Cougar wrestlers Bretz and Steyer head for state tournament this weekend

VAN WERT — At last week’s Division II Norwalk District, Van Wert junior Isaiah Bretz and sophomore Gabe Steyer punched their tickets to this coming weekend’s state tournament at Ohio State’s Schottenstein Center. Bretz finished second at 138 and Steyer third at 132. The top four finishers in each weight class at each of the four districts advance to state.

Division II matches begin at 4:10 pm Thursday. Steyer (37-4) is matched in the first round with Norwood senior Casey Ragle (38-5). Ragle finished 2nd at the Wilmington District. Bretz (41-6) will wrestle Uhrichsville Claymont senior Maxx Peters (31-6), who was 3rd at the Claymont District.

Thursday’s first-round winners will then move on to Friday’s quarterfinals. Losers in the first round will move into the consolation bracket and wrestle again Thursday. The tournament finishes on Saturday. The top eight finishers in each weight class are the placers in the tournament.

Their advancement to the state tournament came as no surprise to Van Wert coach Ben Collins, himself a 1999 state runnerup at 145. “We thought they could go to state last year,” said Collins. “Gabe came close — he was the state alternate as a freshman. We watch ‘em as they’re growing up, so we knew we had two good ones.”

Bretz, a team captain, has a career record of 103-34 and is the 2018 WBL champion at 138. This past December he was the champion at 145 in Sidney’s McCracken Tournament. Of his 41 victories this season, 35 have been bonus point wins; i.e. major decisions, technical falls, or pins.

“I started off the season at 145, but I realized I was not nearly strong enough for 145,” said Bretz. “The beginning of the season started off good. I won the Sidney tournament (at 145). I didn’t lose until the Lincolnview finals which I lost (also at 145) to Chase Sumner of Ada 3-2. I decided to cut to 138 because I was more comfortable there.”

Last year’s district tournament was one that Bretz regrets, although it has been a big motivator. “My goal coming into this season was to qualify for the state tournament,” says Bretz. “I’ve now qualified for districts the past three years. Last year (at districts) I wrestled the worst I’ve ever wrestled. Looking back on that, it’s hit me really hard — that that’s not what I want to do. That’s what really pushed me in the off season and the beginning this season.”

Steyer’s career record is 74-9. He won the WBL championship at 132 in 2017 and again in 2018. He was the champ at 138 in the Lincolnview Lancer Invitational in December. Thirty-five of his 37 victories this season have been bonus point wins.

Like Bretz, Steyer decided early in the season that moving down one weight class (from 138 to 132 in Steyer’s case) was in his best interest. “My first tournament, I took my first loss in the finals at 138 (to Cole Houser of Ben Logan),” said Steyer. “I wasn’t cutting any weight. After that I cut to 132. There’s a huge difference between weight classes. You get up to 138, and those kids are cutting from like 152. I’m still small for 132, but I have a lot more success.”

Unlike Bretz, Steyer wrestled well in the 2017 districts, but he, too, has regrets. “In my semifinal match at districts I was up 6-2 and ended up getting pinned,” recalls Steyer. “I had state in my hands as a freshman and then I blew it, so I didn’t want that to happen again. I worked really hard this off season.”

Unlike in 2017, neither wrestler has any regrets about the 2018 districts.

Bretz cruised through his first round match (19-3 technical fall), pulled out a quarterfinal win 4-2 in the closing seconds, and won his action-packed semifinal 12-7, before getting pinned at 2:40 of the final by Buckeye’s Mike Clark.

Steyer had a tougher road. After a first round win by pin, he lost his quarterfinal match 5-4 to Columbian’s Caden Blust, forcing Steyer to work his way through the consolation bracket to earn a ticket to state, which he did. Steyer won the necessary, and grueling, four in a row — 13-5, 7-0, 5-4, and 10-0, all in one day.

Both wrestlers started wrestling in their pre-school years and have stuck with the sport almost uninterrupted until now. Collins described what has separated these two from the pack.

“Their passion for the sport is by far what’s made them successful,” said Collins. “But just having passion doesn’t get it done. Both of ‘em work extremely hard. They’ve both wrestled across America to try to find competition outside of the season where they can get better.”

Collins went on to explain the differences in the two personalities. “Isaiah is a kid that comes to practice every day, doesn’t talk a lot, just comes in, works hard, gets the job done, and leaves,” said Collins. “Gabe is more of a carefree kid who’s more open, who comes to practice and does the work to the best of his ability, likes to have fun with it, so he’s always joking.”

There’s also a difference in wrestling style. “For both of them being as successful as they are, they’re two completely different wrestlers,” added Collins. “Gabe is a strong kid, he’s athletic, he’s fast, knows a bunch of technique, doesn’t use a whole lot of different stuff. He’s more of a here-I-am-try-to-stop-me kind of guy. Isaiah isn’t as strong as Gabe, isn’t as fast as Gabe, but his technique and his flow — being able to move from one move to the next — is off the charts right now — he’s one of the best we’ve ever had at that.”

The goals for this coming weekend are also a bit different. “I would like to place (top eight), but I’m just gonna go down there and have fun,” said Bretz.

“I always told my coach I wanna be top five this year,” said Steyer. “I should’ve made it last year.”

“The expectations for these two are high,” said Collins. “This weekend I don’t see any reason why they can’t place if they wrestle to their abilities.”

Van Wert wrestlers have made it to the state tournament 32 times and have placed in the top eight nine times. No Van Wert wrestler has ever been a state champion. Ben Collins’s second place in 1999 was the best Cougar finish ever. Jason Roush made it to the state tournament three times — 2001-2-3 — and placed in 2002 (5th) and 2003 (6th). Brad Russell also went three times — 2000-1-2 — and was 5th in 2000. Van Wert sent three wrestlers (Roush, Russell, and Joel Penton), the most ever, to state in 2001.

Bretz is the son of Matt and Sherry Bretz. He has an older brother and an older sister. Steyer is the second of six children of Nick and Val Steyer. Bretz was on the football team, Steyer on the soccer team last fall.