It’s not something that occurs very frequently, two wrestlers ranked in the top five in the same weight class in the same school district.
But that’s been the situation since the start of the 2021 season for Cael Black and Ethan Finch, student-athletes in the Warren County School District (WCSD). Both Black and Finch are ranked in the 215-pound weight class by PA Power Wrestling, with the former holding down the third spot and the latter the fourth.
Though students in the WCSD, Black and Finch attend different high schools.
Black, a junior, is enrolled at Eisenhower Middle/High School, located in the northern part of the WCSD, whereas Finch, a senior, goes to Sheffield Area Middle/High School in the eastern part of the county. Eisenhower competes in District 10, Sheffield in District 9.
In a manner of speaking, Black was born into the sport, as his father is Eisenhower’s head wrestling coach, Kris Black. Despite being around the sport since he was in diapers, helping clean up after matches and hanging out with the wrestlers in the high school practice room, Black did not take to competition right away.
“I loved watching the older guys wrestle, but I did not like wrestling. My first couple of years of wrestling my experiences were terrible. I lost probably every match. I really enjoyed being there (at tournaments), but when I actually walked out on the mat to do it, it was not enjoyable,” noted Black.
A takedown lesson at a novice tournament in Kane, during which his father showed the young grappler how to make use of his size and strength, proved to be a game-changer.
Relayed Coach Black, “Surprisingly he’s still doing it (wrestling). He didn’t win one match his first two years. It just clicked all of a sudden (after the lesson at the Kane tournament), and he went out and won. He probably won 10 in a row after that. He kid of embraced that (wrestling) and he’s done a pretty good job so far.”
That Black has done a “pretty good job” is somewhat of an understatement. In possession of a career 82-20 record as of this writing, he has qualified for states the past two seasons, taking sixth a year ago at 220 pounds. He won 34 matches as a freshman and 37 as a sophomore.
Finch didn’t start wrestling until he moved to Sheffield in the third grade. Finch liked the sport from the start, primarily because of its challenge.
“I thought it was different. It was challenging. The competition was harder than anything else,” Finch explained.
His development as a wrestler did not go unnoticed by Sheffield’s head coach, Jack Rice, who noted, “I remember Ethan from the elementary program. His biggest issue was he was always growing so quick, his muscles never caught up with him.
“In ninth grade, he had a big growth spurt and I remember saying, ‘Right now he’s like a Ferrari with a moped engine, but once that catches up he’s going to turn some heads.’ And, sure enough, between his freshman and sophomore years his muscles kind of caught up.”
Finch rebounded from a 16-14 freshman season to go 31-11 as a sophomore, winning districts and ultimately qualifying for states as a 170-pounder. He improved upon that last year, posting a 34-12 mark and taking sixth in Hershey at 182 pounds.
“I really started to come on my sophomore year, was one point away from placing at states. I just lifted a lot more, I got a lot bigger, went to one of the toughest camps in the country over the summer (between his sophomore and junior season),” remarked Finch.
Stylistically Black and Finch are different wrestlers.
Black has become a force in the neutral position, attacking legs as a core component of his offense.
Conversely, Finch is a mat wrestler, taking advantage of his length to create leverage and win the position battle.
Discussing Black’s style, his coach said, “He was very defensive his freshman year, but he’s really kind of opened up a lot, especially in the past year, year-and-a-half. We made a pretty concentrated effort to change his style last year, making him more offensive and attacking the legs a lot more.
“A lot of big guys don’t like to do that. Now he’s pretty solid on his feet, taking more shots and trying to be more offensive.”
“I’ve watched some videos of Cael. He’s very strong on his feet,” agreed Sheffield’s Rice.
In addition to becoming more offensive-minded, the younger Black points to conditioning as an important factor in his success.
He explained, “Cardio is something I really stress. When it comes down to those last 30 seconds, that last-minute where I really have to get a takedown, I feel confident that I can (because of his stamina).”
Talking about Finch’s style on the mat, Rice said, “He has the frame that you see in college wrestling, he’s very tall. Those long limbs create a lot of leverage and he has the muscle to go with it. And he has very good hips, he’s just a very difficult person to get out of position.”
Coach Black concurred, adding, “He’s (Finch) a big, long kid and he’s got that reach advantage. Not taking anything away from him on his feet, but he is extremely dominant on top. He’s a leech. He’s got those long arms, he rides legs well and puts cradles in.”
Finch feels his mental strength also gives him an advantage, saying, “My mindset is ‘nobody can make you the best except yourself.’”
Though their styles might differ, Black and Finch each enjoy wrestling primary because of its one-on-one nature and need for self-reliance.
“Football (which Black plays) is a team sport, you’re out on the field with all these other guys. In wrestling, it’s you. All the time that you put into it is what you’re going to get out of it. I really push hard to try and be successful. I work really hard,” explained Black.
Noted Finch, “It’s that aspect, how it’s you and nobody else. You have nobody else to blame but yourself.”
As the regular season begins to wind down and the postseason approaches, both are focused on the same thing: winning a state championship.
Though that is clearly the short-term plan, Black and Finch are also looking beyond high school. Black wants to wage another successful campaign on the mat next year as a senior, all the while preparing himself to be a student-athlete at the college level. He would like to major in sports psychology.
Finch recently committed to attend the University of Pittsburgh, where, in addition to wrestling, he’ll be a biology/pre-med major in anticipation of attending medical school.
Interestingly enough, though students in the same school district and competing in the NW Region of the state, Black and Finch have never met on the mat at any level of competition. And, depending on their respective postseason plans, that might not occur this year either.
Of course, living and competing in such close proximity, each has seen the other wrestle. This has fostered mutual respect between the two.
Said Black, “I think he’s (Finch) a tremendous wrestler. Our styles are a lot different so it would be really impossible to compare us as wrestlers. He’s really tough on top, really likes to get on the mat and turn people and that’s not where I want to be.”
Echoed Finch, “I think he’s (Black) a good wrestler. Obviously, if you’re at that level you have to work hard. It just doesn’t come to you.”