After last season, Tallmadge seventh-year head wrestling coach Jason Shaw thought the 2017-18 season had the potential to be special.
However, graduation losses and other issues have left the Blue Devils depleted in terms of numbers. Shaw chooses not be downtrodden.
"We had one of our best seasons last year in 45 years," Shaw said. "We had nine districts qualifiers. We’re looking to move forward. Our slogan this year is ‘We’re working for a successful program.’"
Shaw will have to deal with loss of district qualifiers Dimitri Fortseras, Devon Manning, Dan Hepler to graduation. Also, state qualifiers Ed Suber and Jake Potok are no longer with the program.
Thus, Tallmadge will have only about 15 kids in the room this winter.
"We have a very experienced group of kids," Shaw said, noting he returns three district qualifiers.
In dual meets, the Blue Devils went 8-3 last winter, including 5-1 in the Suburban League American Conference. Tallmadge reached the regional semifinals in the Division II state dual tournament before losing to Woodridge.
"I would say Aurora is always the team to beat [in the American Conference]," Shaw said. "I still think we can compete at the top level. It’s tough to be a dual team when you’re giving up three or four weight classes."
Shaw notes he has a large number of middle school kids as well as more than 40 kids in the youth wrestling program this winter.
Shaw’s assistants include Gary Kanaga, Dan Amato, Dave Blankenship, Jesse Johnson and Chris Rege.
Senior Fred Berry was one match from reaching districts last season. He will bounce between 106 and 113 pounds this winter, but is currently sidelined with an injury.
Sophomore Josh Heatwall will start at 120 pounds.
"He didn’t wrestle last year, but has been in the program for years," Shaw said. "He has worked hard in the off-season to get here."
Senior Jake Kanatzar gets the nod at 126 pounds.
"He was at 120 and 120 in this area was pretty tough last year," Shaw said. "He was wrestling for survival. This year is his year."
Junior Cody Lombardi will start at the 132 pounds after joining the Blue Devils midway through last season.
Tallmadge has open spots at 138 and 152 pounds, respectively, but has been lifted by the return of senior 145-pounder Logan Rickenbacker.
"Logan was a district qualifier two years ago and last year, he did not wrestle," Shaw said. "I think he missed it. We’re counting on him for his leadership."
Twill have two of its best wrestlers at 160 and 170 pounds, though Shaw is not sure who will fill each slot yet.
Sophomore Jesse Kanatzar reached the district tournament as a freshman last year.
"His work ethic and his energy is through the roof," Shaw said. "He reminds me of an old-school wrestler. He’s always doing what he’s supposed to be doing. Anything less than a state qualifier spot is a disappointment for him."
Competing with Kanatzar will be another district qualifier and one of Tallmadge’s three-sport stars: Junior Richie Eyre.
"He is the epitome of a student-athlete," Shaw said. "He was one match away from getting into the placement rounds last year at districts. He’s as competitive as they come."
Sophomore Jake Spataro will provide depth at 170 pounds.
The star of Tallmadge’s incoming freshman class is 182-pounder Nate Amato.
"We’ve been waiting for him since the youth level," Shaw said, noting Amato took third at the junior high state meet last year. "He has incredible skills. We expect him to make it to states."
Sophomore Ben Blankenship had a winning record last season in spot-starting time. He will fill either the 195 or 220-pound starting slot.
Junior district qualifier Connor Franks is motivated and much bigger this season, after finishing one win away from the state competition last season. The Blue Devils’ starting heavyweight weighs in at 275 pounds this season.
"Last year, going into districts, he was going in at about 235 pounds," Shaw said. "He’s definitely got a great opportunity with some of the seniors graduating from last year."
Two more heavyweights have joined the Blue Devils in junior Sam Whitehurst (285 pounds) and sophomore Blake Messenger (310) pounds.
Shaw said his big thing is getting his team ready for the postseason, noting the Division II district tournament at Alliance will be a nightmare.
"Alliance is still in my mind the toughest district in the state of Ohio in our division," Shaw said. "When you look at the overall talent pool in Northeast Ohio, it’s just so much better than anywhere else.
Tallmadge was set to open season at the Brush Duals in Lyndhurst Saturday at 9:30 p.m.
The Blue Devils will participate in the Wayne Invitational Tournament Dec. 8 (5 p.m.) and 9 (11 a.m.).