Fredonia takes three, Gowanda takes one to Albany
ALBANY — Every year wrestlers start their new season with one goal in mind — make it to Albany.
This Friday, four of the areas wrestlers are going to live that dream, as later this week they are all going to make the trip down to the Times Union Center for the NYSPHSAA Division II wrestling championships.
Three of those four wrestlers will come from Fredonia, including Gio Russo (132), Dalton Gardner (138) and Ceric Kristan (170).
“It doesn’t get old — it’s like Christmas morning and wrestling all wrapped into one,” said Fredonia head coach Joe Santilli. “It’s been a heck of a season for us. The mood tends to change Friday night but the goal is to get to Saturday right now.”
Russo, a senior in his final season at Fredonia, won his first section championship at the Division II state qualifier tournament at Lake Shore a couple weeks ago. In that tournament, Russo got revenge over Iroquois’ Jacob Vergien after Vergien topped him the Class B final earlier in the postseason. Russo then went on to defeat Chautauqua Lake’s Austin Bourgeois to win his first Section VI title.
“There’s going to be some challenges but he’s ready to compete,” said Santilli. “He got a taste for it last year and he knows he’s more capable this year. He’s hungry.”
Russo will run into the state tournament with a 32-3 record on the season. The three-time captain for the Fredonia Hillbillies made the state tournament last season as a wildcard, but this season he was happy to earn his spot by himself.
Russo did get the short end of the stick with his state tournament seeding, getting placed in a rat tail match to start the tournament against Section X’s Vikram Ostrander.
“At 132 my feeling is that particular weight class has about eight or nine guys that all have the potential to win it so there’s no great spot to drop in,” said Santilli. “Under circumstances — I like Gio getting an early match. I think it’s an excellent opportunity for him to get himself right early in the tournament.”
For Gardner, he’ll enter the state tournament for the third time in his career as only a junior. In 2016, Gardner finished in fifth place at the state meet at 99 pounds, then competed again in 2017 at 113.
Now at 138 and two years removed from his last visit, Gardner wants to make some noise.
“Dalton is pretty level-headed to begin with,” said Santilli about Gardner making his third trip to states. “He doesn’t get too high or too low — he’s treating it like a mission. Nobody prepares like Dalton does.”
Gardner has the bloodlines with the state tournament too. That same year Gardner finished fifth at 99 pounds, his older brother Dakota placed second as the state runner-up at 152.
Gardner will enter the tournament as a wildcard, but he was still seeded No. 4 based on his previous stature within the sport. Gardner is placed on the same side of the bracket as No. 1 seeded Zach Braddell, who bested Gardner in back-to-back weekends in the last second in both the Class B finals and the Section VI finals.
“With Dalton losing to Braddell those last few weeks — he knows he’s right there,” said Santilli. “He’s very workman-like and he’s excited for another opportunity.”
Gardner will enter the tournament with a record of 39-5.
With Russo and Gardner, they’ve grown throughout their Fredonia careers, and along the way they’ve solidified their place in the Hillbilly record book.
“Aside from them having to drink a little water to weigh enough — not much has changed,” joked Santilli when asked about the growth of Russo and Gardner. “They were just kids then and now they’ve grown into men. They’re a joy to coach.”
As for Kristan, the Brocton sophomore will enter his first state tournament after winning his first Section VI title after finishing fourth in the tournament as a freshman. Kristan has been solid for the Hillbillies all season, and he’ll enter the tournament with a 36-6 record.
“We’ll take (Ceric) on a walk-around of the facility so he can see the process and going through the steps,” said Santilli about Kristan making his first trip to states. “Only he’s going to truly know what he’s feeling. I’ve been here with wrestlers for 12 years and they all react a little bit differently.”
With it being his first state tournament, Kristan got a tough draw to start off, as he’ll face Section V champion Sam Wolf to kick things off.
“Ceric has faced Wolf before and he’s no joke,” said Santilli. “Ceric is prepared to go out and compete to the best of his ability. He’s very capable of placing — we know it’s a deep class.”
Also entering the tournament will be Gowanda’s David Ball. Ball, also a sophomore, will enter the tournament with an undefeated 33-0 record on the season.
“He’s already been working hard,” said Gowanda head coach Ray Logan. “So far he’s doing everything he needs to in practice and if he shows up and wrestles like I know he can anything can happen this weekend.”
Ball has earned a No. 4 seed after winning a Section VI title over Iroquois’ Donovan Bukaczeski. With this being Ball’s first trip to states, it’s going to be an experience he won’t forget.
“He’s comfortable,” said Logan. “Everybody is in awe for a little bit once you see the arena and what it looks like. He’s going to have some jitters I’m sure but hopefully he stays patient when he takes the mat.”
Regardless of how the tournament goes, Ball has brought stability to the Gowanda wrestling program.
“I’d like to see him place,” said Logan. “He’s a big 106-pounder. He works hard to keep his weight down and I know he’ll be see some studs this weekend but I’m hoping he places. David has been a great addition to our program.”
Matches will start Friday around 10 a.m. from the Times Union Center in Albany. Follow along on Twitter @TheObserverNY for updates throughout the weekend.