Blackburn steps down as Big Red mat coach
River grad Huffman elevated from assistant
STEUBENVILLE — While Steubenville High School is widely known for its football program, Mike Blackburn did his best to turnaround the Big Red wrestling program.
In 16 seasons as the head coach, Blackburn’s teams won 273 dual meets, eight Ohio Valley Athletic Conference Bill Hinegardner Class 4A and 5A Dual Meet Tournament championships, along with five OVAC Ron Mauck Class 4A titles and one overall crown.
Blackburn recently announced that he is stepping down as the head coach to spend more time with his family, but he’s not stepping away from the program he helped to resurrect. He will serve as an assistant to new head coach Lucas Huffman, who has been by Blackburn’s side for the last 12 campaigns.
“We’ve been pretty blessed with a lot of great coaches and some pretty amazing kids, too,” Blackburn said of his time at Big Red. “We had a rocky start to begin with when I came in here with trying to rebuild everything. From Ralph Petrella up we’ve had some good kids to help kick-start the program.
“Once we got it rolling, we had some unbelievable wrestlers and some unbelievable young men come through here,” he added. “The support the school gives for athletics and wrestling, is amazing. We’re definitely a football school, but we’ve always had support for the wrestling team.
“We’re like a family, as well,” Blackburn continued. “If the kids have gone away to college they always come back and want to work out in the (wrestling) room. The kids that stay around here and work, they’re the same way. It’s nice to have kids like that who talk to you, communicate with you by email or text, and just want to be around because they know they were part of something special here.”
Under Blackburn’s tutelage, approximately 25-30 Big Red wrestlers have went on to further their academic and athletic careers at the collegiate level, with most of them competing at the D-I and D-II.
“We were fortunate enough to have some good wrestlers that wanted to continue their careers and most of them had a wide selection of schools to select from,” Blackburn noted. “They were not only good wrestlers, but good students, as well.”
If he has one regret during his elongated tenure at Big Red, it’s not having a single state champion.
“We had seven in the finals. There were a couple that we thought could’ve and probably should’ve won state titles,” Blackburn said in recalling Division II state championship matches involving Tariq Wilson and Greg Moray right off the top of his head. “Tariq just didn’t wrestle like he was capable of the one year and Greg was winning by a point late in the match only to get called for stalling and then losing in overtime.”
Another individual who had a legitimate shot at a state title was Branko Busick.
“He got hurt while winning in the quarterfinals and couldn’t continue,” Blackburn remembered. “He would have won a state title.”
Steubenville also won seven Division II sectional championships, a pair of Eastern District titles and were district runnersup five times. They were also Division II Regional Dual kingpins in 2016 and 2021, as well as state semifinalists those two years. Blackburn coached 61 sectional titlists, 22 district champs and had 30 state placers. He was twice named D-II Coach of the Year and OVAC Class 4A Coach of the Year five times, while being a three-time finalist for the OVAC Bill Van Horne Coach of the Year award.
The 2012 Big Red team is the only school to defeat Parkersburg South in the OVAC Ron Mauck Tournament.
The cupboard is far from bare as Steubenville returns eight district qualifiers and one state qualifier from 2020-21.
“We’re still going to roll like we always have. He’s been around forever and has a great wrestling knowledge,” Blackburn said of Huffman who graduated from River High School and West Liberty University “He’s ready to go. We’re going to get better and be even better down the road.”
Huffman can’t wait for his first head coaching gig.
“I’m really excited to get started. I’ve definitely got some big shoes to fill because Mike has done a wonderful job with the program since he took it over,” Huffman said. “I’m just glad to be a part of it.
“Just because we’re switching job titles, our mission still remains the same,” Huffman stressed. “We want to put a good product out on the mat; we want to teach these kids to be respectful; and we want them to excel in the classroom.”
Huffman has quite an impressive resume on the mat, both scholastically and collegiately.
He was a three-time state qualifier during his days at River. He was a state runnerup at 112 pounds his junior season and finished fifth as a senior. He placed all four years at the OVACs, finishing first as a junior and second as a senior. He was sixth as a freshman before improving a spot as a sophomore.
A four-year starter for the Hilltoppers at 125 pounds, he capped his college career as a national qualifier in 2008.
Ian Whittington will remain on the staff.
“Ian is great with the kids. He has a wealth of knowledge of the sport,” Huffman said.