Most wrestling programs, when they graduate three state champions, generally take a step backward the following season.
Losing one state champ is hard enough, two is even worse. But three?
And, to come back without one single senior in the starting lineup, most would look at that wrestling program and immediately say, "rebuilding year."
But, those words aren't in the vocabulary at Oak Harbor, where state champs Keith Witt, Kirk Tank and Cody Magrum can all graduate and the returning sophomores and juniors can step right in and not miss a beat.
"These kids have a tight knit group," said Oak Harbor coach George Bergman, now in his 16th year as the program's head coach. "They have real good chemistry. A lot of them have played baseball and football together growing up and they all came through our biddy program starting at age 5. We have kids that are willing to put in the time and work, and they've all known each other a long time and enjoy each other's company."
Despite the loss of experience, the coaches and media voted the Rockets as the preseason favorite to win the conference. And, with two weeks to go before the Sandusky Bay Conference Tournament begins, they have proven they were worthy of that preseason praise and are poised to win their third-straight SBC crown.
Two weeks ago, Oak Harbor went 7-0 at the SBC Duals, with its closest win coming by nine points to runner-up Edison. Even though the duals bear no weight on the conference champ, it firmly established the Rockets as the team to beat next week at Margaretta.
"Being the preseason favorite doesn't mean anything," Bergman said. "You'd rather be favored because there are decent wrestlers in this league. It's a compliment, but it doesn't settle anything. You've still got to go out and wrestle.
"The SBC is such a tough conference. Every year, you expect the unexpected."
The Rockets have three returning state qualifiers from last season's team - sophomores Konnor Witt (145) and Jake Cramer (125) and junior Mike Mallernee (160). All three have picked up where they left off last season, putting together fine records.
Also, sophomore Ian Miller (135), who was injured late in the year and missed out on the postseason fun, caught a lot of early attention with the way he wrestled three-time state champion David Taylor at the season-opening Walsh Jesuit Ironman Tournament. Miller didn't place, but Brian Brakeman has Miller being the last obstacle standing in Taylor's way for a fourth state championship.
Many times, Bergman mentioned "family" associated with his program. As it is, a lot of the current wrestlers have had older brothers who were successful with Oak Harbor earlier (Konnor, Keith and Kory Witt, for example). Some have younger brothers competing (junior Zach and freshman Alex Bergman, both George's sons, along with cousin Johnny Bergman) on the team.
But a prime example is that, since the team essentially grew up together, they are all like brothers.
"I've got a great relationship with the kids," Coach Bergman said. "I've known them all for 10 years. These kids have spent the night at our house, playing Xbox with our sons. It's really like an extended family. They're all like my sons."
There's been three Mallernee's with the program, four Bergman's and three Witts. Each sets the bar a little bit higher for that younger sibling when they come through the Rocket program.
The old adage "success breeds success" is true, in more ways than one, at Oak Harbor.
The lack of seniors doesn't mean there is a lack of leaders. Zach Bergman, Mike Mallernee and Drew Stone, three three-year junior starters, have asserted themselves as captains, and the team competes a lot older and experienced than they are technically are.
"We had seven seniors last year, but we also had seven freshmen and sophomores that were starting as well," Bergman said. "The freshmen and sophomores have stepped up and done a nice job for us.
"Last year, our experienced seniors were the upperweights and that's where we had the most success. This year, our experience lies in the lower weights, and that's where we've had the most success this season."
In keeping with the "family" theme, Bergman cited assistant coaches Bill Scherf, who joined the team when his oldest son, J.D. Bergman, was a freshman, and Aaron Bomer, a former head coach at Fostoria and Gibsonburg, as key reasons for the team's success.
"It's deceiving when people give me the credit," Bergman said. "One person can only do so much. These guys really help the program out so much and are invaluable to our success."
This weekend signals the end of the regular season in wrestling. Next Saturday, the six conferences or leagues that have area teams in it will hold their championship tournaments, which kicks off the countdown to state.
Here's a look at how some area teams will tuneup for the biggest stretch of the wrestling season:
n St. Mary Central Catholic will compete in the Grand Canyon Tri-Meet at Napoleon today. Other teams competing include the hosts, Oregon Clay and Defiance.
n Vermilion hosts Firelands in "Battle of Vermilion Rd." today, then travels to Bay for its final West Shore Conference dual of the season Friday night.
Firelands' season is done after the dual with the Sailors.
n Seneca East is hosting a dual meet tournament on Saturday. The complete list of teams is unknown at this time.
n Bellevue will host Sandusky in the two school's traditional season-ending dual meet on Friday night. Neither team will compete in a tournament Saturday.
n St. Paul and Norwalk travel to Rossford to take part in the Rossford Duals on Saturday.
n Perkins travels to Elgin for a tri-meet on Friday night.
n Willard and Huron will also be taking part in dual meet tournaments on Saturday. The Flashes travel to the Eastwood Invite, while the Tigers travel to the River Valley Duals.