For Ravenna and Southeast, the first mission of the wrestling season has been accomplished.
Both clubs were the class of the regular season in their respective leagues _ Ravenna finishing a perfect 5-0 in the Western Reserve Conference while Southeast claims an 8-0 Portage County League record.
But neither accomplishment will stand for much when the two teams renew the area's most fierce rivalry in front of a standing-room only crowd Thursday night in Ravenna.
"This match is the highlight of the wrestling season in Portage County," said Ravenna coach Steve Reedy. "People will judge our season on how well we wrestle Southeast. When I came to Ravenna, Southeast had the better program. I looked up to (Southeast coach) Ralph Graham because he is a good person and secondly, he is a great coach who is in the Hall of Fame."
Reedy has built the Ravens' program into one of the top teams in the state, currently ranked third in Division II.
The Ravens lineup boasts some of the premier names in Ohio wrestling.
Six Ravens are ranked in the Brakeman Report as contenders for a state championship, including Brandon Hayes (projected champion, 103 pounds), Jeff Dunfee (17th, 125), Keith Lara (23rd, 135), Jessie Edsall (21st, 160), Brad Bauer (9th, 171) and Andy Hampton (projected champion, 189)
Southeast, tied for 13th in the Division II state rankings, claims five wrestlers listed in the Brakeman report: Mike Kemble (12th, 112), Chris Weichman (27th, 130), Jeff Mason (4th, 160) and Tom Crock (15th, 275).
But often it is the lesser-known wrestlers from the schools who have played prominent rolls in deciding the winner of the match.
"You pretty much know what you are going to get from the bigger name guys," said Southeast coach Ralph Graham. "But pretty much it's the kids who haven't gotten a lot of publicity during the year who come through with a key win or a key pin ... We've had a lot of close matchups, but unfortunately, more often than not, we've come up on the short end."
A key for both teams will be how Graham and Reedy maneuver their lineups in the chess game to find a matchup advantage.
"That is an integral part of the sport," said Graham. "Other than keeping kids ready to wrestle during the week, you have to figure out where to wrestle them to put them in the best position for the team."
Those selections will be made on the fly, with the opening coin flip playing a big part in the decision-making process. The winner of the flip decides whether to put their wrestler out first in the odd or even numbered matches.
"Deciding who has to put their kids on the mat first is a huge advantage," said Graham. "One or two matches could determine the outcome, and depending where the team score is, you can try to go head to head with who they put out, or try to win one and lose one to maintain a lead."
One of the few matchups that is a certainty is Ravenna junior Brandon Hayes vs. Southeast's Erik Bartley at 103 pounds.
"The front half of the lineup is going to be very important," said Graham. "Momentum is very important. Brandon Hayes has started real well for Ravenna this year. On paper, he'll be a heavy favorite. But (Bartley) has got to go in there and try to spark the team. Win or lose, he has to be competitive. The other kids need to feed off that."
Graham said Ravenna has an advantage in experience against a Pirates' roster "loaded with freshmen and sophomores that have lacked consistency.
"One week they look great, the next they look like they are behind where they should be," said Graham. "Then they come back the week after that and look great again. We have a very talented freshmen and sophomore class, but they are going through some growing pains."
According to Reedy, being a favorite has meant little when Ravenna and Southeast face off.
"You can throw all the individual records out the window," he said. "The kids get up for this match as do the coaches. All the kids wrestle above their heads."
Excitement has been a staple for Ravenna-Southeast meets.
Last year, the Ravens captured a 36-27 victory. But the teams are just two years removed from a 30-30 draw.