Over the last month, Aurora High School has experienced a wave of success in athletics.
From Drew Albrecht’s third-place finish at the Division II state diving meet to the girls basketball team’s first run to regionals, Aurora fans have had plenty of chances to show their stuff in the quest for the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s Golden Megaphone Award.
Without question, though the biggest splash this winter was made by Aurora wrestling. Coach Johnny Papesh envisioned a dream season for the Greenmen back in November.
Bringing home state Division II runner-up trophies from both the state duals and the individual state tournament would be a dream season for any program in Ohio not named St. Paris Graham.
Graham was the only team to beat Aurora at the duals and the state tournament.
"That’s a pretty good season," Papesh said. "I know we wanted more, but it’s better than not being second."
This had been building since last year’s state tournament for the Greenmen.
Aurora made its presence known in 2018 when then juniors Andy Garr, Jack Gorman, Will McGhee, Colin McNamara and Kyle Petersen all qualified for states. All but McNamara won All-Ohio honors. The Class of 2019 was set to be the backbone for the Greenmen this winter, as Aurora also got contributions from senior 220-pounder Donte Leone and heavyweight Marcus Barroun.
Then Aurora got a huge influx of talent from its freshman class, which had won multiple junior high state championships.
Then the Greenmen got a boost with the arrival of the Anderson brothers, who moved into the district from the Shawnee Local School District, located south of Lima.
Needless to say, expectations in Aurora were running at an all-time high.
Still, Papesh never assumed that success was a given, even with a crew as talented as he had. The motto for Aurora wrestling is #WorkHarder, as Papesh put his team through tough practices and tougher tournaments throughout the season.
"I think it goes back to our schedule," Papesh said. "We put ourselves in tough matches and tough tournaments every week to get ready. We’re used to being in tough situations."
In the end, that plan led to a school-record seven state qualifiers — all of whom earned All-Ohio honors in Columbus.
It turned out Aurora needed all of those All-Ohio places and wins to finish second with 87.5 points. Third-place Louisville had two state champions and finished just 2.5 points behind. Fourth-place Steubenville had six All-Ohioans and finished with 81 points.
This was a total team performance and, in some ways, even better than Aurora’s Division III 1995 state championship team.
Keep in mind, Aurora won the title in 1995 with fewer points (75.5) and had only had three-All-Ohioans, though it did have two state champions in Josh Schroeder and Tim Courtad.
An individual state title was the only thing missing from Aurora’s trophy case this season.
I won’t say freshman 152-pounder Dylan Fishback was robbed, but there’s no doubt the constant blood timeouts in his state final vs. Graham’s Jeffrey Thomas hurt his chances. Fishback had been unbeatable since mid-January and forced Thomas to overtime with a late takedown before Thomas pulled out the state title in sudden victory.
Fishback was heartbroken by the loss, but his runner-up finish made him the highest placing freshman in Aurora history — breaking the mark Papesh set in 2005 when he finished fourth as a freshman.
McNamara was Aurora’s other state finalist, which I admit was a bit of a surprise. McNamara was the lone Greenman at states last year not to reach the podium and came in with 10 losses. But he wrestled his way to the final in Columbus.
While McNamara lost 8-3 in the 195-pound state title match, his impact on the Greenmen in multiple sports can’t be denied. The graduation of "QB1" will end an era, as Papesh notes next year will be the first time in 12 years a McNamara brother won’t be wrestling for Aurora.
McNamara is undecided on where or what sport he will play in college, as is Petersen, who finished eighth in Columbus.
Three Greenmen are signed to wrestle at the next level. After finishing third in Columbus, Garr is headed to Columbia University in New York. Two-time All-Ohioan McGhee will wrestled for Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, while Gorman — a four-time state qualifier and three-time All-Ohioan — will wrestle at Cleveland State University.
Despite these losses, the fun isn’t over for Aurora next year.
Junior 170-pounder Ethan Anderson will be back after taking sixth place. Anderson said that his transition to Aurora has been seamless and "there’s not place I’d rather be."
Also back will be the Sagaris’ twins, who will be juniors next fall. Robbie Sagaris was a state alternate at 106 pounds, while Antwan Sagaris also reached the district tournament.
Then, there’s the Class of 2022. Fishback will return next season, likely with a chip on his shoulder the size of Aurora, but he’s far from the lone impact freshman.
Evan Anderson was a state alternate in a grown man’s weight class at 182 pounds. Aurora’s 113-pounder Nic Willingham elected not to participate in the postseason in the wake of a family tragedy, but the multi-time junior high state champion has a chance to make future waves.
Bo DiJulius has the bloodlines to be great. He’s the younger brother of three-time state champion and former Ohio State wrestler Johnni DiJulius. Codie Cuerbo was undersized this year, but he’s another former junior high champion.
In short, this end of this season could be looked back at the start of something big for Aurora.
Can the Greenmen get Graham in the future and end their 19-year reign as Division II state champion? It’s a goal that’s no longer out of the realm of possibility.
Reporter Michael Leonard can be reached at 330-541-9442, firstname.lastname@example.org or @MLeonard_RPC.