Nobody took Calumet College seriously when it showed up at the American Midwest Conference Wrestling Championships last weekend.
The program had only joined the conference back in September and showed up in Des Moines with four wrestlers. One hadn't even wrestled a match, another just one.
"We were like the step child," Crimson Wave coach Dan Bedoy said.
That perception changed by tournament's end, when Cal College's Josh Fuqua (Crown Point) and David Whitaker (Simeon, Chicago) won titles and Nick Fowler (Calumet) took third.
"I knew we had the potential to do it, but we were a long ways from potential on paper," Bedoy said. "A couple of them hadn't competed consistently for two years. There were a lot of eligibility issues. There's a lot of red tape, calling schools to try to dig up transcripts. It's a long process. I wouldn't call it the Miracle on Ice, but it was pretty cool to see it all come together."
Bedoy took over the program last summer with hopes of tapping into the Region's fertile wrestling ground. It's not happening overnight. The team started the season with 13 or 14 athletes and settled in at eight or nine for much of the season before having just the four at conference.
"We've had a problem with retention," Bedoy said. "One of the things we're trying to identify is the type of kid who will come here. Division I wrestling isn't realistic for every kid, If they don't want to give up the sport, they'll go three, four hours away, but a lot of times they end up back home and out of wrestling."
That's the crux of Fuqua's story. The 2014 Crown Point graduate wrestled a year at Millikin in Decatur, Illinois, but his interest waned and after finishing out his school work as a sophomore, he returned home.
"I just wasn't feeling it there," Fuqua said. "I knew Dan was taking over. He's a great coach. I knew it was a good decision to come here and represent Northwest Indiana."
Fowler's path back to wrestling in the Region was also a circuitous one. He had started out at the Cumberlands in Kentucky, but was back in the area attending school. Bedoy saw him working out at World's Gym and when he found out he wasn't wrestling anymore, he told him about Cal College.
"If guys still have a passion to compete athletically, it's a great opportunity," Bedoy said. "They can get a degree at an affordable cost. We're trying to build a program, but we're also building strong, young men into becoming future leaders in the area."
A state medalist as a junior, Fuqua spent part of the season caught up in transfer paperwork and when Bedoy lined up a few late-season tournaments to get him some mat time, weather grounded them. Unfazed by the 0-0 record and two nationally-ranked opponents in his 157-pound bracket, Fuqua registered a pin and two decisions before a technical fall in the finals. Whitaker won at 195 and Fowler placed at 285, earning a berth in the NAIA nationals March 2-3 back in Des Moines.
"I've wrestled a million matches since I was 4," Fuqua said. "I just had the mindset of a competitor. We've got short numbers, but it's really sparking a fire in us. I think we're going to have three All-Americans. We're all pushing each other. We want to make Northwest Indiana proud."
Bedoy and Fuqua both hope the trio's success spurs an interest in the team around the Region, letting good wrestlers know that they don't have to hang up the singlet and headgear just because the D-Is didn't come calling or if they don't want to leave NWI.
"I'm excited about the future of the program," Fuqua said. "We have a legit little setup. Guys don't have to go far away to get the best competition, it's right here in front of you."