A small community that not many people know about dwells in the Mahoning Valley.
It's a members-only club, but anyone can sign up. Age, race, size, gender and religion mean nothing to these folks. People respect one another. There is no high- or low-class individual. It's a one-class society.
But this neighborhood isn't for everybody.
It's not always the nicest place. People get pushed, slammed, dropped and put in positions that would make Gumby squirm. Black eyes, scrapes, bruises and battered faces are as prevalent here as they are in the projects. And I haven't even mentioned the scariest part.
Your worst fears are put out in front of everyone who's part of the community, and you're forced to stand and face them. This is what keeps most from entering, and it's also what keeps those who are a part of the crew around forever.
"Most people last two weeks and say, 'This is the hardest thing I've ever done - I ain't doing this,' " said Scott Lewis, a member of the Hubbard contingent. "That's why I respect any kid that comes out and sticks with it."
You can be publicly humiliated as hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people watch, and then have to shake the person's hand who caused the humiliation. But don't worry, no one laughs afterward, because they all know they could be next.
Food isn't as scarce as most think. In fact, oranges are as abundant here as they are on a Florida farm. People protect themselves from diseases with ointments and creams and guard themselves from long-term injuries with knee pads (just don't ever smell the things).
But enough oddly worded suspense. The wrestling community (also known as the Eastern Ohio Wrestling League) is something I've been a part of since 1992, and it's a place I'll always be happy to visit. The respect I hold for anyone who is part of the sport is the reason I do an in-depth preview on the sport every year. The people who make up the EOWL deserve it.
Every school, whether it's a powerhouse or a nobody, always brings a few "studs" (a term used by those in the community to describe a good wrestler) to the league tournament. It's not odd for a kid from Jackson-Milton, which graduates less than 75 students most years, to beat someone from a Division I school. The balance of power is one of the many aspects that make the league intriguing.
The earlier notions about "the community" weren't jokes. No matter your descent; your size or your spiritual beliefs - you're welcome to wrestle. The gender barrier seems to be gone as well. Howland senior Corri Sayre is a captain at one of the most prestigious EOWL schools in its history. She's wrestled four years for the Tigers, and while she's only seen limited time on the varsity level, that's not as important in this sport as it is in others. Simply making it through one year of practices and having the guts to put yourself out in front of everyone is 90 percent of the battle.
"Wrestling's like no other sport," said Lewis, who was an assistant at Hubbard for 20 years before taking over the head job this season. "You're the only one out there. You can't blame it on this person or that person. When you accomplish something, you accomplish it on your own, which most kids don't like. They wanna say, 'Hey, I did my job. We lost because of this or that.'
"The conditioning and the physical strain you put on your body day in and day out is unlike any other sport."
OK, I'll chill out on my everlasting love for the sport and talk briefly about the season. It started a little early this year, and while most of the coaches are great guys, they're not all grammatically gifted nor spelling-bee champions, so it took me a while to piece this preview together.
A few major changes come in Division I of the EOWL. Howland will have one of the best wrestlers in the league - and the state - in junior David-Brian Whisler, but the Tigers are going to struggle as a team, which hasn't happened in a long, long time. On the flip side, Austintown Fitch is back. The Falcons endured a few rough seasons after being one of the dominant programs in the league for about 20 years, but it's obvious after cruising to wins over Boardman and Howland that they've got a very talented team this year and for the foreseeable future.
One thing that will stay the same is Canfield is again the team to beat in Division I. The Cardinals are loaded with talent from top to bottom, and after beating Fitch last Wednesday, they have a clear path to the D-I dual meet title.
Coach Dean Conley has his sights set on an EOWL tournament championship after missing out last season "left a bad taste in our mouth." They'll have to get through defending-champion West Branch to accomplish that, and the Warriors, who are not featured in the preview because of their proximity, will again be stacked. So will Poland, which moved up from Division III to Division II. The Bulldogs will battle West Branch for D-II supremacy.
Division III will likely be owned by Girard, although Jackson-Milton could have something to say about that. The Indians lost just one senior from a team that was mere points away from knocking off Poland for the EOWL dual meet title last year. The Blue Jays also lost just one senior, and coach Dave Tomaino spoke highly of the upcoming classes last year, but he changed his tune recently. Still, I wouldn't count out Jackson-Milton. The Blue Jays are a renowned wrestling school, and they have the talent to beat anyone in Division III.
But I don't want to steal my own thunder and take away from the preview. Please, give it a look. Maybe you'll like what you see and attempt to join the community.
P.S. Bring oranges.