Coach Dave Mariola Jr. has been a fixture in Summit County wrestling for decades.

Mariola spent the last 20 years turning Barberton into a local power. Prior to that, he spent five years as Nordonia’s head coach, where he led the Knights to the Division I state runner-up spot in 1998.

So why would Mariola leave a program he nurtured to take over a struggling Walsh Jesuit program? He loves a challenge.

"It was a rough decision," Mariola said. "I couldn’t sleep for about three or four months. I just thought I would regret it if I didn’t take the chance. 

"I left Barberton in good hands. They’ve got 80 kids in the high school, middle school and youth programs. When I got there, they had five guys on varsity. I left it a lot better than I found it. I thought maybe it would be the right thing coming here."

Mariola still teaches health and physical education at Barberton, but has dove into the job at Walsh. He inherits a once dominant program that has fallen on hard times, as the Warriors didn’t have a single state qualifier last season. 

Mariola said he "absolutely" realizes building Walsh back up will be a long-term process. 

"When I came here, they didn’t have a youth program," Mariola said. "We’ve got that set up. They had only half a team here last year. Little by little, I think that we’re getting back to speed."

"We’ve been lifting. We’ve been conditioning and we’ve been working on technique," he added. "It’s a three-step process. We have been drilling really good over the last few weeks." 

Mariola said he did not know much about the North Coast League, other than to say Lake Catholic should be strong. 

Mariola has one of the most seasoned coaching staffs in Northeast Ohio, beginning with associate head coach Tom Milkovich, who had been Walsh’s head coach the previous two seasons. Also coaching is former Nordonia and St. Peter Chanel head coach Graham Coghill, former Wadsworth state champion Louden Gordon, Larry Vance, Dan Milkovich and Bob Henderoni

Depth remains an issue, particularly with the upperweights for Walsh, as the Warriors have 16 wrestlers in the room.

Back at 106 pounds is senior district qualifier Jack Schmidt, who looks to take the next step to the state meet.

"It’s his senior year," Mariola said. "He’s having the kind of season we need him to so far."

Walsh’s lineup will be boosted by several impact freshmen this year, including 113-pounder Brian Crevar, who was a multi-time state qualifier at the junior high level.  

"He’s a hard-working, tough kid," Mariola said. 

Walsh has an open spot for the moment at 120, but Walsh’s most decorated newcomer will start at 126 pounds in freshman Dy’vaire "Boots" Van Dyke. Van Dyke is a two-time junior high state champion. 

"Loudon used to coach him at the youth level," Mariola said. "He’s a good athlete and has good technique. He’s also been very coachable. He’s improved even since the season started."

Junior 132-pounder Chase Henderson returns after reaching districts last season.

"He’s a very, very hard worker," Mariola said. "He, Wiseman and Van Dyke have really been pushing each other in the room. He’s come a long way from last year." 

The Wiseman Mariola speaks of is junior 138-pounder Zach Wiseman,  a former district qualifier during his freshman year at Stow-Munroe Falls. 

"He’s been training all summer and all fall," Mariola said. "He’s working really hard with the guys in the room." 

Walsh has a pair of returning starters in its middle of the line. Junior Ronnie Romanini will get the start at 145 pounds, while junior Michael Leonard will start at 152.

Mariola notes Walsh may not have more motivated wrestler this season than senior 160-pounder Adam Salek, who finished sixth at districts last year, falling one win short of a trip to state.

"He lost the blood match by one point to go to Columbus," Mariola said. "He’s a strong kid. He just got off football, so we’re making sure he doesn’t have any injuries." 

Walsh got a boost when sophomore Jack Romanini decided to join the wrestling team after playing basketball last winter for the Warriors. He will get the starting nod at 170 pounds

"He plays football also," Mariola said. "He’s picking things up pretty quickly." 

Walsh is devoid of upperweights, as it will start the season with open spots at 182, 195, 220 and 285 pounds.

"I would like to see five guys get to states this year," Mariola said. "In the next couple years, I’d like to see it where we can be a great dual meet team too."

Mariola has a tournament-heavy schedule this season which begins with the Solon Comet Classic this Friday and Saturday.  

The Warriors will host the Walsh Ironman Tournament Dec. 13 and 14.

Reporter Michael Leonard can be reached at 330-541-9442, mleonard@recordpub.com or @MLeonard_GHO