But as the calendar turned to March — Norwalk junior wrestler Ethan Hernandez feels like he has nothing to lose.
Hernandez entered the wrestling season in December ranked at No. 1 in various different rankings at 170 pounds.
“That was probably the most pressure I’ve ever had in my wrestling career,” said Hernandez, who is making his third appearance at the Division II state championships this weekend in as many years.
Hernandez, who won a district championship past weekend, lost twice at the rugged Brecksville Holiday tournament. Those are two of his three setbacks in racking up a 50-3 record this season entering Thursday’s championship preliminary match.
“It was always in the back of my head, thinking about when am I going to lose, when is that No. 1 going to go away,” Hernandez said. “At Brecksville, it got to me and I think I wrestled the worst I have my entire career.
“Then I decided to drop down to 160 (pounds), and so far it’s been beneficial for me,” he added. “Not placing at Brecksville is probably the best thing that has happened to me this season. It’s been working out so far.”
Since the move to 160, Hernandez — who lost his opening round match at state last year, then proceeded to run the table to finish third — has been ranked No. 2 in the weight class.
The year-long projected state champion is Carrollton’s Ben Pasiuk (40-1), who has lost three heartbreakers in the state title match in each of the previous three seasons.
Pasiuk and Hernandez, the latter who opens with Miami Trace’s James Munro (49-2) on Wednesday, both met seeding criteria and are on opposite sides of the bracket.
“I’d rather be second than No. 1,” Hernandez said. “If I do get to the finals this year and end up not winning, then the rankings were right. My coaches tell me, and I firmly believe it, that I have nothing to lose.
“I’m still a junior and have one more year, so I just have to go out and give it my all,” he added. “That’s what I’ve been doing so far, and my coaches have been pushing us to our limits. Our new coaching staff, with guys like Chris Phillips and Chris Estep in the room, has been phenomenal and getting the job done to be where we’re supposed to be so far.”
Perhaps most exciting for Hernandez is his sendoff at 1:45 p.m. today at the high school will be rather crowded. Teammates Ethan and Gabe Phillips, Alec Maloney and Tche Leroux also qualified for state in their respective weight classes.
“Going from two, to three, and now four others is probably the best feeling of the whole weekend,” Hernandez said. “Ethan and Tche especially, really stepped up (last) weekend. They had some tough matches they had to win, and they came through in the clutch and finished strong.
“I’m extremely proud of them,” he added. “Me, Gabe and Alec were expected to go again — but those two had to work and put in the time and effort in this week and they got the job done.”
Gabe Phillips (182)
Along with Hernandez, junior Gabe Phillips was also a district champion for the Truckers.
He takes a 40-6 record into Thursday’s opening round matchup against Cincinnati MicNicholas’ Ryan Gear (34-8).
“I really couldn’t have gotten here without my drilling partners,” Phillips said. “DJ (Smith), Ethan, Alec, Tche — everyone. Everyone worked so hard this year, and none of us would have gotten to this point without our great coaches. Everyone works hard and wants to be here.”
Last season, Phillips placed sixth at 182 at the state championships. But he’s done talking about last year.
“If I say, ‘I have to do better than last year,’ than I probably won’t do better than last year,” he said. “You can’t put that much pressure on yourself, because it’s not going to get you anywhere. This year is a new year, I’m going to try to do better. And if I don’t, then oh well, it happens.
“It happens to kids every year down there,” Phillips added. “So if you don’t do better than you did, just work harder for next year. You just have to work hard … that’s always what it comes down to.”
The weekend is extra special in the Phillips household. Jeff Phillips, a Norwalk Hall of Famer, placed third at the state championships in 1991. Now both his sons, Gabe and Ethan, will wrestle at state.
“I’m really proud of him for that,” Gabe said of Ethan. “He was struggling with his shoulder in the middle of the season. But he came back, and has been drilling with Ethan (Hernandez) now — and they work each other hard. I’m proud of him because I know how hard he worked to get there.”
Alec Maloney (220)
A third returning state qualifier for the Truckers, Maloney took second at 220 last weekend at the districts.
He was edged in the final seconds of his district final matchup to Bowling Green’s Max Fausnaugh (41-4), who is now the top line of the bracket in Columbus on Thursday.
Maloney (45-6) now heads to state looking to build on a 1-2 record from last season in Columbus. He drew the eventual state champion in the first round last year, and opens on Thursday with Lisbon Beaver’s Garrett Givens (34-8).
“I just feel like this will light a fire under me for state,” Maloney said. “That and being able to go with four teammates. I couldn’t be more happier for my brothers, so it’s awesome. Every day we drill hard, and that’s why we’re all state qualifiers — and hopefully state placers, too.”
Is the junior ready for another run at one of the toughest weights in Ohio?
“You just have to know the atmosphere, it’s going to be intense,” he said. “At this point, is’ about doing what you know you can do.”
Ethan Phillips (152)
A sophomore, Ethan Phillips (29-7) opens with Louisville’s Jax Leonard (38-6) on Thursday at 152.
“I just have to keep my focus and wrestle hard — and not worry about anything else,” Ethan said. “Just wrestle hard.”
One interesting aspect to the five wrestling state qualifiers is the lack of time off the quintuplet has had. The first football practice was in the final week of July, and with a run to the state semifinals through Thanksgiving weekend, there has been no down time.
“It’s a brotherhood for all of us, not just Gabe and I,” Ethan said. “We’ve all worked very hard to get where we’re at, and it’s pretty cool to all be a part of the football run, and go this far in wrestling as well.”
Ethan said he has also been a big benefactor of not just Ethan Hernandez, but the addition of Chris Phillips and Chris Estep to the coaching staff.
“They’re just huge boosts for our program,” he said. “And Ethan and I push each other and beat each other up every day. He normally gets the best of me, but you just have to keep going at him. It’s hard to argue with the results.”
Tche Leroux (285)
Leroux gives up roughly 60 pounds every time he steps on the mat in the heavyweight class.
But one year after falling in the districts at a lower weight in Div. III, the Norwalk senior (39-8) finds himself among the 16-wrestler field in Columbus.
Leroux opens with Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary’s David Hoos (26-15).
“It’s not really me honestly, with the coaching staff we have between Coach Phillips, Coach Estep and Coach (Frank) Staley … everyone is great,” Leroux said. “And having a drilling partner like Alec Maloney is … every single day he takes it to mee.
“We make each other mad, but at the end of the day, we wouldn’t be where we are without each other,” he added.
While the three returners from last season’s state field were expected, both Leroux and Ethan Phillips broke through to make it a crowded entry for the Truckers.
“We always said we could do it,” Leroux said. “It was just a matter of putting it into a reality. Every day in practice, it gets intense up there. We go hard at each other, just to make ourselves better. It definitely paid off.”