August 21, 2014

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Althlete of the Year: Nick Tavanello is a big kid with a bigger heart

Nick Tavanello began his wrestling career by going three years without winning a match. He ended the high school portion of it by winning three state championships in a row.

Also a standout football player at Wadsworth, the 2012 Gazette Senior Male Athlete of the Year went where no Medina County wrestler had gone before, becoming the first person from the area to win three state titles.

Wadsworth’s Nick Tavanello is the Gazette Male Athlete of the Year. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY RON SCHWANE)

By winning at 215 pounds as a sophomore and junior and at heavyweight as a senior, the Ohio State recruit also became just the third wrestler in the 75-year history of the state tournament to win three crowns at 215 or higher.

A two-time Gazette MVP in the sport and four-time all-county pick, Tavanello finished his illustrious high school career with a 179-10 record, with six of those losses coming his freshman year, when he finished third in the state at 215.

The county leader in career victories, the 5-foot-11, 250-pound Tavanello won his last 117 matches against Ohio opponents, which just about evened out his first three years in a sport he started when he was 5 years old.

“I was a big kid,” Tavanello said. “I couldn’t play youth football because I couldn’t make weigh-ins, and in wrestling I had to wrestle kids three years older than me because all the kids my age were smaller.

“The first three years I wrestled, I didn’t win a match. That gave me the motivation to work harder and helped me build up my competitive streak. I just wanted to compete and get better. I’m sure there was a time when I wanted to quit, because most kids do when they’re not having success, but I stuck with it and eventually starting winning.”

Boy, did he ever.

The youngest of Tom and Deb Tavanello’s two children — Marah graduated from Wadsworth in 2009 and now attends Ohio State — finished his Wadsworth career with 24 tournament titles.

The young man who hopes to become the Ohio State wrestling team’s starter at heavyweight also was a two-time All-Gazette choice and three-year letterwinner in football as a two-way lineman. Tavanello was a special mention All-Ohio choice as a junior and second-team all-state pick as a senior, when he helped the Grizzlies to an 11-2 record and the Division I, Region 2 championship game.

“He’s a grounded individual,” 29-year Wadsworth wrestling coach John Gramuglia said. “He’s a throwback. Him as a person is what made him so special. They don’t come along like him often.

“He loves the grandparents, loves his parents, doesn’t mind being around the coach or teacher. He probably should have been born in the ’60s.”

Youth wrestling

Tavanello was never a little kid. He was once a young kid, but he was never a little kid.

“He was a doughboy,” Gramuglia said. “He’s one of those kids you would squeeze and say, ‘Hey, cutie.’ But I’ll tell you what: When it was on the line, he brought it.”

The problem for Tavanello was that he had to bring it against kids who were almost twice as old as him. When he was 5, he wrestled kids who were 8, sometimes 9 years old, because they were the only people in his weight class. He took his share of drubbings, but always came back for more.

Not only that, Tavanello actually looked forward to coming back for more. The wrestling room, where he was going against older kids who were the same size as him, was one of the few places where he didn’t have to hold back as a youngster.

“When he was a young kid, he had to be careful around kids his own age,” Gramuglia said. “It wasn’t like if you threw a ball out, he’d dive on the pile and kill everybody. That would be viewed as bullying, and he’s way too nice a kid to do that.

“He doesn’t get mad at other people, and it comes from always being so big. He doesn’t have to win at everything. In the backyard, when he’s playing volleyball, he’s not crazy. But when it’s for real, he doesn’t like to lose.”

When it was for real, Tavanello almost never lost — after those initial three years.

When he was in sixth grade, he was already 5-foot-9 and weighed close to 180 pounds, which was the heavyweight limit for that age group. He won the youth state championship.

When he was in eighth grade, he wrestled at 209 pounds and won a junior high state championship.

“Athletics have given me the discipline I have today,” Tavanello said. “Without sports, I’d be another kid who sits home and does nothing all day. Sports have helped me develop into who I am.

“I’m not a mean guy. I’m nice. If you come up and talk to me, I’ll talk to you. I’m friendly. I usually keep my cool.”

The gridiron

Due in large part to the strength, leverage and balance he developed through wrestling, Tavanello was a beast on the football field, so much so that Wadsworth coach Greg Dennison believes his two-way lineman would have had his choice of D-I colleges if he was 6-4.

