PITTSBURGH — The NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships might very well be an Ohio vs. Pennsylvania dual by the end.
As the tournament begins Thursday, it’s the same way in the coaching ranks as the Keystone State and Buckeye State own the event as well.
Of the 69 programs that qualified at least one wrestler at PPG Paints Arena, Ohio has 28 head coaches or assistants mentoring wrestlers this weekend.
Only Pennsylvania (37) has more.
“I just think it’s the tradition of Ohio wrestling,” Kent State coach Jim Andrassy said. “What happens is you grow up with these guys either wrestling with them or competing against them. Wrestling is a cult sport. People know each other.
“With coaches, it’s even more of a cult sport because we’re so much different than football and basketball coaches. You kind of cling to each other. You respect each other because it’s really hard to get into this business. There are only 81 Division I coaches in the country. When you do, you respect the people that do it.”
What’s even more incredible is the hotbed Northeast Ohio has in the Division I college coaching ranks.
Andrassy joins Springfield graduate David Bolyard (Michigan assistant) and Brunswick resident Dean Heil (Campbell assistant), who wrestled at Lakewood St. Edward.
That’s not all.
Lake graduate Scott Mattingly (Gardner Webb assistant), West Holmes’ Colt Sponseller (Ohio University assistant) and Walsh Jesuit’s Clint Musser (American assistant) cut their teeth on the mats in the area.
Bedford St. Peter Chanel four-time state champion J Jaggers (Ohio State assistant), who grew up in Northfield and Firebirds champion Cody Walters (West Virginia assistant), who grew up in Macedonia, know all about the strength of Northeast Ohio.
“It’s the flywheel effect,” Jaggers said. “I don’t know when it started, but Ohio wrestling started producing some great athletes who in turn became great coaches that coached great athletes. It just keeps going. In Northeast Ohio, in particular, there’s just a lot of good opportunities to be around great wrestlers and that helps.”
It's that culture that has fostered many great wrestlers to move on well after their years of competition.
Athletes leave the sport all the time, but few have the sport leave them.
“There’s a culture where a lot of people started wrestling at a young age,” Bolyard said. “It’s a very good state for wrestling. It’s one of those things you grow up doing and want to keep doing as long as you can.
“Obviously, I’ve been blessed to be able to do it after I competed. For me, it’s an appreciation for the coaches I had and still keep in contact with. I want to keep coaching and have that impact that they’ve had on my life.”
That tradition fosters friendships that last beyond the mat as the team becomes bigger than the individual.
“Wrestling is so personal,” Mattingly said. “If you wrestle somebody, you become friends. You have that team aspect, too.”
“It’s not like basketball where it’s only 15 guys. You can go to Fargo and be on a team of 100 wrestlers. You get to know guys and the toughness aspect of the sport. You know they’ve put in the same amount of work you’ve done. Not a lot of people can be on that level, if that makes sense.”
Ohio State coach Tom Ryan knows how important the Buckeye State is and has brought his team to wrestle Big Ten matches at high schools such as Wadsworth, Walsh Jesuit, Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy, Perry and West Holmes.
“Part of it is the essence of Ohioans,” Ryan said. “There are obviously a lot of schools at the high school level. There are 400 high schools that have wrestling. It’s embedded in the culture in the state. There’s quite a few Division I, II and III programs in the state. The history is rich. In freestyle wrestling, Toledo used to bring the Russians over several times. There’s a deep tradition.”
Kent State update
For a wrestling program such as Kent State, sometimes tradition can outweigh the nerves of the biggest wrestling event at the Division I college level.
For Andrew McNally (Lake, 184 pounds) and Tim Rooney (133), PPG Paints Arena can be a cavernous challenge once the NCAA Wrestling Championships begin Thursday.
It won’t be for the first-time competitors thanks to the past.
Kent State has scored at least a point every year since 1998 and has scored in 59 championship tournaments.
“We’ve been one of the more dominant Mid-American Conference schools in my lifetime,” said Rooney, who drew the 28th seed and has Ohio State’s Luke Pletcher in the first round. “I didn’t know much about Kent State until I got here. We’ve been a dominant program for years. I want to continue that tradition of developing kids that come in as freshmen and get them to the podium later in their career.”
In 11 of the past 13 seasons, Kent State has had four or more qualifiers and helped produce 11 All-Americans and a national champion in Dustin Kilgore.