WAUSEON – In the Fulton County seat of Wauseon – population 7,332 according to the 2010 census – there has been an abundance of athletic talent on display the past few winter seasons in two sports.
That this size town would produce two of Ohio’s best boys basketball and wrestling teams, especially in a public-school setting with a predominantly rural backdrop, defies the odds.
Yet, 14th-year head wrestling coach Mike Ritter’s Indians have been the Division II state team dual tournament runners-up the past two years. And, because traditional D-II super power St. Paris Graham has opted to compete in the D-I tournament this season, Wauseon is the top-seed heading into Sunday’s eight-team state tournament at St. John Arena in Columbus.
Further, the basketball Indians of ninth-year coach Chad Burt finished as Division II state runners-up at 27-2 last season, and are currently 18-0 overall, 4-0 in the Northwest Ohio Athletic League, and ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Ohio D-II state poll.
“I just think that right now we’re in a cycle where we have some tremendous athletes in the school,” Ritter said. “We don’t compete with the basketball players in terms of trying to get their athletes, and vice versa.
“We have our own separate individuals who are dedicated to each individual sport. It’s really a rarity. A lot of these guys are good friends outside of athletics, and it’s really neat to see.
“I know a lot of their parents and the families on the basketball side. My son knows a lot of the basketball players, so I’ve watch some of those kids grow up too. It’s a really cool thing to see both teams having the success that they do.”
Such multi-sport success at schools is usually associated with a group of two-sport or three-sport athletes who excel in different seasons, such as in football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball or track in the spring.
But this superb basketball-wrestling combo is rare indeed, particularly because the number of top-level athletes it takes to make it happen.
“We have tremendous respect for what they’re doing,” Burt said of the wrestling team. “Those guys are some of the hardest workers in the school, and obviously they produce results on the mat.
“I think it’s a unique situation. Sometimes you see success at a school in maybe football, basketball, baseball, and you’re using a lot of the same athletes. Here, with our wrestling and basketball in the same season, it’s completely different entities, and we’re seeing a high level of success by a lot of kids.”
Burt, like Ritter, sees no competition between the programs other than their shared excellence make each program strive to be the best.
“Our kids respect what they’re doing, and the work that they put in,” Burt said. “That’s got to be the most physically grueling sports that there is, and those kids bust their tails.
“It’s cyclical. It just so happens that we meshed at the same time. But both programs have had some pretty good success in recent years. They have high expectations, and so do we.”
For Wauseon, if there are keys to this current success – besides the good fortune of having an abundance of athletes – it is the presence of Wauseon graduates who have returned to coach at their alma mater, and the fact that each sport has built a quality program from the youth level on up.
Chad Burt is no stranger to glory days at Wauseon, because his experience at the school came during the greatest era of sports in the school’s history.
A 1994 graduate, Burt was a four-year varsity basketball starter who played on Wauseon’s 26-2 Division II state runner-up team as a senior, and pitched and played outfield for an Indians team that reached the D-II baseball state semifinals in 1994. The Indians won a state baseball title the next year.
Also in his senior year, although Burt was not on the team, the Wauseon football team went 14-0 and won a Division III state championship.
Those feats were accomplished with a deep group of multi-sport athletes who, together, seemed to be good at everything.
But Burt sees Wauseon’s current winter excellence in a different light.
The basketball team is led by 6-foot-9 senior center Austin Rotroff, a solid producer in the offensive post and the Indian’s inside stopper on defense.
Rotroff is one of three returning starters from last year’s state runner-up team, which lost to perennial state power Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary in the 2017 D-II title game.
“It’s really cool to see the wrestling team do well and have all that success,” Rotroff said. “I know a lot of the kids on the team. I’ve grown up with them and am friends with them. To see all this happen our senior year is really amazing.
“A lot of it has to do with coaching. I know, with our basketball team, a lot of our coaches are Wauseon graduates and have built the program into what it is. I think that’s the case with wrestling too. That helps a lot, keeping that tradition going, and getting kids excited about the program from a young age.”
Rotroff, who leads Wauseon in scoring (15.4 points) and rebounding (8.4), is committed to Dusquesne University in Pittsburgh.
Wauseon's Brooks Gype takes it to the net under pressure from Eastmoor Academy's defense during last year's state tournament.
Also back are guards Brooks Gype and Owen Newlove.
“It’s pretty crazy, and our senior class has a lot to do with it,” Gype said. “Our class is pretty tight. We’re friends with all the wrestlers. I think it’s the passion for the sport that really brings out the drive. And that can get you almost anywhere you want.”
Gype, who was recently diagnosed with type-1 diabetes, is adjusting to that condition as Wauseon approaches its stretch drive. He’s averaging 8.8 points, 3.6 assists, and according to Burt is the team’s clear-cut leader on and off the court.
“There’s a big target on our back,” Gype said. “No matter who we play, we get their A-game. There’s a lot of pride that goes into being part of last season’s team. But that was last year.
“There’s obviously a lot of high hopes this year, but it’s going to depend how we go out there to play every night. We’re looking forward to just taking it game by game in the tournament.”
Newlove averages 5.7 points and 4.4 rebounds. Rounding out the Indians’ starting five are forward Levi Seiler (9.1 points, 4.3 rebounds) and guard Trent Armstrong (8.9 points, 3.0 assists).
“I have friends on the wrestling team, and it’s just cool that both teams are skilled enough this far,” Armstrong said. “We haven’t made it anywhere this year, but the wrestling team will be at the state duals on Sunday.