On offense, Tavanello helped pave the way for tailback Jack Snowball, The Gazette’s MVP in the sport and Associated Press Division I co-Offensive Player of the Year, to rush for 2,595 yards and score 32 touchdowns, both county records.

On defense, the Tav-manian Devil filled his gaps and did all the little things right, but also had a knack for busting into the backfield and making big plays at key moments.

“He had a lot of natural ability, but if you put his competitiveness and his toughness and how hard he worked all together, that’s what made him special,” Dennison said. “Everybody respected him and liked him.

“He had everything you could ask for. He was strong, he always had good leverage on people and he came up with big plays when we needed them. His competitiveness drove him. He was going to do whatever he needed to do to be successful and help his team win.”

Just like the early stages of his wrestling career, Tavanello had to work to achieve success on the gridiron.

In his junior year, the Grizzlies suffered a ton of injuries — Snowball missed virtually the entire season — and eventually lost their focus, leading to a 3-7 record.

“Things just kept happening to us,” Tavanello said. “It was an experience, but it really showed us what we needed to do to get better. We got in the weight room and went to work, and it brought us together and made us better teammates.”

Everything came together in Tavanello’s senior season, when the Grizzlies were among the final eight teams playing in the D-I playoffs.

“It was a season to remember,” Tavanello said. “Everyone did their job. Everyone did what they were supposed to do. We played our hearts out and did exactly what we needed to do to accomplish what we did.”

Title town

It’s extremely difficult for a 215-pound wrestler to make a major impact as a freshman because he’s usually going against older, more mature competitors, but Tavanello, who did the same thing when he was 5 years old, wasn’t the average ninth-grader.

He wasn’t the average 10th-grader, 11th-grader or 12th-grader, either, for that matter.

“He never got fazed by anything,” Gramuglia said. “The situation was never too big or too tense for him. He just went out and did his job. That’s what I told Ohio State: ‘You’re going to love him. He doesn’t get rattled.’”

Tavanello certainly didn’t get rattled as a sophomore, when his first state title at 215 pounds also clinched the D-I team title for Wadsworth, making the Grizzlies the first public school in 33 years to win the crown.

“I’m going to remember him forever for that,” Gramuglia said. “You put that on a sophomore; how many sophomores would hold up in front of 17,000 people?”

Tavanello’s junior year brought more of the same, as he went undefeated against Ohio wrestlers to win another title at 215.

“There was a little more pressure that year,” he said. “Winning states put a target on my back and made people want to work harder against me.”

Tavanello kept working just as hard. After accepting a scholarship from Ohio State, which wanted him to wrestle heavyweight as a high school senior to prepare him for college, where the highest weight class before heavyweight is 197, Tavanello faced his biggest challenge yet.

“When I committed, they wanted me to go to heavyweight to get a taste of wrestling bigger guys,” he said. “I adjusted pretty well, but I’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

The results didn’t change. Tipping the scales at 245 pounds, Tavanello once again went undefeated against Ohio opponents and won another state championship, making him the most decorated high school wrestler in county history.

“The best thing about Nick is the success never changed him,” Gramuglia said. “He actually became a better person through his success. He knew what he had earned and what he had, and he shared it with his family and others.”

The future

As big and strong as Tavanello is, he could be an intimidating presence if he wanted to be. The 18-year-old with the closely cropped blond hair can bench press 350 pounds, squat 500 and deadlift 525, but he goes out of his way to be friendly and put others at ease.

“My mom used to be a juvenile delinquent officer,” he said. “She kept me on the straight and narrow.”

It doesn’t look like Tavanello is going to veer off that path any time soon. He made it a point to thank Gramuglia, assistant wrestling coach Jerry Nadeau, football line coach Sean Flaherty and the late Mike Kallai, a fixture around the Wadsworth wrestling program, for all the help they provided him over the last four years.

Tavanello, who had a 3.74 grade-point average at Wadsworth and plans on majoring in business administration at Ohio State, also made it clear he doesn’t plan on resting on his laurels once he joins the Buckeyes wrestling program.

“I would like to be an All-American and win the Big Ten, but that’s thinking way too far ahead,” he said. “My main goal right now is to break into the lineup. That’s a competition in itself.”

Having survived three years of losing as a youth, Tavanello plans on winning that competition at some point.

“Ohio State has some tough kids and they’re working hard for the same spot I want,” he said. “I’m going to a whole new tier of wrestling. They weed out all the weaker competition. Every match I have is going to be like a state championship.”

Fortunately for Tavanello, he’s undefeated in those.

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com.