MOUNT VERNON – Just before 4 p.m. Wednesday, Max VanFossen stood at the far end of Pleasant Street Elementary’s gym, peering up at the state banners that lined the walls. The sun soaked through the windows, but the old gym was cold and drafty as temperatures outside hovered around 15 degrees.
In less than 24 hours, he would be competing on the state’s biggest stage – in front of thousands at The Schottenstein Center in Columbus.
It will certainly be a change of pace. The lights will be bright, the floor soft and bouncy, the seats padded.
It will be nice, he thought. But it won’t top his home gym. Nothing could.
VanFossen is a senior, one of two Yellow Jacket wrestlers to qualify for the state tournament this weekend (with a third coming as an alternate). On Wednesday, he tried to soak it all in as best he could. He was minutes away from his last wrestling practice, in the gym where he’d spent countless hours over the last four years. The gym where he shed blood, sweat and tears for the sport he loved. The gym where he became a man.
“It’s sad. There’s nothing good about it, honestly,” VanFossen said of his last practice. “I’m just upset because I really like wrestling.”
Luckily for VanFossen (170), he still has one more opportunity to represent Mount Vernon this weekend. He will also have a chance at redemption; last year, in his first trip to state, he lost both matches. He says he’s made major strides since then.
“My biggest thing (from) last year to this year is I have confidence now. Last year, I was just happy to make it there. I was like, ‘Sweet, I made it.’ That was my goal,” VanFossen said. “But this year, I’m confident. I know what to expect. And I’m not going to wrestle scared, like I kind of was last year.”
Meanwhile, VanFossen’s teammate – junior Triston Bowens (132) – will be making his first pilgrimage to Ohio’s wrestling Mecca on Thursday. Bowens won five straight consolation matches at last weekend’s district meet to qualify. At this point, he’s fully embraced the underdog role.
“I just want to go out there and get on the podium, that’s the goal. Go out there and defeat some kids that I shouldn’t,” Bowens said with a smirk. “Go out there and knock some kids off that I should not beat.”
For coach Nate Cornell, this will be his first time at state as a head coach. He arrived in Mount Vernon last fall with one goal: to preserve the tradition already in-place. Mount Vernon has sent wrestlers to state every year since the early 1990s, Cornell said, and he felt it was important to continue that streak.
“I’m glad it’s with this group of guys,” he said of VanFossen and Bowens. “I’m very happy.”
Junior Ryan Tiell (152) just missed the state cut, and he will serve as an alternate this weekend. At any point, Cornell could receive a call about a 152-pound state wrestler who is sick, hurt, got in trouble, didn’t pass the skin check or didn’t make weight. At that point, Tiell would be eligible to fill in and compete.
“The way coach told me is, just act like I’m a qualifier,” said Tiell, who has maintained a competitive diet and practiced with the team all week. “I mean, prepare the same way I would if I actually made it. And then, if my number gets called, I’ll be ready.”
Tiell won his first two matches last weekend at districts before falling to Marysville senior Walker Heard via pinfall. He went on to win fifth place by defeating Pickerington Central’s Marcus Zullo in a 7-5 overtime decision.
Cornell said he has been impressed by Tiell’s mindset this week, as he has stayed the course preparation-wise despite being an alternate.
“He’s wrestling really well at practice this week, just like he did at districts. He’s done a nice job with his weight, he’s done a nice job with his work ethic and his attitude,” Cornell said. “So if the call comes at some point in between now and tomorrow, he’ll be ready to go.”
With limited numbers, Cornell and the Jackets have had to be creative while preparing for their biggest tournament of the year. Tiell has wrestled VanFossen in practices because they are close enough in weight, while freshman Colton Spurgeon (106) volunteered to serve as Bowens’s partner on the mat. The first-year coach also set up joint practices this week with Marysville and Delaware Hayes, who will both send several wrestlers to Columbus on Thursday.
Cornell believes this year’s state run has had a positive effect on the program’s younger wrestlers, who have seen first-hand what it takes. Members of the middle school team have been invited to practice with the varsity and have attended all three postseason rounds, Cornell said.
