Former Branch coach likes EOWL’s progress

AUSTINTOWN — When Mike Helm first became a part of the Eastern Ohio Wrestling League, spiked hair and boom boxes just starting to become cool.

Things have changed quite a bit since then, and some things have stayed the same. Spiked hair came back in style, sorta, but the EOWL, which holds its 52nd annual tournament this weekend, is quite different.

Sure, the EOWL was a good league back in the late 70s and early 80s, but as it expanded over the years, with Helm taking over as the league commissioner five years ago, the competition has hit an all-time high.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen this much depth in this tournament,” said Helm, who wrestled at West Branch in the late 1970s and was the head coach from 1998 through 2013, coaching multiple state champions. “It’s quality depth. We’ve always had some pretty good weight classes, but this time around … if you’re not ready, you’re going to get beat. That’s all there is to it.”

That should make this weekend pretty intriguing to wrestling fans. The tournament begins at 4:30 p.m. today at Austintown Fitch High School and continues Saturday at 10 a.m., with the finals starting at 5 p.m.

The league made its presence felt like never before at last year’s individual state tournament. Four EOWL wrestlers won state titles — a league record — and 20 others placed in the top eight. Canfield finished second as a team in Division II for the third straight year, while fellow league members Louisville and Beaver Local finished 11th and 12th, respectively. Girard, which earned its first state champion, was a respectable 19th.

Most of those teams are even better this year. There are more than 50 state-ranked wrestlers in the tournament, comprising more than 20 percent of the likely 250-person field. There are four wrestlers predicted to win state titles and at least 12 others ranked in the top five of their weight class, each with a legitimate chance to claim a state crown. Considering some of those wrestlers compete in the same weight class at the EOWL, there are going to be some phenomenal matchups this weekend.

“I think everybody sees it, especially with the way the league has gotten so strong in the last four or five years,” Helm said. “When I took over the league as the commissioner five years ago, I think we had 18 teams. We’ve expanded to 27 teams, and the teams that we’ve brought in have done nothing but strengthen the league. It’s a legitimate, what we would call in the wrestling world, it’s a real grinder. This tournament is pretty serious. Right now you’re sitting there with three teams in our league, Louisville, Canfield and Beaver Local, that are all ranked basically in the top 15 teams in the state, regardless of division.”

Two returning state champions are competing in Girard senior Jack DelGarbino (nationally ranked at 285 pounds) and Canfield senior Tyler Stein (220 pounds). DelGarbino is a Princeton recruit, and Stein is headed to the Ohio State University after his final season. Canfield’s Anthony D’Alesio, 182 pounds, is a predicted state champion in Division II as is West Branch’s Christian Wayt (120 pounds). Wayt’s weight class at the EOWL Tournament could have the top three ranked wrestlers in the state in it, depending on which weight class they choose.

The tournament also serves as a starting point for wrestler as they prepare to make a charge toward the postseason, Helm said.

“There comes a time when you know you have turn it up and go,” Helm said, “and (they’re) running out of time.”