Waite High School has made a big climb during the winter sports season the past couple years and, at the forefront of the wrestling and boys basketball programs are two of the biggest Indians.
While on the football field in the fall, seniors and longtime friends Rick Cannings and Tarell Baldwin stood out from the crowd not only because of their size, but because of their abilities.
The 6-3, 300-pound Cannings earned first-team DivisionI All-Ohio honors as a defensive tackle. Joining him on both the offensive and defensive lines was Baldwin, a 6-5, 324-pounder who was second-team All-Ohio at offensive tackle.
Some of the biggest battles waged by these two, however, may have come against one another during countless practices over the past nine years ever since they became teammates in fourth grade at East Side Central elementary school.
While Baldwin was always the biggest kid in school, Cannings has grown gradually, moving from quarterback to 140-pound fullback to defensive end and finally to tackle as he matured.
“He was smaller back then, but every year he got bigger,” said Baldwin, who was 5-4, 200 pounds in fourth grade and 6-3, 290 in eighth grade.
Both athletes are currently weighing college scholarship options for football. Baldwin, who has a 3.56 grade-point average, said he has been contacted by Northwestern University plus several Mid-American Conference schools, including Bowling Green. Cannings, a 2.7 student who scored a qualifying 18 on his ACT, said that Toledo, Bowling Green and Michigan State are on his list.
Through all the wars at practice, Baldwin and Cannings have remained friends. And, now that their days as football teammates are likely over, they are busy leading their respective winter sports teams to success.
Having dropped 25 pounds just to become eligible to participate as Waite's heavyweight (275-pound maximum) wrestler, Cannings is off to a 13-2 start with first-place finishes at the Northwood and Southview invitationals, plus a fourth at the Greater Miami Valley tournament in Dayton.
Waite, the defending City League team champion, won the team competition at Northwood, was second at Southview and took fifth out of 40 teams in Dayton.
“It's just our turn, I guess,” said Cannings of Waite's winter success to date. “We have a lot of people who dedicate themselves, on the field, on the court, in the weight room, and in the wrestling room.”
Baldwin, who may be the most massive player to ever to don a basketball uniform in the City League, has set up shop as Waite's starter in the post for the second year. He has helped the Indians to a 6-0 (2-0 in CL) start, the school's best since a Craig Thames-led squad opened at 11-0 en route to a 19-4 finish in 1990-91.
“I've never heard of one anyone bigger,” said Baldwin, asked if he is the CL's largest basketball player ever. “I've been playing with skinny guys all my life. I always wanted to be a point guard, but in seventh grade they made me a center and that's where I've been since.”
Baldwin, who joined the junior high basketball team only after failing to make weight for wrestling, admits he is an easy target for foul calls just from inadvertent contact with opponents half his bodyweight.
“The first few weeks in transition (from football) I have to hold it in,” he said. “I'm so used to hitting bodies. I have to be very careful.”
Teaming up as frontcourt leaders with his junior brother Jamell Baldwin (6-2, 180 pounds) and 6-3 senior Terron Hereford, the senior Baldwin has averaged 7.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
“I believe it's what we've been doing in the off-season,” Waite basketball coach Dave Pitsenbarger said. “The last two years we've participated in summer leagues at St. John's and Clay, and that's helped our seven or eight key guys develop team play.
“The key so far this year has been ball movement, and that we've been able to use our bench. Guys have stepped in with very few mistakes.”
The biggest mistake avoided was Pitsenbarger's, when he decided not to demote Hereford, who had never previously played organized basketball, to the junior varsity last season.
“He was a little confused with our offensive system and seemed to be getting lost on the floor,” Pitsenbarger said of Hereford's baptism from playground ball. “I was considering putting him on the JV team, but then a guy in front of him got hurt, so I started him in our second game.
“He scored 12 points and had nine rebounds, and I realized the mistake I made. We worked with him a lot, and he worked hard to develop his game in the off-season. He's done everything he can to improve, and it's really showing.”
Hereford leads Waite in scoring (19.2 points per game) and rebounding (7.7), and is shooting 66 percent (43 of 65) from the field.
“I played in the back yard with my brothers and down at the Boys and Girls Club,” Hereford said of his prior experience. “It was a little different running plays and trying to be organized. It was a big change for me, being where you should be (on court) instead of anywhere you want to be.”
Jamell Baldwin has chipped in with 15 points and 6.8 boards an outing, and fellow juniors Jeremy McDonald (7.8 points), Paul Williams (6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds) and Jamar Johnson (5.2 points), and senior Nick Yates (3.8 points) have also contributed.
One of Waite's chief goals this season is to garner a spot in the league's four-team playoffs, a feat that not even the '90-91 team accomplished in the first year of that format. The last Waite basketball team to play for a City League championship was the 1973-74 squad, which lost 42-37 to Scott in the title game under the league's old Blue and Red divisional arrangement. Waite's last league title came in 1938.
Pitsenbarger admits the Indians' sparse basketball success is still a stigma, and that his program is still seeking respect.
“We have to earn that respect,” he said. “That starts with (tonight) against Libbey.”
Meanwhile, over in the wrestling room, coach Carmen Amenta's Indians have already proven they belong and are taking aim at defending their league and sectional titles from a year ago with a deep and talented 35-man program. This is a far cry from the eight-member team Amenta had just a few years back.
At the forefront of Waite's mat success are seniors Cannings, Steve Weaver (13-2 at 103 pounds), Jose Vargas (10-4 at 125) and Abram Berry (17-4 at 130), plus talented sophomores Antonio Guerra (14-0 at 119) and Josh Johnson (17-1 at 152).
“We're not where we want to be yet, but we're working to get there,” said Amenta, who added that his team got a bigger boost from its summer tournament work than from the City League championship trophy.
“We hung our hat on that for a couple days, but that was a about it because there's about four teams who want to take it away from us this year.”
Many of Amenta's top wrestlers competed in summer events in Michigan, with the Lake Erie Wrestling Club, and in the Junior Olympics in Orlando, Fla. He hopes this work pays off with better showings at the district and state levels this year.
“They've taken it up a notch on their own,” said Amenta, who sees good depth and a “pretty solid lineup from 152 pounds on down.”
Weaver, Johnson and Cannings won individual titles at Northwood and Southview, while Guerra has captured crowns in all three tournaments.
Guerra, who is 15, is in his eighth year of organized wrestling.
A defending City League champ, Guerra has a chance to become just the third wrestler ever to win four CL titles, matching St. John's Shawn Contos and Woodward's Mohammed Mallah.
More than reaching that milestone, however, Guerra's primary goal is becoming Waite's second state champion ever.
“Here at Waite, they've only had one (Mark Kerr),” Guerra said. “I want to try to bring 'em another one.”
Guerra was just 10 when he placed fourth in a national tournament in St. Louis as a 65-pounder. He figures he's won about 430 of his estimated 500 lifetime matches.
“I'm more of a technique wrestler,” said Guerra, who credits longtime youth coaches Earl and Hector Ramirez for much of his growth in the sport, and competing with Steve and (2000 Waite grad) John Weaver for sharpening his skills in practice. “I've never really had the strength. I've always been weaker than most of my competition. But my technique and speed have helped me out.”
From the biggest Indians (Cannings and Baldwin) to the smallest (Weaver and Guerra), Waite is making its mark this winter.