All indications are Graham is fielding its deepest and best wrestling team in rich program history. That’s like saying which of the many Steelers’ Super Bowl champions was the best team.
But there’s merit in the Falcons’ lofty expectations. Five of Graham’s returnees are defending state champions and two own multiple titles. Another four Falcons placed at state last season. Trumping all that is five seniors signed national letters of intent to wrestle at NCAA D-I programs during the fall signing period and another will do so before the school year ends.
No wonder Graham is a heavy favorite to win its 18th consecutive Division II individual team title this season and shoot for national team honors as well.
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The high school wrestling season began for most area teams last weekend. Graham is among the nationally ranked teams at the prestigious 24th annual Walsh Jesuit Ironman Tournament this weekend. The Ironman is regarded as the nation’s best regular-season event and traditionally includes perennial No. 1 Blair Academy of New Jersey.
Here’s why Graham’s lineup is so daunting:
• Senior Mitch Moore is a defending Ironman champ and is looking to become a rare four-time state champion. He signed with Virginia Tech University.
• Senior Rocky Jordan, the youngest son of Graham coach Jeff Jordan, is a two-time state champ. Like brothers Bo and Micah Jordan, Rocky also signed with Ohio State.
• Senior Ryan Thomas is a defending state champ and three-time state placer. He signed with Minnesota.
• Senior Gage Braun was a state runner-up last season. He signed with Northern Illinois.
• Senior Joey Sanchez was fourth at state as a junior. He signed with Wisconsin.
• Senior J.D. Stickley is looking to defend a state title. He’s unsigned, but lists OSU and Edinboro among his favorites.
Graham will make its first area appearance at next Saturday’s Firebird Classic at Fairmont’s Trent Arena in Kettering.
• Joining all the Graham returning state winners, placers and qualifiers are four more state-tested area standouts.
Mechanicsburg senior Colt Yinger was runner-up at 152 pounds in the D-III state meet last season. Senior Joe Cochran (220) of Springfield High School was fourth in D-I. Greeneview junior Devan Hendricks (106) was sixth in D-III and Kenton Ridge senior Bryce Davis (113) was a D-II state qualifier.
• Other area returning district qualifiers are seniors Damion Williams (Urbana) and Dustin Knapp (Mechanicsburg), juniors Lane McCombs (Southeastern) and Kaleb Ream (Shawnee) and sophomore Cyle Wells (Tecumseh).
• Beavercreek coach Gary Wise was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Ohio Chapter this fall. Previously the coach at Middletown Madison and Graham, he’s in his 27th season at Beavercreek. Here’s what the hall of famer had to say about the state of the sport, participation numbers and the influx of girls.
• In Ohio, there were 13,098 boys who wrestled in the 2006-07 school year. Last season - 10 years later - boys participation was 11,550. Something in the sport has changed and lower participation numbers are the result.
“It’s complicated,” Wise said. “In some areas wrestling is still strong and still has good participation and in other pockets not so much.”
• Football’s close relationship to wrestling also has waned over the years.
“In those 1960s and ’70s, you would have the football coach as the wrestling coach or an assistant football coach was the wrestling coach,” Wise said. “You had that direct tie-in. That tie-in is not there now.”
• The sport has grown in other ways. Girls wrestling is now the norm and their participation numbers are growing.
Ten years ago the NFHS reported there were 87 girl wrestlers in Ohio. That has risen to 195 each of the last three seasons. Nationally, there were 14,587 girls who wrestled last season. Twenty years ago that number was 1,629.
“Wrestling in the Olympics has helped that,” Wise said. “It’s more accepted. Now, that’s a common practice.”