“It’s good for them to see, ‘Oh, I’m going to be at that point some time very soon.’ So it’s nice for the program going forward,” Cornell said. “Obviously you want the old guys like Max to get in there because they’ve worked their butt off for four years. But it’s nice for the younger guys, too, for motivation.”
The OHSAA Div. I Tournament will begin at 5:35 p.m. Thursday, with consolation rounds picking up at 8:25 p.m. The tournament will last through Saturday, when champions in each weight class will be crowned. The top 16 wrestlers in the state in each weight class (by division) qualify for the state tournament.
VanFossen will wrestle familiar foe in first round
After making it to state at 160 as a junior, VanFossen said he upped his training in the offseason to gain confidence. He holds a record of 47-6 heading into this weekend’s action, coming off a sectional championship on Feb. 23 and a third-place finish last weekend at districts.
VanFossen won his first two matches last weekend before falling to the nation’s top wrestler, Olentangy Liberty senior Carson Kharchla (23-0), who will wrestle for Ohio State next winter. VanFossen gave Kharchla his toughest match of the tournament, as he fell in a 13-3 decision. The Jackets’ senior leader then went on to win the consolation bracket by recording two consecutive pins; each took less than two minutes.
VanFossen said last weekend was “the best I’ve wrestled all year,” and he hopes to carry that momentum into this weekend’s tournament. He will face a familiar foe in the first round, Harrison’s Simon Shirley (37-7), who he lost to by a 3-2 decision earlier this winter.
Most wrestlers might be intimidated by that first-round draw, Cornell said. Not VanFossen. Cornell said he texted VanFossen after the tournament draw and the senior responded with determination.
“Max wants to wrestle him,” Cornell said, grinning. “A lot of times, you know, you’re worried about wrestling someone you haven’t beat. But Max, I texted him when the pairings came out and Max was very excited. He wants to wrestle this kid.”
Shirley is a counter-wrestler, Cornell said, which means he likes to wait for his opponents to make a mistake before going in for the kill. Impatience cost VanFossen the first time around.
The key for VanFossen on Thursday will be to “finish his takedowns and score early,” Cornell said. The senior hopes to use his conditioning and quickness to advance in this year’s state tournament.
For VanFossen, this weekend marks his last go-around as a competitive wrestler. He has one goal in mind.
“Place,” he said. “My goal is to place. Get on the podium.”
Bowens seeks podium finish in first state trip
In his first trip to state, Bowens will look to continue the momentum he generated during last weekend’s legendary district run.
Bowens (36-13) lost his first match last Friday to another area star, Licking Heights senior Mitchell Coultas, in a 9-6 decision. Bowens had defeated Coultas earlier in the season, and Cornell said it would have been easy for the junior to get down on himself after falling in the opening round.
“Losing that match, and then obviously waking up the next day and having that tough row to hoe, a lot of kids would just not be ready for that,” Cornell said. “But Triston took it on and was all over it, and every single match, he gained more and more confidence.”
Bowens proceeded to rattle off five straight consolation bracket wins – including one over a previous sectional-winner and another over Hilliard Darby’s Ben Brown, who was competing in his home gym. He knocked off two state qualifiers to place third, qualifying for his first trip to Columbus.
“It’s extremely impressive,” Cornell said.
“I felt really good. I kept my head in the match,” Bowens recalled. "Took an early loss (in the) first round. You know, you can’t let that sit on you. If you lose one, bounce back… I just kept a good mindset, kept eating healthy, worked harder, and went out there and it worked.”
Cornell wants Bowens to “keep on riding that wave from last weekend,” when he was able to score most of his points on his feet. He will face St. Edward junior Scott Richter (20-12) in the first round on Thursday.
But the bigger key for Bowens might be eliminating those first-trip-to-state jitters that often plague young wrestlers. Cornell said he and the boys will get to the arena “as early as we can” on Thursday to walk around the facility and even lay on the mats. He wants Bowens to see the place empty before he competes in front of thousands.
“I want him to walk around and kind of get the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ out of the way before he walks out there, so when he walks out there, he can just focus on the match,” Cornell said.
Distractions aside, Bowens has high expectations for this weekend. He wants to place. He knows it won’t be easy.
“You’ve gotta work hard to get on that podium,” Bowens said. “That’s the goal.”