JETTA FRASER / TOLEDO BLADE Enlarge
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WAUSEON -- About 10 years ago, Mike Ritter developed a formula for creating a successful wrestling program at Findlay High School.
He would first get to work on the Trojans' youth program, and then when things were under control, he'd switch his attention to the junior high. The theory was that by the time his wrestlers matriculated to high school, they'd be well schooled in what Ritter wanted.
It never happened.
Assistant coaches never lasted more than a year or two, and Ritter struggled to find combatants in his commitment to build something special.
The solution? Ritter left Findlay to take a job where support would overflow. He came home, to his alma mater Wauseon. Now, in his seventh year on the job, Ritter has accomplished what he couldn't do at his first head coaching position.
Wauseon over the last few years has risen from an extended rut to become perhaps the best wrestling team in northwest Ohio. There was a method all along. Ranked fifth in the latest Division II poll, Ritter has a squad comprised of numerous wrestlers who were fourth or fifth when he came back. They're the first class who has matured through the entire three-part system.
"I know a lot of people around the area," said Ritter, a 1989 graduate. "Because of that, I feel like the help is there all the time."
Oak Harbor built its program similarly. A town effort, headed by varsity coach George Bergman, has helped the Rockets create a unified program, one whose varsity program has consistently been the closest competitor to powerful St. Paris Graham in Division II.
The Wauseon Indians qualified 10 wrestlers to districts last year, and won the Northwest Ohio Athletic League outright for the first time in 16 years.
Earlier this month, Oak Harbor and Wauseon squared off at the state duals, with Wauseon prevailing 46-23, in the fifth-place match.
Then the Indians stopped the Rockets' four-year reign as champion at the Perrysburg Invitational Tournament with Cody Pontius (112 pounds), Dalton Nicely (135), and Nick McCall (171) winning titles.
"Especially since they've been on top for the past several years, that was one of our goals, to beat them." said Nicely, a junior and a returning state qualifier who is 22-4 this year.
Nicely is one of many Indians who progressed together through the system. As youngsters they traveled with one another to tournaments and practiced inside the wrestling room at the high school. These days, the faces are older, the voices deeper, but not much else has changed.
"It's an experience," Nicely said. "It's nice to see everybody be successful. I've known them for a while, and it's good we're all having success together."
More success than their coach had when he wore a Wauseon singlet.
A four-year starter, Ritter failed to ever make it to the state tournament, once falling a match short of qualification. Those shortcomings, Ritter "carried around a while" but they also fueled his desire to coach. Not long after graduating, Ritter moved to California as part of the Air Force and while there helped out with a local high school team. When Ritter returned to Wauseon in 1997, he took a junior wrestler under his wing -- his brother, Marcus. Marcus developed into a state qualifier, and for Mike, the burden of not accomplishing his own goals had been erased.
"Honestly, I think that's what drove me to coach," Ritter said. "I just felt I had never fulfilled what I wanted to fulfill out of the sport. I realized I loved coaching. Not just him, but everyone."
His team is loaded this year. Two district qualifiers cannot find a spot in the lineup, and neither can freshman Aaron Schuette, who filled at the Maumee Bay Classic at Clay and was seconds from winning the title at 140.
Wauseon crowned two individuals champions at the Maumee Bay Classic -- Nicely and McCall -- and, despite being without three starters, fell just seven points short of champion Clay, the state's eighth-ranked team in Division I.
Ritter says a top-10 finish at state is a feasible goal, and Nicely believes eight or nine state qualifiers is attainable. For that to happen, the Indians must have a more positive experience at the Marion Harding district, where last year four of 10 wrestlers finished in the top four to advance to state.
Ritter's believes Larry Ray (125) "will be a tremendous help" and fill a weight of need if he can achieve eligibility for the first time this season. Ritter also hopes Zane Krall (215) can enjoy similar success as last year when he was a freshman state qualifier at Liberty Center. Krall previously wrestled in the Wauseon system.
In a lineup built more on great depth than superstars, McCall, 25-2 this season, has emerged as the most accomplished. A two-time state place winner, McCall is considered to be in the mix for a title entering his final state tournament.
First things first though. Thursday night is the first of two expected meetings between McCall and Patrick Henry state place-winner Xavier Dye in a meet at Liberty Center that also involves the Tigers. They'll probably face off in the league finals next month, too, before each enters a different division for districts. Dye won a close bout over McCall last year.
"I'm only focused on one thing, that's winning a state title," McCall said. "I wanted it last year, but it didn't happen. This year, it's my main focus."
In the next two years, Ritter will be saying good-bye to McCall, Nicely, and other quality team members such as state qualifier Luke Tanier, and two-time district qualifier Cody Pontious, who is 17-4 this year.
But a performance drop-off isn't necessarily inevitable. Ritter did not begin to ignore the younger levels of the program once the varsity became strong. He plans on sticking around to coach his two sons, ages 10 and 7.
"Not as strong as a team, but we do have good individuals," he said. "We do see another wave coming in and we're pretty excited about that."
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com or 419-724-616041.55019 -84.13435 ERROR: Template storyimage.ldo not found in theme default for section HighSchool!
About 10 years ago, Mike Ritter developed a formula for creating a successful wrestling program at Findlay High School. But it never happened. Assistant coaches never lasted more than a year or two, and Ritter struggled to find combatants in his commitment to build something special. The solution? Ritter left Findlay to take a job where support would overflow. He came home, to his alma mater Wauseon. Now, in his seventh year on the job, Ritter has accomplished what he couldn't do at his first head coaching position.