Are there things that happened already that one can never prepare for? Of course.
But things are going as well as possible so far for first-year St. Paul wrestling coach Jesse Gross. A 2014 graduate at his alma mater, Gross was a three-time state qualifier for the Flyers, then wrestled collegiately at NCAA Division III Mount Union University.
As one of the most accomplished wrestlers in program history, Gross now has the opportunity to impact another generation of Flyer wrestlers — and try and grow the roster numbers.
“I came in last season once I finished school and hit up some of the practices, and it really had an impact on me to get involved with the kids and the program again,” Gross said. “I loved it, and was presented with the opportunity to take the position and accepted it.
“It’s been a bit of a learning curve, going from competing to being an administrator for sure, but I’ve been around the sport of wrestling for about 15 years now,” he added. “I pretty much know the ins and outs of it, and it’s been going pretty smooth.”
One of the benefits of Gross being five years removed from high school is his knowledge of the current wrestlers, which includes his youngest brother, Ryan Gross. With Jesse making three trips to state, his name didn’t need much introduction to the team.
“Coach Gross kind of really fits with our team this year because we’re pretty young,” senior wrestler Cam Caizzo said. “We have one returning senior and two returning juniors. Since we have so many younger kids, it’s nice to have someone who is also young that encourages the kids that came out — and gets the most out of them.”
Caizzo also noted that despite the smaller age difference, Gross demands and has the respect of the team.
“He’s really talented and can push us to get the most out of every kid and get all their potential," Caizzo said. "We’re all behind him 100 percent. The practices have gotten a lot harder, but he gets everyone working harder and makes them want to be here. I think we can go far with that mindset.”
A returning state placer, Caizzo also said he’s benefitted from being similar in size to Gross.
“It’s so nice that he’s just about my size, maybe a little bigger,” he said. “And because Coach Gross is so young he can be my partner. I’ve pretty much been preparing with him for this season for the last three or four weeks now. From my perspective, it’s been great.”
For his part, Gross said it was a little weird at first interacting with some kids who he had competed alongside their older brothers.
"But I think it also helps me because they've seen me do it and know how serious I am about the sport," Gross said. "Being that close to the team and everyone basically knowing who I was already helps. There wasn’t that whole feeling out process with a new coach. They know what goals I have for them in the long run, which is that we expect kids competing at the district for the chance to go to state."
At St. Paul, Gross had three seasons of 30-plus wins, finishing 128-24 with three trips to Columbus. At NCAA Division III Mount Union, he finished 62-39, and had two 20-win seasons — including 24-9 as a senior in 2017-18 for the Purple Raiders.
Now, Gross has brought that type of pedigree back to his alma mater.
"It’s just neat to help out the St. Paul community and also help them become both better wrestlers and better people," he said. "I’ve always loved teaching the sport and helping kids out. Even teammates at Mount Union, something I always found myself doing was helping everyone learn.”
The Flyers have 14 kids in the wrestling room this season, but are filling 11 of the 14 weight classes with some overlap at some positions.
St. Paul opened the season with a pair of dual wins over Seneca East (45-24) and New London (56-12), then placed fourth out of 27 teams at the Waterloo Classic in Atwater, near Akron. The Flyers were then 19th out of 39 teams at the Kenston Invitational in Chagrin Falls and 19th out of 37 teams at the JC Gorman Invite in Mansfield.
The Flyers return to the mat with the two-day Div. III Duals held at St. Mary Central Catholic on Jan. 24-25.
Gross, who is assisted by Don Shantz, Chris Doughty and Paul Dowdell, knows the top of the Firelands Conference has stout competition between Crestview and Plymouth.
"But I don’t think it’s a long shot for us to be up there in contention," he said. "It will definitely be tough not having those upper three weights. But with the kids we have, I feel like we can compete among the top three teams and possibly the top spot. Getting three or four kids to state is the long-term goal, but going through the Northwest at the district level is always tough with teams like Edison and Genoa in recent years."
That will surely be tough competition to break through in both the FC and district. But Gross believes he has a team that can not only compete, but grow with an eye toward the future.
"It’ll be tough, but it’s a long season, so hopefully we’ll see some growth," he said. "We do have a pretty young team with only Caizzo, Jacob Baca and Dawson Howerton as our seniors. We have a young team, so growth is a key point for us this season."