With the second half of the prep wrestling season about to get under way, second-year head coach Guy Nestor believes his Buckeye Local Panthers are ready to turn the corner.
After battling through a myriad of lineup changes due to injuries and other reasons, the Panthers are hoping to find a level of consistency and what better time to do that than during the 61st annual Ron Mauck OVAC Wrestling Tournament, which opens Thursday and runs throughout the weekend at WesBanco Arena in downtown Wheeling.
"We're young and we've got some inexperienced guys in the lineup, but we've been learning as the season's gone along and we're getting better," Nestor said. "The kids are starting to show signs of improvement and are really believing what we're teaching. It was a bit difficult and somewhat frustrating at the beginning because of the holes we had to fill."
The Panthers lost a trio of OVAC Tournament placers to graduation, including Sam Ronevich, J.P. Soloman and Nathan Kirk, who is enjoying a solid start to a collegiate wrestling career at Mt. Union.
"We certainly miss those guys, but our current guys are coming," Nestor said. "We started slowly last year, but by the end of the season we were wrestling our best and had six district qualifiers, which I think we can duplicate this season."
The Panthers have competed against some stiff competition throughout the month of December and into early 2014. They've competed at the Northcoast Classic in Independence, the Wheeling Park Duals and the Conns Duals at Meadowbrook. All told, the Panthers, who will not be competing in the OVAC Duals, are currently 4-12 on the season in dual matches.
Nestor believes even though some of his wrestlers don't have the records they'd like, they could be a bit deceiving.
"I still think we wrestle the toughest schedule in the Ohio Valley," Nestor said. "Our kids have taken a beating, but they know what it's going to take to get to place in the OVAC or make it to the state tournament, which are our goals."
After the OVAC, the Panthers will compete in the Wadsworth Invitational, the OHSAA Team Tournament and also host the annual Panther Classic on Feb. 1.
Nestor doesn't think his team has quite enough depth to make a run at the OVAC 4A title, but he does believe he has a handful of individuals who could find themselves on the podium Saturday evening.
"We have a few kids who we feel can place really high and some guys who can reach the top eight and that would be a huge accomplishment for them," Nestor said.
Buckeye Local will fill 12 of the 14 weight classes this weekend. It lacks an entrant at 113 and 120 pounds.
The Panthers will be led into Wheeling by junior Josh Sokolowski and sophomore Tristan Jones. Both of whom could warrant a very high seed.
"I am very high on those guys," Nestor said. "I really think they can win the tournament. Obviously, they'll have to wrestle well, but they've got the ability."
Sokolowski will be entered at 170 pounds and boasts an 18-3 record. He's not lost a match an OVAC wrestler. All of his setbacks came at the Northcoast Tournament where he finished eighth.
"Josh is very quick and great on his feet," Nestor said. "He's beaten some ranked kids and should be right in the thick of it (this) weekend."
Jones, meanwhile, gets the call at 182 pounds. He's currently 21-3 and owns a fifth place finish at the Northcoast event.
"Neither Josh nor Tristan placed last year, so it tells you the progress they've made," Nestor said. "Tristan is a very tough competitor. He's good on his feet and he's a good defensive wrestler."
Senior Eric Williams will be entered at 152 pounds and is 9-4 on the season. He's battled his way back into the lineup after an injury cost him some time early in the season.
"He doesn't have the amount of matches as our other guys, but he's coming along quite well," Nestor said.
"He's very good at getting off the bottom."
One area that's a concern for this year's tournament, but a positive for future OVAC Tournaments is the balance of the Panthers team is either a freshman or a sophomore.
Sophomore Brian Morrow is the entrant at 160 pounds. He's already won 12 matches this season after capturing just 11 all season in 2012-13.
Freshman Jake Miller (6-7) gets the call at 106 pounds. Danny Callarik is progressing after dropping weight.
He started the season at 138, but has been grappling at 126 the last couple of weeks and has fared much better.
Sophomore Austin Mosser is a first-time wrestler. He owns a 5-5 record and will enter at 195 pounds this weekend.
Sophomore Simeon Smith is expected to be entered at 285 pounds. He came on last last season and earned a trip to the Division II district tournament.
The balance of the Panthers roster includes: senior Matt Miller (195), Jordan Hilliard (132), David Anderson (138), Jason Einkiewicz (145) and Joe Otto, who has been out with an injury.
Nestor has a quality coaching staff working along side of him. Former Panthers' head coach Nate Skrzypek, Mike Slaga, Jay Woodward and Jason Merryman comprise the staff.