The argument can be made that the 2007-08 St. Paris Graham High School wrestling team is one of the greatest teams, regardless of sport, in the history of Ohio high school athletics. At the very least, the Falcons are the best team in the country this season.
The argument can be made that the 2007-08 St. Paris Graham High School wrestling team is one of the greatest teams, regardless of sport, in the history of Ohio high school athletics.
At the very least, the Falcons are the best team in the country this season.
Ranked No. 1 in the nation by the Amateur Wrestling News, Graham enters the Division II state tournament looking for its eighth straight state title and 10th overall, which would move it into a second place tie with Maple Heights for the most ever. A victory would also likely lock up the school’s first national championship.
As for the “greatest” tag, that can be reinforced by a standout performance at the state tournament where Graham is a serious threat to qualify in all 14 weight classes and shatter the all divisional points record of 229 set by Lakewood St. Edward last year.
The Falcons also have the potential to break one of the most hallowed records in state tournament history – Cleveland West’s six individual state titles in 1951. According to the famed Brakeman Report, 12 of 14 Graham wrestlers are ranked in the top four of their respective weight classes heading into the postseason. Five are projected winners. Last year, the Falcons had seven guys in the finals.
Doubters can’t question Graham’s validity as the best team in the state regardless of division this season either. St. Ed, arguably the most storied wrestling program in the country, may very well win its record 12th straight state title in D-I and 24th overall. But the Eagles will take a back seat to the Falcons – finally.
Graham beat St. Ed the first week of the season at the fabled Walsh Ironman Invitational in Cuyahoga Falls and followed that with a victory on the Eagles home floor in the finals of the Super Eight Duals a week later. That loss was the first suffered by the Eagles to an Ohio team since a defeat to Cuyahoga Falls Walsh Jesuit in 1997.
One other ghost was conquered at the Ironman when Graham also beat New Jersey prep power Blair Academy.
“It’s always been our goal to make a run at the mythical national championship and to do that we knew we had to beat St. Ed and Blair Academy and we did that the first week of the season,” Graham coach Jeff Jordan said. “The second week, we beat St. Ed again in a dual meet. This team has accomplished what no other team in Graham history has accomplished. And right now, unless we have some major mishap we should be getting that national title.”
After the first seven days of the season, Graham was a solid No. 1 in the national rankings. It hasn’t budged since.
Starting Out Strong
The high school wrestling season in Ohio is comparable to NASCAR in regards to having a marquee event at the beginning of the year. The season-opening Walsh Ironman wrestling invitational is the Daytona 500 for those who wear a singlet. The tournament is one of the nation’s top high school wrestling events and often referred to as it’s toughest.
Never in the 13-year history of the tournament had a public school won the title and no one other than St. Ed or Blair had won it for 12 years. Graham changed that.
“That to me is the best tournament any team from Graham has ever wrestled,” Jordan said. “What made it special is we had 12 of 14 guys place. I didn’t know if we were going to make a run at winning it or get fourth or fifth or sixth, but after day one this team said, ‘We can do it.’
“We won so many tight matches and we won like five overtime matches. When you win an overtime match, that’s just heart and guts.”
Only one Graham wrestler won a title, but in doing so junior David Taylor (112 pounds) positioned himself for another first. A three-time Ironman winner now, Taylor, regarded as one of the best overall wrestlers in the country regardless of weight, has the chance to become the first four-time champ in Ironman history next season. He beat St. Ed’s Jamie Clark in the final 11-10.
“The difference is our team actually believes we can compete with the best teams in the country,” Taylor said. “In the past, we’ve always had good teams but we’ve come up a little short when we’re wrestling the best. This year, we put it all together. Not only did we beat St. Ed, but we beat Blair. We’d never beaten Blair before, either.”
That fact didn’t go unnoticed by Blair coach Jeff Buxton whose team finished second with 207.5 points. Graham scored 249.5
“Was there a difference? Absolutely,” said Buxton in an interview with WIN-Magazine.com. “(Graham) won all the close matches. When they were in matches where you’d pick the other guy to win, they came through with one-point wins. They have one of those teams that is very technically sound. But the thing they’ve added is that they’re really mentally tough and they haven’t come through before in those kinds of situations. They wrestled with a lot of tenacity. They wrestled with a lot of toughness. Some people have thought before that they were going to win the Ironman or that they were going to handle St. Edward in a dual meet or they were going to do well against Blair in a dual meet and they always came up short.
