A Karl Pearson column...

GENEVA

Anybody who thinks the wrestling well at Geneva High School is running dry after a stellar 2005-06 campaign had best think again.

That's just the way Dwight Fritz has structured his program. Even though nine wrestlers are departing through graduation, the Eagles coach is confident they can remain very competitive, maybe even downright nasty if they can fill a couple holes.

"The kids and the community want to maintain the consistency in the program that I think we have now," Fritz said. "We have a saying here: 'Tradition doesn't graduate.' "

The tradition of excellence in Geneva wrestling was started by Tom Koehler and has been taken even farther over the last six seasons by Fritz, his former wrestler and then an assistant coach for eight years. In his time as the ruler of the Eagle roost, Fritz has compiled a 71-29 record (.710).

But the 2005-06 season was unlike any other under Fritz's direction. He is already second only to Edgewood's Greg Stolfer in seniority in the Northeastern Conference and third only to Stolfer and Pymatuning Valley's Kevin Brown in tenure among Ashtabula County coaches. Led by those nine seniors, the Eagles compiled a 17-1 dual-meet record, losing only to Division I state runner-up Massillon Perry.

Geneva cut a huge swath through its NEC competition on the way to its second straight championship, sweeping its dual matches and setting a new scoring record under the present six-team lineup, almost doing it before reaching the tournament's championship round. The Eagles went on to a fine second-place finish in the Division II sectional at Lake Catholic while advancing eight wrestlers to the rugged Akron Firestone district.

The Eagles made their first trip to the Firestone district in more than a decade a memorable one, finishing ninth in the team race there. What's more, two of them - senior Travis Bernard at 112 pounds and junior Tony Owen at 125 pounds - qualified for the state tournament, thus making Geneva the first county team to send two wrestlers to Columbus in more than five years. Bernard went on to place at the state meet for the second straight year, finishing sixth at his weight.

For all the Eagles accomplished under Fritz's leadership, he was chosen Star Beacon Ashtabula County Coach of the Year for the second straight year.

"It's a great honor," he said. "It's a tribute to how hard these kids worked this year. It certainly wasn't easy because we lost some big guns like Eric (Sturm), Cord (Cox) and Joe (Walker), but the kids we had back really did a tremendous job. They came in and worked out two or three times a week in the offseason, went to camps and hit the weights."

Fritz admits he was blessed with solid senior leadership, starting with Bernard, who won the Star Beacon Wrestler of the Year award his sophomore and junior years and became the NEC's ninth four-time champion this year. That leadership was sprinkled throughout the lineup with Bruce Kruzelak following at 119, two-time NEC champ Donnie Chadwick at 130, Jared Hitchcock at 135, Trahdale Moore at 145, Craig Derby at 160, Ryan Neuman at 189, Jake Carraher at 215 and heavyweight Andy Horvath.

"Those kids did a great job," Fritz said. "I was really proud of what they accomplished."

They didn't do it on their own, though. Juniors like Owen, John Ferguson at 140 and Adam Zrubek at 171, along with sophomores Kyle Maloy (103), Adam Perkins (125) and Mike French (152) and freshman Nate Zrubek (103) also made key contributions.

Fritz gives plenty of credit to his right-hand man, varsity assistant Dave Ungrady.

"We all take turns coaching the kids and working with them," he said. "Dave is a vital part of what we do with our program."

One of the things Fritz believes the Eagles have in their favor is the depth upon which they can rely.

"We finished the season with 36 wrestlers," he said. "A lot of the kids are already back in the room getting ready for freestyle season. We're still getting a lot of the seniors in here to help out.

"We have a very strong JV program that Pat Tannish works with. They won the Cleveland Heights Tournament this year. Our JV kids wrestled 40 matches this year, so I think we have some strong wrestlers coming up from that level."

The real key to continued success for any wrestling program these days comes from the junior high and midget programs. Fritz feels blessed to have excellent help at those levels, too.

"Jarrod Burgard and Chris Clemens work with our junior high kids," he said. "We have an A and B team at that level. By the time they get to the high school, those guys have taught them all the basics they need and we can build on that.

"We have two midget teams coached by Bob Loughry and John Walker. Those are great resources to have."

Admittedly, the Eagles will have some holes in their lineup to fill.

"Travis is going to be irreplaceable," Fritz said. "We're going to have a tough time finding replacements for Andy and Jake. Edgewood probably will go in as the favorite next year because they have so many wrestlers coming back."

But that doesn't mean Geneva will be surrendering.

"We have a state qualifier coming back with Tony to show the way," Fritz said. "We still have three district qualifiers returning with Tony, John Ferguson and Adam.

"We've got a couple JVs who were undefeated this year. Our light and middle weights should still be strong. I think we'll have a pretty solid nucleus."

In fact, Fritz is trying to give the Eagles even more learning experiences.

"We getting into some new tournaments and adding some new triangular meets with some tough, new opponents," he said. "We're trying to move forward. Our goal is to contend year in and year out."

Pearson is the wrestling beat writer for the Star Beacon. He can be reached via email at kpearson@starbeacon.com.

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