Behind Smith, Golden Bears seek third straight title

J. Patrick Eaken

If anyone is not convinced yet that Gibsonburg sophomore Connor Smith is an all-around athlete, they might want to reflect on what he’s done so far.

In his sophomore year on the football field, the running back ran for 1,639 yards on 213 carries, averaging 7.7 yards per carry and scoring 19 touchdowns. He also caught a 57-yard pass, scoring another TD, plus he had 105 tackles on defense, including 24 combined sacks and tackles for a loss and two interceptions.

Now, the sophomore moves on to wrestling and he is already a state qualifier. Last year as a freshman, Smith went 34-5 and qualified for the Division III state meet, but did not get to wrestle in Columbus because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

He was Gibsonburg’s first-ever freshman state qualifier and Gibsonburg seventh-year coach Greg Spoores believes Smith would have likely been a state placer.

“Smith is a very dedicated athlete and a natural leader,” said Spoores. “Had state not been canceled last year I believe he would have been a top five placer as a freshman. He is a gifted athlete and more importantly a very coachable kid. I believe with his work ethic and dedication as an athlete he will make his way to the top of the podium at state over the course of the next three years of his high school career.”

Of course, Smith is one element to a team that won a Sandusky Bay Conference River Division championship last year, scoring 111 points to defeat second place Hopewell-Loudon (52), followed by Sandusky St. Mary (35), Lakota (29), Tiffin Calvert (19) and Fremont St. Joseph (3). The other five teams combined barely scored enough points to equal the Golden Bears.

Last year’s team was 11-0 in dual meets, won the GBI and Mohawk invitationals, was third at sectionals and 11th at districts.

When you consider Gibsonburg returns 12 lettermen from that team, they have to be a preseason favorite to win their third straight league championship and sixth in seven years.

Besides Smith, returning are senior Lucas Zamudio and junior Dominick Whetsel, both district champions. 

“These wrestlers should lead the team not only by example in the room but in competition as well. We expect big things from these young men,” Spoores said. “I believe our strengths are leadership and dedication from our underclassmen. These young men are always putting in the work whether it is during practice or in the weight room before and after practice.” 

Go down the line, and Gibsonburg has strength at nearly every weight class, but not all.

“Juniors Antonio Villarreal and D.J. Ornlef should be ready to step up and shine coming off 26-13 and 27-14 seasons their sophomore years, respectfully,” Spoores said. “Sophomores Alex Porteous and Bryson Stevens are also looking to make the varsity lineup and contribute this season. Newcomer Andrew Ickes could also contribute. 

“With the returning wrestlers we have and some younger kids looking to contribute as well, we fully expect to compete for the top spot in the SBC River Division again this year.”

The SBC does things a little bit differently — River Division wrestlers compete in the same tournament with Bay and Lake divisional wrestlers, but the points are separated out to determine a championship in each division. 

That gives Gibsonburg grapplers a chance to take on guys in their weight classes from the larger schools. Last year, Gibsonburg won a River Division title and Oak Harbor won a Bay Division title, but neither had any individual champions. Connor Smith reached the championship, but was pinned by Sandusky’s Elijah Hunter in 1:39. Jonathan Auld (145) also finished second and Hunter Smith (220) was third, but both graduated.

“With all three divisions competing in our league tournament I strongly believe it is one of the toughest league tournaments in Northwest Ohio if not the whole state,” Spoores said.

“I like it in the sense that it is a very tough tournament,” Spoores said. “It’s more than a tune-up before sectionals — it’s probably tougher than most kids’ district tournaments in Ohio. I think (last) year we counted 91 state-ranked kids between Division II and Division III that were in the tournament. It’s a very, very tough league tournament.”

Spoores adds that even with a dozen returning lettermen, he still has weight classes open which could be an issue when it comes to team scoring.

“If I had to pick a weakness it would be the three open spots in the lineup we have,” Spoores said. “Wrestling is one of the toughest sports in high school and many kids are not willing to put in the work and make the sacrifices necessary to succeed. The kids we do have are hard workers and will give their all to be successful”

Spoores has brought continuing success to Gibsonburg, winning Toledo City League championships three consecutive seasons (2015-17), not wrestling in a league in 2018, and then winning two straight SBC River Division titles in 2019 and 2020. 

In his first six years, Gibsonburg has a combined 69-25 dual meet record, eight state qualifiers and four state placers.





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