By Bret Curren
Every high school wrestler’s dream is to walk out of the darkness, through the tunnel at the state wrestling meet at the Schottenstein Center and into the brightly lit center stage of the state’s highest honor: the state wrestling tournament. For a quartet of West Holmes Knights, that dream will become a reality.
West Holmes High School varsity wrestlers Cael Woods, Tyler Masters, Thane Kaufman and Josh Baldridge qualified for the 81st Ohio High School Athletic Association Div. II State Championship Tournament by securing top-four spots in their respective weight classes at the OHSAA East/Central District Championship Tournament held Friday and Saturday, March 2 and 3 at Claymont High School in Uhrichsville.
Wrestling at 106 pounds, sophomore Woods took runner-up honors while Masters earned third place at 113 pounds and both Kaufman and Baldridge secured state berths with fourth-place finishes at 120 pounds and 182 pounds, respectively. Just missing that honor in heart-breaking fashion was sophomore Walker Uhl, who placed fifth at 126 pounds and will be a state alternate.
Also competing for the Knights at districts were sophomore Jarek Snow at 132 pounds and sophomore Cruz Alexander, both making their first-ever district tournament appearance. Snow went 0-2, and Alexander went 1-2 in the district meet.
In the team race the Knights finished seventh in the 50-team field with 90 points as Steubenville captured the team district title over Uhrichsville Claymont, 159 to 143.5. Carrollton (133.5) placed third ahead of Lisbon Beaver Local (127.5) and fifth-place Gnadenhutten Indian Valley (105.5). The rest of the top 10 were Thornville Sheridan (94), West Holmes (90), New Lexington (80), Minerva (79.5) and Columbus Bishop Hartley (59). The runner-up finish ended a string of six straight district titles for Claymont.
However, this was a day of celebration for a young Knights team, which doubled the number of state participants it placed last season.
“I thought for the second week in a row all the kids wrestled really well. I think they did a great job peaking at the right moment,” West Holmes first-year head coach Scott Vaughn said. “If you were there watching this weekend, you got to see firsthand how much work and dedication the kids put in this season. You put yourself in the position to earn a ticket to state in the room, in the off-season when no one is around and the lights aren’t on. I think these kids showed that this weekend at a tournament like Districts where a trip to Columbus is on the line, it’s really hard for a teenage kid to settle their nerves and perform. We talked about just treating it like another match, going out there and wrestling.”
Woods (3-1 with two falls) went 2-0 to open his tournament Friday and then nailed down his second straight state tournament berth with an 8-1 decision victory over freshman Howard Williams of East Liverpool in Saturday afternoon’s semifinal bout. In the championship match, Woods dropped a hard-fought 4-3 decision to freshman Peyten Kellar of Vincent Warren, setting his season mark at 47-2 heading into the state tournament. Last season Woods posted an eighth-place finish at 113 pounds in Columbus, becoming the Knights’ first freshman state placer.
With a 1-1 mark Friday, Masters (48-3) roared back through the consolation rounds on Saturday, sewing up his first trip to state with an 8-1 decision win over freshman Koen Kish of Steubenville in the consolation semifinals. Masters, who went 5-1 with three falls, kept his winning ways going with a 9-1 major decision triumph over freshman Brandon Brown of Carrollton in the third-place bout, giving him a perfect 4-0 mark on the day.
Kaufman (44-9) was upended in Friday’s quarterfinal match by eventual champion senior Jacob Johnson of Jonathan Alder by a 5-2 decision, and like Masters, he had to fight back through the consolation rounds on Saturday. Kaufman, who finished 4-2 with one fall, won his first two bouts to reach the “go to state” match, where he scored a 6-1 sudden victory decision win over junior Terry Gattrell of Meadowbrook for his third straight state tournament ticket. In the third-place bout, Kaufman fell to freshman Tyler Muldrew of Steubenville by a 7-1 count. The consolation semifinal win was Kaufman’s 157th career win, breaking the school record for most career wins previously held by West Holmes wrestling three-time state champion Colt Sponseller, who racked up 156 wins from 2004-07.
Baldridge (30-5) earned his first trip to the state tournament with a fall at 2:50 over sophomore Dalton Cunningham of River View in the consolation semifinals. The Knights junior went 2-0 Friday to reach Saturday’s semifinal bout, where he was stopped at the 1:10 mark by 182-pound undefeated district champion senior Eliot Clark of Bexley. Baldridge’s win over Cunningham put him in the state tournament and district third-place match, where he lost a close 10-8 decision to junior Cody Neece of Sheridan to finish 3-2 with three falls.
With two fall wins Friday, Uhl’s run was stopped Saturday in a 5-3 loss to freshman Douglas Terry of Granville in the semifinal bout, dropping Uhl into the consolation semifinals. It was a difficult loss to take for Uhl, who got a takedown with 1:30 left to take a 3-2 lead and nearly got the winning takedown with 20 seconds left before getting taken down with two seconds to wrestle on the clock.
Needing to win the “go to state” match, Uhl saw his chance come to an end with a 9-2 loss to talented sophomore Ethan Meuller of Minerva. Uhl rebounded in the fifth-place match with an 8-5 decision win over senior Justice Freeman of New Lexington and earned state alternate designation. Uhl had earlier beaten Freeman in Friday’s quarterfinals.
“I think getting Jarek Snow and Cruz Alexander to districts this year was good for them, and having experience wrestling matches there is important, and Walker wrestled the best tournament of his high school career this weekend at districts and came close to making it to Columbus,” Vaughn said of Uhl. “He showed a lot of heart coming back from a tough loss to take fifth and earning a state alternate spot.”
In choosing a wrestler for the coveted Knights Varsity Wrestling Hammer of the Week Award, Vaughn was hard-pressed to single out just one wrestler for the award.
“Obviously it’s hard to pick one kid from this tournament to be a solo award winner,” Vaughn said about his choice for the Hammer of the Week Award. “Walker, being a state alternate, wrestled fantastic all weekend, beating a state qualifier twice. Cael made the finals and was right there with one of the top kids in his weight class. He was really dialed in during the tournament. Tyler had a tough quarters match with a returning state qualifier and came back strong to qualify. Thane showed a ton of grit in that ‘blood round go to state’ match in overtime. He had everyone on the edge of their seats. Josh wrestled really well. He just ran into a hammer in the semis with the eventual champion. He was seconds away from a takedown to take third. Therefore I am naming all five kids that will be traveling with us to Columbus as the Hammers of the Week, and deservedly so.”
Vaughn also wanted to give kudos to senior captain Thane Kaufman for his record-setting 157th career win.
“I’d like to give a special shout out to Thane,” Vaughn said. “Saturday in his consolation semifinal he set the school record for most wins in a career at 157. I can’t describe in words how difficult that is to achieve. Surpassing a name like Colt Sponseller in itself is an impressive accomplishment. Wrestling is such a grueling sport that the ability for him to be healthy and in top form for four straight years is impressive. Thane’s four years at West Holmes has been highly successful. Couldn’t happen to a more persevering, hardworking, dedicated kid.”