff (24-5 at 138), McKinney (24-8 at 195), Tyler Norris (21-6 at 106), Ford (21-9 at 220), Martise Johnson (19-13 at 113) and Will Coleman (18-9 at 126).
"It's been a really great season as a team and that's been terrific for our big senior class," said Ford, a sophomore who missed much of last season because of an injury. "In some respects, it is a little surprising that we've done as well as this. I was confident we'd do well, but it's been amazing for the program and me individually. I was confident in my ability, but on the other hand, I'm a young wrestler in the high weight classes where the older and strong wrestlers are usually."
Gundling said he isn't overly surprised by Ford's success.
"He lost about 35 pounds and he goes about 205, so he's giving up some weight but still winning," Gundling said. "He's got good technique, though, and he's excellent on his feet. He's a pinner. I think he has 15 pins."
Thomas will conclude the regular season Saturday, Feb. 9, in the Nye Classic at St. Charles before preparing for the postseason.
The Cardinals lost to host Hilliard Darby 36-21 in the second round of the Division I state team tournament Jan. 30. Seeded fourth in Region 5-B of the dual-format tournament, they defeated fifth-seeded Worthington Kilbourne 46-16 in the first round Jan. 23.
Winning against Darby were Coleman, Gilmore, McKinney, Messerall, Norris and Shackleford. Messerall won by pin.
The Cardinals will compete in the Division I sectional tournament Feb. 16 at Watkins Memorial. The top four finishers in each weight class at each of the four sectional sites advance to the district tournament Feb. 22 and 23 at Darby.
Joining Thomas in the Watkins Memorial sectional are Canal Winchester, Coffman, Hilliard Bradley, Olentangy, Olentangy Orange, Pickerington Central, Reynoldsburg, Watkins Memorial and Zanesville.
"I know the focus shifts to individuals now, but we have a great chance to go out and win the sectional as a team and that would be great for this program as we continue to build it back up," Gundling sad.
Advancing to district last season were Coleman, Gilmore, Messerall, Shackleford and senior Kasey Ackley (120).
Wolves preparing for sectional tourney
Kilbourne will conclude the regular season Thursday, Feb. 7, with an OCC-Cardinal dual at home against Dublin Jerome.
The Wolves are tied with Jerome for fourth in the league at 3-3, behind Bradley (6-0), Darby (6-0) and Westerville North (4-2) and ahead of Dublin Scioto (1-5), Westerville South (1-5) and Westerville Central (0-6).
Bradley and Darby face each other for the league title Thursday, Feb. 7.
Kilbourne then will prepare for the Division I sectional Feb. 16 at Westland. Also at the site are Central Crossing, Davidson, Delaware, Grove City, New Albany, Scioto, St. Charles, UA and Westland.
"We got nine to district last year and I think if our guys wrestle to our potential, we could get seven or eight there this time," coach Brett Shaut said.
"We're in a region with two very good teams in Hilliard Davidson and Delaware. We've got a good draw for some of our top wrestlers and a not-so-good draw for some others."
The Wolves returned four of their nine district qualifiers from a year ago in Alex Meehan (26-1 at 220), Austin Oberly (32-6 at 106), Lucky Shaut (25-7 at 132) and Kyle Wahl (30-8 at 145).
Also with 14 or more wins are Josh Jenkins (22-12 at 182), Danny Darby (18-12 at 138) and Tyler Silverthorn (14-7 at 120). Jenkins was a district alternate last season.