“I think they have made a big step mentally in showing they’re worthy of being one of the best teams in the country. They’ve got the horses up and down the line, but they reacted well to the pressure, and stood up to it and they did a great job.”
Added Lombard (Ill.) Montini coach Mike Bukovsky, whose team finished ninth: “I think they have been building to this level for a few years, and all of those ‘little things’ are starting to make the difference.”
Graham separated themselves even further six days later by winning the Super Eight Duals at St. Ed.
The turning point was registered by Graham freshman Matt Stephens who rallied from an 8-3 deficit entering the third period to beat senior Neil Birt in overtime.
The victory sparked the Falcons to six straight wins and ultimately led to a 47-13 victory.
“This team actually believed we could beat St. Ed,” Jordan said. “That’s the hardest thing. Winning state titles is hard enough, but trying to be the best team in Ohio is harder. Trying to beat that ‘Green Monster’ as I call it is difficult. They’ve won 11 straight state titles and like eight national titles and I just think previous teams here didn’t think we could conquer that monster. This year, the team said they could do it, and not only did we win, we kicked their butt. That has been the toughest thing for any Graham team.
“We had to go up there and look around and see all their state and national champion banners and their wrestling room is four times bigger than ours. They have a running track above it and they have like 15 bikes. They have every state champ’s wall bracket and picture. You go up there and see that and it’s intimidating. But our little hillbilly school from St. Paris, Ohio, here in the cornfields, went up there and beat them.”
Said Taylor: “We beat those teams up (at the Super Eight), including St. Ed, which has always been a personal and team goal for a long time. And beating them at home and in a dual meet was better (than at the Ironman) because we’ve never beaten them in a dual. St. Ed’s is a very hostile environment and it felt good to come out of there on top. A dual meet has a lot more emotion involved and we got on a roll.”
Senior Ben Jordan, Jeff’s nephew and a two-time state champion, agreed: “I’ve been looking forward to beating St. Ed since my freshman year. We’ve been hammered by them in the past.”
St. Ed has since earned itself a No. 5 ranking nationally. The Eagles are No. 1 in D-I in Ohio.
“It was pretty rough out there,” St. Edward coach Greg Urbas told the Plain Dealer following the loss to Graham. “They have a really great team and they proved it again tonight.”
Since the convincing win over St. Ed on Dec. 15, Graham has continued its onslaught.
At the Greater Miami Valley Wrestling Association Holiday Tournament (Dec. 28-29), the Falcons won their third straight title and outdistanced second place Miamisburg 404.5-166. Graham had 10 champions and two runners-up.
At the Division II Duals on Jan. 6, Graham won the title with wins over Columbus DeSales (59-12), University School (54-10) and Oak Harbor (54-18). The Falcons captured the team title at the 41-team Top Gun tournament in Alliance on Jan. 18-19 with 316 points. University School was second with 151.5.
Graham also won its own Best of the Southwest tournament on Feb.2 with 329.5 points to Troy Christian’s 229. Lakota West and Pickerington were third and fourth. In dual meets the Falcons have beaten Cincinnati Moeller, Mason, Troy Christian, Marion Pleasant and Miamisburg.
Heading into the postseason, Graham turned its final tune up into another milestone. At the Central Buckeye Conference meet on Feb. 9, the Falcons won all 14 weight classes and scored 439 points. Their championship roster read two freshmen, three sophomores, six juniors and three seniors.
“To make a run at the national title, you have to have no holes in your line-up and next year we’ll have six seniors,” Jordan said. “Next year, we’ll be really tough, too, and then after that we might take a step back. I don’t know. I think we’re going to be making runs at state titles for a lot of years. And as long as we’re doing that we’re going to be a power to reckon with.”
Plenty Of Depth
Graham has been strong for a long time and producing state champions since 1979 when Jim Jordan – Jeff’s brother and current U.S. Congressman – won the first of his four titles. Jeff followed with four of his own starting a year later.
