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Battleground: OSU and UM compete for Toledo’s best players

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    Toledo native Chris Wormley, right, picked Michigan over Ohio State as a high school player. The Whitmer graduate is one of a dozen Toledo-area players in the past 10 years to choose one OSU or UM.

    BLADE/ANDY MORRISON

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    Dallas Gant, center, the area's top-rated recruit, chose Ohio State earlier this year. Ohio State and Michigan traditionally have battled for Toledo's best players.

    THE BLADE/LORI KING
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Toledo’s geography makes for unique rooting interests.

In the case of the Midwest’s premier college football rivalry, Toledo also makes for a uniquely fierce recruiting ground.

At a certain point, the best players from Toledo draw the attention of Ohio State and Michigan, and many of the city’s best pick between them. Still an Ohio city yet closer to Michigan, the Buckeyes and Wolverines treat Toledo like home turf.

Any time the two hated rivals cross paths for the same recruit, where the player signs carries extra weight. It’s bad enough for a coaching staff when it loses out on a top-tier player it chased for years. It’s exponentially worse when that player picks their rival and they will have to play against him every November.

“Ridiculous pressure,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said of recruiting against Michigan.

Toledo is the neutral ground in The Game, as schools, offices, and family functions divide themselves this week: scarlet-and-gray on one side, maize-and-blue on the other.

While the annual meeting determines bragging rights, Toledo’s positioning between Ohio State and Michigan — geographically and in terms of fan support — permeates into recruiting.

The players who draw scholarship offers from both schools suddenly become the most questioned men in town. During his recruitment, Chris Wormley would walk through the halls of Whitmer High School and have a Buckeyes fan in his ear at one turn and a Wolverines supporter at the next.

Everyone wanted to know the same thing: Ohio State or Michigan?

“Some of my friends were Ohio State fans, some of my friends were Michigan fans, so the dynamic of that community growing up was interesting to be a part of, especially through the recruiting process,” Wormley said. “I think people throughout the community were talking about where they wanted me to go.

“Even my family, a lot of them are Ohio State fans, so them trying to pitch me one way or another was interesting, for sure.”

Wormley, now playing in the NFL for the Baltimore Ravens, had a stellar four-year career at UM. But the past decade has been a dead heat between OSU and UM in terms of recruiting the Toledo area. The past 10 years have seen 12 Toledo-area players pick one of the rivals, with six choosing Ohio State and six choosing Michigan.

Notre Dame has had success in Toledo as well, but the city’s best players often end up at OSU or UM.

Former St. John’s Jesuit coach Doug Pearson often was the man in the middle. Pearson had relationships with both programs, listened to both pitches, and ultimately helped send players to both schools.

When it comes to signing a Toledo player, Pearson said there are no tricks. With most players, the program that does the better job typically earns the commitment.

“I don’t think there is a magic potion with it,” Pearson said. “I think whatever’s a good fit at the time for the players and their families, what they see academically — I think that all plays into it.”

Even now, Kevin Koger freely admits he was impressed by Ohio State. The former Whitmer tight end picked Michigan in the end, but there was a time as a high school player when he seriously was considering both schools.

At the time of his recruitment, Ohio State had just made a number of upgrades to its facilities, and everything felt brand new. A year after the two programs played in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game to go to the national championship, Koger knew his choice of colleges would have an  impact on the rivalry.

“It’s a decision that affects you for not only the next four years, but for the rest of your life really,” Koger said. “I wanted to make the most informed decision I could possibly make, so I did give [Ohio State] a serious look. It was equal at one point.”

Two years after fellow St. John’s graduate Jack Mewhort picked the Buckeyes, Jack Miller had a similar choice. Ohio State recruited him as a defensive lineman — but did not officially offer a scholarship — while Michigan wanted Miller to play offensive line.

For a time, Miller evaluated both. Being from Toledo, Miller said he knew what his choice would mean.

“You’re at a fork in the road and your life is going to go in a completely different trajectory based on that one decision,” Miller said. “You understand the impact it has. For me, a guy from Toledo, Ohio, sitting right in the middle of this rivalry, I understood what attending one of those universities was going to mean.”

Ohio State won the last round with St. John’s linebacker Dallas Gant, a four-star recruit who was named The Blade’s high school player of the year Thursday. Gant, a senior, chose the Buckeyes against a number offers, including Notre Dame, Michigan State, and of course, Michigan.

The Buckeyes might have gotten the most recent top-caliber player from the Glass City, but history suggests that neither program can plant its flag in Toledo for good.

“It’s been as split as you could possibly imagine. I don’t think one school can claim Toledo as being theirs,” Koger said. “It all comes down to recruiting and who does a better job.”

Then the Michigan graduate paused.

Between his alma mater and Ohio State, everything is a competition — especially in his hometown.

“I think Michigan does the better job,” Koger said. “Just throwing that out there.”

Contact Nicholas Piotrowicz at: npiotrowicz@theblade.com, 419-724-6110, or on Twitter @NickPiotrowicz.

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