Compared to wrestling, football season was a relative break for Vandalia Butler teammates Cody McKenzie, Nate Martin and Andrew Scarpelli.
All were football starters last fall as juniors. And all made repeated pitches for teammates to join them in wrestling.
The results? Same as what happened at a lot of other high schools: no way.
“They just don’t want to,” Martin said. “They’ll use the excuse of, ‘Oh, I’m trying to get bigger for football.’ I hear that every single time I try to get somebody to come out.
“They know what we go through. Wrestling is definitely a lot tougher than football. That’s the case.”
The two sports were once intertwined. Football players often flawlessly made the switch from jerseys to singlets. They frequented the middle of a wrestling lineup and were especially celebrated in the upper weights.
Now, they’re the exception.
Down in numbers
In the Greater Western Ohio Conference meet two weeks ago at Fairmont, five of the 16 schools — Centerville, Xenia, Piqua, Lebanon and Miamisburg — forfeited at heavyweight (221 to 285 pounds).
In last week’s Southwestern Buckeye League meet at Bellbrook, only half of the 14 schools sent heavyweights to the mat. At 220 pounds, only six competed, meaning all one had to do was make weight and he placed.
The results were similar in the Ohio Heritage Conference (three of seven heavyweights) and Central Buckeye Conference (six of 12).
In this weekend’s Division I sectional at Centerville, 11 of the 24 teams will have a heavyweight.
That’s not just a Southwest District trend. According to statewide sectional entrants last season, 31 percent of programs (185 of 604) did not have a heavyweight and 22 percent (134 of 604) were blank at 220.
Ohio is nationally known for producing great high school football teams and players. But the inadvertent fallout of that success is depleted wrestling numbers.
“It’s dumb,” said McKenzie, Butler’s heavyweight who has seven forfeit wins. “Football and wrestling go hand in hand.
“A lot of the footwork you need as a lineman you get in wrestling, and tackling is a big thing. A lot of the heavyweights that I’ve talked to, only one of them said that he plays football.
“You see these heavyweights that just wrestle and don’t do anything else. It’s kind of crazy.”
Actually, it’s a trend that transcends all sports: specialization.
Get the lift out
In football, the goal is to get bigger, faster and stronger. To do that, it’s common for players to lift weights year round at the expense of participating in other sports.
Wrestlers often have to cut weight, a no-no to anyone who aspires to land a college football scholarship.
Veteran Valley View wrestling coach Bill Miller has felt that pinch. His program was stocked with two-sport Spartans who helped win three state football titles in the mid-1990s.
“That was absolutely one of the areas that I attacked,” he said.
And now? A school with a historic football program such as Valley View’s can’t field a heavyweight. How can that be?
“I think society is not conducive to wrestling anymore,” Miller said. “It’s not just football, it’s almost every sport that wants these kids to be year round now.
“I see girls in our school who don’t play softball because they’re going to play spring soccer. That’s why you see so many more four-time state champs in wrestling, because you’ve got kids starting at the age of 5 and 6 and that’s all they do is wrestle.”
Butler coach Mark Peck has guided the Aviators for 18 seasons. He’s also seen a shift away from football players who wrestle.
Butler is a rare exception this season, but there are no backups for Martin (220) and McKenzie (heavyweight). They’re an injury away from forfeiting both those weights.
“There is so much pressure on kids to specialize,” Peck said. “I don’t know who’s to blame for that.
“Kids go to the weight room because it’s an easy excuse. The weights don’t fight back. The weight room is easy compared to what we do.”
Like no other sport
All agree that wrestling is a physically taxing sport unlike any other. For most programs, wrestling practice consists of constant grinding in a small, overheated room. Martin laughed at the thought of sweat-soaked workout garb clinging to those who wobble out of practice.
Also, there’s nowhere to hide. Ability — or lack thereof — is exposed in three two-minute periods for all to witness.
“Some of it is the nature of our sport,” said Miamisburg coach Willie Wineberg. “It’s a hard sport. It’s nonstop for two hours (in practice). “For a football player to come out here, it’s tough. Especially for bigger guys.”
The Vikings also have fewer big bodies and are unable to fill 220 or heavyweight. The heaviest wrestler is a 195-pound freshman.
“I’d do anything to get wrestlers out at that weight, especially football players,” Wineberg said. “I’ve talked to the football team for years. They want to lift weights and get bigger.”
It’s no match
Xenia football coach Bob Delong also has seen the unexpected result of specialization. He said it’s not uncommon for his largest linemen to tip 300 pounds. That was a problem when wrestlers were limited to 275 pounds. That maximum has since been increased to 285.
Also, football players usually are no match for wrestlers who have locked into their sport since youth.
“The problem is they go wrestle some guy who, that’s all he does all year,” Delong said. “They come back and their nose is all over their face and they say, ‘Why should I do this? I won’t catch up to that guy. He’s been doing this for 10 years.’
“What happens is they’re tied in a knot because they don’t know what they’re doing, even though they’re great athletes. They say, ‘You know what? I’m not going to do this.’ So they come back to the weight room.”
Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2381 or mpendleton@ DaytonDailyNews.com.
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