In all, Graham has had at least one state champion 12 of the last 15 years (since 1993). That success and Jordan, himself, are big draws for the program. Jordan has referred to this year’s team as his deepest and most talented ever.
“Our JV team goes to varsity tournaments and they are a threat to win them,” Jordan said. “They are just that tough. I have five guys on the JV squad that have placed at the state tournament. And a lot of guys say ‘Man that’s a great problem to have,’ but to be honest with you I hate having that problem. It’s great that if someone goes down we’d have a good fill-in, but it’s almost tragic that that next guy in line could go right next door (to another school) and place at the state tournament.”
The Graham “Black” team (reserve) competed in four varsity events this winter and finished first at the West Liberty-Salem Invitational. The Black team also placed fourth at the Troy and Miami Trace invites and fifth at the Best of the Southwest, finishing ahead of varsity teams from Cleveland St. Ignatius, Tecumseh, West Carrollton, Bluffton and Mechanicsburg.
How tough is Graham’s wrestling room? At the Best of the Southwest, Graham Black wrestler Kyle Ryan, a two-time junior high state champ, beat Graham’s varsity wrestler, James Mannier, in the 160 final. Mannier, a junior, is a two-time state placer. Ryan is a freshman.
“That depth has helped us get better throughout the year,” Taylor said. “Not only do we have our varsity guys to go against, but we have JV guys that are as good as the varsity guys we wrestle in meets.”
“I think it’s all because they just want to be a part of that something special,” Jordan said. “They just want to be a part of that national championship or that state championship team. Wrestling is a different sport like that. It’s often about the unsung heroes and we have a lot of those.
“We have a lot of wrestlers who have wrestled for me for four years who have been just a cat-whisker away from making the team. The difference sometimes is so small on whether or not they are or they aren’t going to make the team. And that can be the difference between getting a scholarship and not getting a scholarship. But that’s just the way life is sometimes.”
Graham athletic director and boys basketball coach Brook Cupps has his own take.
“I think a lot of kids come out because they want to be a part of something that successful,” Cupps said. “And people can say what they want, but no one outworks those kids. I mean nobody does.
“And we’ve tried to carry that work ethic into our (boys basketball) program as well and make that one of our cornerstones. We want to make the amount of work we put in and our effort something we’re proud of as well.”
This year the Graham boys basketball team has done a good job of shadowing the wrestlers. The Falcons finished their first undefeated regular season in school history (20-0) and were ranked No. 5 in the final D-II state poll heading into the Tippecanoe sectional where they were the No. 1 seed.
“I’ve tried to use the wrestling program as a positive,” Cupps said. “I mean that’s the level everyone is trying to get to.”
Going to Work
It’s somewhat humorous that Graham trains in a small, old, ugly building behind the school, because for the most part the Falcons take opponents out behind the woodshed.
That being said, there’s nothing funny about what happens inside those walls. Many observers have commented on the ferocity and speed with which Jordan conducts practice and his athletes train.
Words don’t do the routine justice. Perhaps the only proper reflection of how tough a Graham practice is is the shine from the state medals it produces.
“There is no room like this,” Ben Jordan said. “The intensity in here is better than most college rooms. And it’s very competitive like that all year long.”
Said Taylor: “I’ve been to a lot of places and there aren’t as many that are as intense. You walk into those doors and you better be ready to have a good practice or you might have a bad day. You might get beat up.
“You walk in that room and I don’t know if it’s the air or what, but once you put your shoes on you better be ready to wrestle. There’s no joking around. Just get in there and get the job done.”
Jordan takes pride in his practice scheme as he should. It gets results.
“I had a college guy who came back at Christmas and was wrestling for a Big Ten team and said our practices were harder than theirs,” Jordan said. “We just work hard. There is no magical ingredient besides what we’re doing out there.
“We just come in and go to war.”
This year that fight has led to the ultimate honor. And a potential place in history.
“We finally got over the edge,” Taylor said. “We’ve always been second, third and now we’re on top. Everyone’s trying to beat us now. Everyone is trying to catch us.