By Jim Manion | Correspondent
The 2013 Ohio High School Individual Wrestling Championships begin this afternoon in Columbus. The largest Portage County contingent traveling down Interstate 71 will be wearing the red and gray of the Crestwood Red Devils.
Crestwood wrestling head coach Dave Wrobel will be making the trip with four of his wrestlers after finishing sixth at the tough Division II district tournament in Alliance. The trip is the finishing touches on another spectacular season for the Red Devils, who just claimed their third straight Portage Trail Conference Metro Division championship.
The rebuilding of the Crestwood wrestling program is something Wrobel took on as a 23-year old rookie coach 12 years ago. The progress has gone from only entering a half-dozen wrestlers in his first sectional to this weekend's hopes of securing a top-10 finish at the state's grandest stage.
In the past four years, Crestwood has qualified a total of 19 wrestlers to the state tournament. In that same span, the Devils have a 55-13 dual meet record and a 31-2 record in the PTC.
What may seem like simple success now did not come without a lot of hard work from Wrobel.
WHO GOT IT STARTED?
The late Frank DiNapoli is widely considered one of the pioneers of high school wrestling in the state of Ohio. Known as the father of Crestwood wrestling, he coached the Red Devils from 1959 through 1982 and brought the first seven league championships and a 1976 state championship to the school that built a wrestling dynasty in Northeast Ohio.
Again in 1989, 1990 and 1991, the Red Devils won three straight Portage County League titles under the coaching of Jeff Lorence. However, following that 1991 league title, the wrestling fortunes seemed to almost disappear on the Mantua hilltop.
When Wrobel reported to his first day of work at Crestwood 12 years ago as a history teacher, he brought with him a storied athletic career from Cleveland Benedictine and Bedford Chanel, where he played football and wrestled. He was a state qualifier both his junior and senior years at Chanel on a state runner-up team. Wrobel still owns the single season take-down record at Chanel.
START THE REBUILDING
Wrobel admits that coming in as a young coach, he thought he would have instant success, but it didn't that away.
In fact, his first year was a huge learning experience.
"I remember getting hammered by Southeast 75-6 and losing badly to Canfield in my first triangular meet," said Wrobel. "I remember trying to implement some new things and facing some resistance. The numbers were low and the results weren't always there, but we were making progress."
Wrobel credits his assistant coach, Frank Iannaggi, as his mentor at the time.
"He kept me upbeat and gave me sound advice that I still use today. I don't think I would have made it without his guidance and support those first couple of years," said Wrobel.
Iannaggi and Wrobel still talk a couple times a week, despite the fact Iannaggi is no longer an assistant coach at Crestwood.
Wrobel surrounded himself with quality assistants in his 12 years and that's a huge reason why the Devils have been successful.
Marco Berquist, who wrestled with Wrobel at Chanel, was the first to join the team to help out in the upperweights. Also joining the staff were John and Mike Ryba and Wrobel's brother, Derek, has also been helping in both the lean years and good times.
Crestwood has a strong youth and middle school program that is vital to the success of the Devils' program at the high school level.
Coach Berquist has developed an outstanding weight-lifting program, according to Wrobel. A lot of hard work, both during the season and in the off-season have helped build continuity in the system.
"I believe the community and administration, as well as the boosters, have been very supportive and made upgrades to the wrestling room and scheduling," said Wrobel.
Wrobel has always been a coach that believed in building relationships with his wrestlers.
"If the kids believe you genuinely care about them, then they'll do anything for you," said Wrobel. "It goes beyond wrestling, you need to know what makes them tick, what buttons to push and when to back off a little bit. We want to stress to our wrestlers the importance of being good students as well as good
THE 2013 CONTENDERS
Three of the four Red Devils wrestlers headed for Columbus are juniors, so the future of the Crestwood program remains bright.
Wrobel believes that all four of his qualifiers have a good chance of making the podium at Value City Arena on Saturday.
"I really think that all four have a realistic chance of placing in the state tournament," he said. "We are shooting for a top-10 team finish."
• Jake Zemaitis, 113 pounds, 39-4 record, finished seventh in the state last season at 106 pounds.
"Jake has a tough draw against the returning state champ, but the way Jake has been wrestling, I can see him pulling the upset," Wrobel said.
• Conner Nemec, 120 pounds, 37-6 record, state qualifier in 2011 at 103 pounds.
Conner's cousin Shawn was a four-time state champ at St. Ed's, while his sister Piage is the only female in state wrestling history to qualify for the state tournament.
"Conner wrestles a kid that he has wrestled before from Parma and if Conner comes ready to wrestle, which I know he will, this is a very winnable match to move him to Friday morning," said Wrobel.
• Dylan Kager, 138 pounds, 42-2 record, finished sixth in the state last season at 132 pounds.
"This should be a real exciting match. Dylan will face a kid that is 50-1, so these two guys will almost have 100 wins between them when they take to the mats Thursday," said Wrobel. "If Dylan wins on Thursday, he will face the projected state champ in the second round."
• Kenny Jackson, 182 pounds, 34-7 record.
"I'm not real familiar with Kenny's first match, but I can tell you if Kenny comes out and wrestles to his capabilities, he will get into the winners bracket," Wrobel said.