“We’ve got to stay focused. Yes, 18-0 is really good, but we haven’t earned anything yet. We haven’t won a league title. We haven’t won anything. We have to keep going like we have been.
“We come to practice every day to work hard, and we don’t look at the standings because that will settle itself. We just play our hardest every night and do our thing. You have to going into every game with confidence.”
If there is a key to Wauseon basketball success the past two seasons it is a firm commitment at the defensive end. Through 18 games this season, the Indians are outscoring opponents by an average score of 61.1 to 35.6 per game. Only twice has Wauseon ayielded more than 50 points in a game to a foe – each time against NWOAL rival Archbold.
The Indians topped Archbold 60-54 in a nonleague test on Dec. 2, and beat the Blue Streaks again in league play, 67-56, on Jan. 19.
“To do what we’ve done the last two years, you have to be good and you have to be lucky, and you have to stay healthy,” said Burt, whose team is currently battling a flu bug. “We’ve probably won some games we shouldn’t have, and we’ve stayed healthy. We’ve had a nice run, and luck has been a part of it.”
Mike Ritter, a 1989 Wauseon grad, has built the Indians’ wrestling program into a state power, and that reality has much to do with his own lack of success on the mats during his prep career.
“I don’t think I really achieved the things I really wanted to achieve in high school wrestling,” Ritter said. “I love the sport, and fell short of some goals that I had, which I think probably drove me to coaching.
“Had I accomplished those goals that I had set for high school, I don’t know that I would’ve coached. I just felt like I had more to offer and more to give, and more that I wanted to do.”
After graduating, Ritter spent one season as a junior high assistant coach at Wauseon, then joined the Air Force. Four years later, he returned for one season as an Indians varsity assistant before taking a similar post at Findlay High School while he was attending the University of Findlay.
Following two years as an assistant there, he took the Trojans’ head varsity coaching position for five seasons before returning to Wauseon as head coach.
“When I got here 14 years ago our focus was really on getting our youth program in line and organized, so we could develop our kids from the bottom level all the way up through the high school level,” Ritter said. “It took several years to get that in order, and now I would we’re definitely reaping the benefits of that system, and that mentality.
“This group we have now, the juniors and seniors, were some of my first groups that went through that whole process of youth, junior high and high school systems. We tried to develop a consistent program through all three levels and build on each succession, and that’s worked out really well for us.”
The current Indians squad is led by seniors standouts Sandro Ramirez and Hunter Yackee.
Ramirez, who is 33-4 at 152 pounds on the season and 173-21 in his career, placed third at the D-II individual state tournament at 126 pounds as a freshman in 2015, and has been the D-II state runner-up at 145 the past two years.
“From the beginning of the season you work for things like this,” Ramirez said of the state team duals. “We’ve been working hard all year, and our guys are really invested in this. We’re going down to win it this year.”
After Sunday, Ramirez and the team will turn their attention to the NWOAL tournament at Swanton next Saturday, and then to the individual state tourney, which begins with sectional competition on Feb. 24.
“If I don’t win this year it’s going to tear me apart,” Ramirez said of the individual state tourney. “It’s been a lifelong goal. I came in thinking I was going to win a few state titles, and I haven’t won one yet. That’s the final check mark off my list.”
Yackee, a three-time state qualifier, placed third at 132 pounds last season. He is 32-4 at 132 pounds this season, and 169-38 in his career. Both he and Ramirez are chasing the school record of 179 career victories.
“It’s really something to be proud of to walk around with Wauseon across your chest,” Yackee said of the combined winter success. “We wear that with pride. Obviously, everybody in our grade is super competitive, no matter what it is.”
Yackee, who admits he was thrilled when he found out St. Paris Graham would be opting to compete in Division I, where it is the No. 1 seed, isn’t taking anything for granted just because the virtually unbeatable foe is out of the mix.
“We have to stay focused,” Yackee said. “We can’t be thinking just about the finals. We have to wrestle up to our expectations. We have to bull’s-eye on our back now that we’re the No. 1 seed. We have to wrestle to our potential.
“You’ve got to stick to it. These guys in this room have all been wrestling since they were little kids, six or seven years old. We’ve just stuck with it. Gaining all that experience has helped us mature as wrestlers.”
Another individual state-title contender is a senior transfer from Defiance, Gage Grundon, who was the D-II state runner-up last year at 138 pounds. In limited action on the mats this season, Grundon is 15-0.
Wauseon’s other three returning state qualifiers are juniors Gavin Ritter (Mike’s son), who is 30-5 at 113 pounds this season (115-20 career), and Xavier Torres (31-8 at 160; 99-33 career), and sophomore Jarrett Bischoff (19-7 at 120; 55-22 career), who placed sixth at state this season.
“We’ve always been around each other since we were little,” Gavin Ritter said of the Wauseon basketball team. “Knowing their players, their personalities and how they play, that’s a great factor. I’ve been friends with Trent Armstrong since kindergarten. I go to his games to support him.”
Bischoff will battle senior Alex Slattman (31-5 this year, 102-40) for the team’s 120-pound spot for sectionals. Slattman was a district competitor last season.
Another senior with 100-plus career wins is Mauricio Barajas (26-6 at 138; 116-40 career), who was also a district qualifier in 2017.
On Sunday, Wauseon will open the D-II state team dual tournament with a quarterfinal match against No. 8 seed Washington Courthouse Miami Trace at 11 a.m.
If the Indians advance, they would take on the winner of the Canfield/Urischsville Claymont quarterfinal in a 3:30 p.m. semifinal. And, if Wauseon reaches its third straight state final, it would likely meet either No. seed Mentor Lake Catholic or No. 3 seed Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary.
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