Hillsboro junior Lane Cluff has qualified for his second straight Division II OHSAA State Wrestling Tournament this weekend. (HCP Photo/Stephen Forsha)
Hillsboro junior Lane Cluff has qualified for his second straight Division II OHSAA State Wrestling Tournament this weekend. (HCP Photo/Stephen Forsha)
There are always lessons learned when an athlete first competes at the OHSAA State Wrestling Tournament in front of thousands of spectators on the biggest stage for high school wrestling. Hillsboro junior Lane Cluff was no exception to that rite of passage, but this year he's returning with experience – and even better, improved skills – ­in his style of wrestling, which could bring better results this time around.

Last year as a sophomore, Cluff became just the fourth 285-pound weight class wrestler to become a state qualifier for the Hillsboro Indians, as he followed the path set by Chris Fuller back in 1984, Todd Cole in 1985-86 and Jason Dearman in 1994. Since Cluff joined the varsity ranks as a freshman in the 2015-16 season, he has built a very solid resumé of an overall record of 100-25, three straight seasons of at least 20 wins and two straight seasons of 35 or more wins, and he's gradually improved throughout each season.

 


As a freshman, Cluff was 20-10 overall, where he finished fifth at sectionals. Then, last season, it all came together for Cluff – who didn't begin wrestling until junior high – when he finished 35-11 overall while placing second in the South Central Ohio League (SCOL), sectionals and districts on his way to becoming a state qualifier for the first time.

After going winless in two matches last season at the state tournament at the Jerome Schottenstein Center on the campus of The Ohio State University, Cluff worked with first-year head coach Greg Rhoads – a four-time state qualifier when he wrestled for the Indians – and switched some aspects of his wrestling strategy. With those changes, Cluff had his best season to date.

"I've changed the way I wrestle this year by trying to go to the legs more and not so much the upper body. I've wrestled a lot better this year, more consistent," Cluff said. "I've put in more practice, practiced harder and gotten better at things than I was last year and have become more confident in it.

"I move my feet more compared to years past. I use my feet more to set things up instead of just standing there to overpower people. The change was hard at first, but we've progressed into it throughout the season. As we worked on it, we've gotten better at it and more used to it. The change isn't very mental because it is about the same by just going to attack. The difference is going down to the legs and getting used to that, but getting used to it comes from practice in the room."

In his current junior season, Cluff has a record of 45-4 overall, as he earned a first-place finish at sectionals for the first time, and he was district runner-up for the second consecutive year to earn a second straight ticket to the state tournament.

Coach Rhoads said Cluff is better on his feet this season, which is what he and the Hillsboro coaching staff have worked on with Cluff this season.

"He's better on his feet. One of the things in wrestling is the more your feet are moving, and if you out-move the opponent you have a better chance to succeed, which is what we've been working on with all of the wrestlers," Rhoads said. "Seeing him succeed and putting in the things from practice that we are preaching make you proud. It lets you know what you are teaching is getting through to him."

Cluff will be facing senior Travis Kuttler of Minerva, a wrestler who has an overall record of 41-7 this season, in the first round at state Thursday, March 8. In his state debut last year, Cluff wrestled strong in the first round but lost narrowly by a 3-2 decision, and then he also lost in the first consolation round.

That path to return for a second appearance at state saw Cluff switch up his style of wrestling, working more on moving his feet and attacking his opponent in a different way.

Cluff said his take on the state tournament is also different than a year ago as he has gained experience from his first trip to state last season.

"I look at the state tournament a lot different now than I did last year," Cluff said. "This year, I've already been there, I know what it is going to be like coming out of the tunnel and know what it is going to be like trying to perform in front of that many people. Maybe I won't be as nervous walking out of the tunnel as I was the first time last year.

"It was crazy. At districts, there are maybe 1,000 people there, and at state you walk out of the tunnel and look up and you are surrounded (by people). It is a completely different atmosphere to wrestle in. It was kind of hard to focus on your match when there were seven other matches going on at the same time. It is a great feeling, though."

With the change to more of a grind attack compared to standing last season, Cluff said there was a tournament in Athens where he felt the consistency of the new style all come together, as this season he gained his career-high in wins as well.

"At the tournament in Athens is when I felt the consistency came for me this year," Cluff said. "There I beat a kid that beat me earlier in the season and who wrestled pretty solid that whole tournament. To get over 40 wins in a season, I felt like I was just doing things right. I was able to put together a lot better matches and wins."

Looking back at his four losses this season, Cluff stated that Coach Rhoads has helped with him by not only using his experiences from wrestling, but helped him get over a loss quickly and move on to the next match.

"Coach Rhoads has taught me that I can't get hung up on a loss, and you have to let them go and learn from them and move on to the next match," Cluff said. "This year, learning to move on from a loss has been a lot harder than the past couple years.

"The past couple years, it seemed like I would get a loss in the first couple matches and I'd have to get over it. This year, my first loss wasn't until halfway through the season. That first loss, I let it get to my head, and I know that can't happen."

Coach Rhoads said this season, Cluff is a more physical wrestler than before.

"Lane has gotten more physical this season," Rhoads said. "He wrestles with a little bit more confidence after last season, and he's set some high goals for himself. Anytime you have goals like that, sometimes they don't pan out, and losses happen.

"I thought he handled those well for the most part, and it got him back on track. He understood there are still things to work on. He's handled that pretty well, and that is all you can ask from a kid … not to quit on that and come back and get to work."

With this weekend's state tournament, Cluff wants to gain wins this season and has a goal of being the first Hillsboro wrestler in the 285-pound weight class to place at the podium.

"My goal is to get to the podium and to place," Cluff said. "Being a two-time state qualifier is special, but I want to be the first heavyweight to place."

As the state tournament is the final event of the season, Coach Rhoads said if Cluff is able to put all he's learned and achieved together this season, success will follow.

"We've tailored our practices and some of our meets for him to peak at the end of the season, and if he puts that together, he can be on the podium," Rhoads said.