JOHNSTOWN — The Johnstown Johnnies wrestling squad, loaded with seniors, is poised for great things this season. That is, if it stays healthy.
The Johnnies, who were 12-6 in dual meets going into last weekend, are setting their sights on the Mid-Buckeye Conference Tournament and beyond with a team that is state-tournament caliber, and strong in the middle weight classes.
“We won the Licking Heights Tournament and we are starting to come together,” said Johnnies coach Brad Todd. “We’re getting into the most crucial part of the season. The league tournament starts Feb. 14 and then, we head into sectionals.”
At 112 pounds, junior Ben Davis is 17-13 and figuring out what it takes to be a top wrestler.
“He started off a little slow at the beginning of the year, but he is starting to hit his stride,” said Todd. “He is more focused and he is working harder in practice. He is starting to get it. A lot of times, when you are a freshman or sophomore wrestling in the varsity, you’re outmuscled, outmatched and you’re thinking too much. Now, he is at the point where things are coming naturally to him and he is just reacting.”
Junior Brian Caudill (119) is 15-16. For Caudill, it’s not all about strength and skill.
“The big thing for Brian is his confidence,” said Todd. “Sometimes, he gets down on himself too much, but when he goes into a match aggressively and confidently, he can surprise himself and beat a lot of good guys.”
The Johnnies’ 125-pound sophomore, Joe Carter, (12-10) is in his first year on the varsity squad. Aggressive and hard-working, Carter also wrestled in junior high, where he was a state qualifier. He juggles school and wrestling with his first love, soccer.
“He didn’t come out for wrestling as a freshman, so he missed a whole year,” said Todd. “He’s a little behind on some things, but he is definitely picking things up fast.”
Senior Ross Sandridge (130) missed more than half of this season due to a shoulder injury, but is still 10-3. As a district placer last season, he was one match from making it to the state match. He knows he has one more shot at the big dance.
“This year, he has come back strong after being hurt,” said Todd. “He was a little slow out of the gates after coming off the injuries, but he has been going good ever since. Once the MBC and sectionals start — he’s a senior, he’ll be ready to go.”
At 135, Senior Keith Tanner (29-0) was a district qualifier last year.
“He is an excellent natural athlete,” said Todd. “He catches on fast. He has really stepped it up a notch in his senior year. His confidence has grown as a senior, and he knows this is it. Now, he has it in his mind that he just doesn’t want to lose.”
All-Ohio senior Chris Block (140) wants to climb higher on the podium at the Division III State Tournament, where he was seventh last season. At 33-0, he appears to be on his way.
“This is a kid who is very, very driven,” said Todd. “He has really put a lot of hard work in. He’ll get in 100-plus matches in the summertime. There’s nothing left for him but to win a state championship this year, and that’s his goal. He just needs to stay focused and take it one match at a time.”
Junior 145-pounder Scott Robinson (34-0) may be the area’s best in a tough weight class. He, along with his teammates, want to follow Block up the state podium. Robinson, riddled by injuries the last two years, is finally showing what he can do given a full, healthy season.
“That’s the goal for a lot of those guys,” said Todd. “They don’t want to let each other down. They want to help each other to get better. Scotty, like the rest, has a great chance to make it to the state and stand on the podium.”
Cody Bracken, 152, is a 33-0 senior who is right in that core group that has a good chance of going to the state.
“It’s very exciting,” said Todd. “Cody and the others make it easy. There’s not too much I have to say or do to get these guys pumped up and ready to go. My main thing is to have them focus one match at a time and not get ahead of themselves.
“Cody has worked on his overall game and has beaten some top-quality guys, which has done a lot for his confidence. When you beat guys that are ranked here or ranked there, you really start to believe in yourself. That confidence goes a long way.”
Freshman Joey Bismuke (160) is 14-17 and a product of the middle school program. He and the other youngsters on the team have a rare learning opportunity as they watch their senior teammates climb toward their goals.
“[Joey and the other freshmen and sophomores] see the level that they need to get to, which makes them work that much harder,” said Todd. “They are learning what they have to do to get there. Being a freshman, Joey is taking his lumps, but the thing I like about him is that if you teach him something in practice, he learns it and uses it.”
Garrett Jackson, a 17-12 sophomore, is vying for the 160 spot. He is doing well and having a good season, but may need to add a few pounds.
At 171 pounds, junior James Sapp (6-7) is going through the pain of being a first-year wrestler.
“With new wrestlers that have never come out before, the one thing that you can control is your effort and your heart,” said Todd. “You put everything that you have on that mat; whether you win or lose, as long as you show the effort, I will be happy. I try to not overload them with technique. If they can take two things they like from each position and perfect them, they add more things, little by little.”
Senior Austin Montgomery (189) missed the 2008 post season due to a skin disease. This year he is loaded with determination, and a record of 24-7.
“Austin is another one of those core senior guys that have been together all four years,” said Todd. “He is showing a lot of leadership and stepping up his wrestling this year. He’s down to his last chance and he wants to get to that next level.”
The 215 slot is filled by freshman R.D. Williams (17-14), who wrestled in middle school.
“The middle school program is hugely important,” said Todd. “We have a small freshman class, due to the fact that we ended up having morning practices at the middle school. That was the only way we could do it. Obviously, it is pivotal to a good high school program to get guys who come in as freshmen with some experience and know what thay are doing. R.D. was one of the few guys who was able to stick it out with the morning practice. That says a lot about his toughness and drive to want to be a wrestler.”
Heavyweight senior Tim Hanshaw (9-22) has had a slow, but steady, climb since coming out for wrestling as a sophomore. For Hanshaw, it’s all about heart and desire.
“His first year, he didn’t win a single match,” said Todd. “He kept working and got his first couple of wins last year. This year we expect him to win and he expects it out of himself. He gives it 100 percent in every match, and that is all you can ask. The winning from the rest of the team is contagious. The more Tim wins, the more he believes in himself — just like everyone else on the team.”