CEDAR LAKE | Not that this is common (insert joke here) but on Thursday night I was reaching for some more mashed potatoes when some major news broke. Right in front me when I wasn't even looking.
Love this job, but it's still hard to get 90 minutes off the clock.
I was at the Hanover Central Winter Sports Banquet to honor one kid close to home and a lot of other great ones, too, when Nick Petrov took his turn on the stage. There was something dramatic in the air.
The legendary Wildcats wrestling coach let the full room know he would not be returning after 10 years on the job. His resume is thicker than a plate piled with mashed potatoes.
At a small wrestling school, Hanover was 163-39 in dual meets under his tenure. He sent 24 wrestlers to the state tournament, with 19 earning medalist honors. He had three third-place finishers, two runner-up finishers and seven state champions.
With senior Stevan Micic headed to Northwestern this fall, that will make nine Hanover wrestlers who made a Division I roster, including a couple of NCAA All-Americans.
It don't get much better than this.
Hanover wrestling has always had a great family atmosphere around the program, which has enhanced the excellence. And a deep commitment to family is why Petrov is stepping down.
His son Paul has qualified for the NCAA nationals next week at Bucknell. His son John wrestles at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville.
"I would like to follow them," Petrov said. "There just isn't enough time coaching at the high school level to do that. It makes sense to me and my wife (Bessie)."
Petrov plans on turning in his resignation today. He is surrounded by good assistants. But Greg Larsen, a 1995 Hanover state champ, told Petrov he has no interest in taking over the head coaching position.
The rocking-chair wrestling coach would like to stay on as a volunteer assistant, working with the boys when he's not watching his sons compete at the next level.
This makes sense. Paul McCartney still sings even though the Beatles unplugged their amps a lifetime ago.
If you are a good wrestling coach looking for a new place to lead, Hanover Central is a great potential next stop. Petrov isn't leaving because the cupboard is bare.
"All the pieces of the puzzle are in place, we have a wonderful feeder program," Petrov said. "We've got some hammers in sixth, seventh and eighth grade. If they work hard they're going to be good.
"Hanover wrestling is not going away."
Petrov is president of the Rick Larsen Wildcat Wrestling Club, the feeder program for the high school program. He will continue to work with the lads but will likely give up the top title.
The presents given to him on Thursday night were appropriate and extreme. At one point Petrov quipped, "This is like Christmas morning." He received trophies, plaques and posters. But the best gifts given were words from other humans expressing their love for a small-town legend.
One after another spoke of how Petrov changed their lives for the better. Accurately expressed. Perfectly prosed. Spot on.
Now that Petrov will have a little more free time I'd like to get on the mat with him. I need to drop a weight class. Or two. But until that day, please, pass the potatoes.
Decades ago, when Frank Fetters wrestled for what was then Thornton Fractional High School, his uncle John Etienne regaled him with tales of his own days on the mat back in the 1920s and 30s.
Over 50 years later, the story Fetters remembers the most is his uncle talking about being an alternate on the U.S. Olympic wrestling team for the 1932 Games in Los Angeles.
"Every time I saw him, we talked about it," said Fetters, who now lives in Las Vegas. "For the longest time, he was proud of it. It was the highlight of his life."
A state champion as a 108-pounder at Hammond High in 1935, Etienne served in the Navy as an electrician during World War II, his claim to fame being a boxing match against the famed Willie Pep.
"Pep broke his nose," Fetters said. "That 'cured' him of boxing."
Etienne was also proud to have met the legendary Dan Gable, the former wrestling coach at Iowa who won the U.S.'s first gold medal in the sport.
While Etienne passed away about 15 years ago, all the memories lived on for Fetters. After reading a Times article in Feb. 2013 about Portage's Leroy Vega being inducted into the Indiana High School Wrestling Hall of Fame, Fetters began to wonder if it might be something worth looking into regarding his uncle.
"I didn't know there was an Indiana High School Wrestling Hall of Fame," Fetters said. "I figured it was worth a shot. I thought it would've been nice if I could do that."
That's where the mystery began for Fetters. He visited his 92-year old aunt in Long Beach, Calif., last summer hoping to gather more information.
"I was under the impression that my uncle was selected late in his high school career, but he was a freshman in high school in 1932," Fetters said. "It stands to reason that if he was good enough to be an alternate for the Olympics, he would have shown up as state champion more than once, but he is listed for the 1934-35 season only. This led me to believe my uncle's status was a result of an administrative decision, not a wrestle-off."
Fetters leafed through old yearbooks, but he could find no documentation of Etienne and the Olympic team, nor did his aunt know of any.
"I assumed if he had wrestled, there would have been headlines," Fetters said. "He would've only been 14 or 15. I wasn't able to find anything. Without any paperwork, there's no verification."
There were also no records of what Etienne did as a wrestler in 1934, nor the two years prior, when he attended Central Catholic High School, which was later renamed Bishop Noll. He later worked at Inland Steel before relocating to L.A. after the war, he and wife catching the Super Chief (a train) to the west coast.
"They'd come and back forth visiting relatives. I always ran into him," Fetters said. "I wonder why he never thought about going to college."
That, like the subject of the '32 Olympics, will probably remain an unanswered question, but it won't dampen Fetters' recollections of the wrestling chats with his uncle.
"I'm not going to lose a lot of sleep over it," he said. "I'm not going to be discouraged that I couldn't make it happen. My uncle wasn't looking for any glory. He just loved the sport."
You can't win 'em all if you don't win the first one.
Minutes after Griffith freshman Jeremiah Reitz won the state wrestling title at 106 pounds Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, talk was already turning to the subject of him possibly winning four.
It's not fair to heap that kind of pressure on a ninth-grader, but when you come from the school Reitz does, it's hard not to think of the names Alex Tsirtsis and Angel Escobedo, who accomplished the feat in an overlapping stretch between 2001 and 2005.
"I'm taking it one step at a time, one year at a time," Reitz said, already breaking out veteran cliches after his championship.
At the same time, this is a kid whose plan clearly is not to rest on his laurels.
"I don't want to be satisfied," Reitz said. "I'm going to make sure I'm still working in the offseason as soon as possible."
I'm nowhere knowledgeable enough about wrestling to predict anyone's fortunes with any great accuracy, but you have to believe Reitz's ceiling is pretty high.
Wrestling since he was 3, he'd never won a a state or national title in folkstyle, according to his dad, Joe. Jeremiah tirelessly soldiered on, simply trying to continue to improve, as he has trained with Tsirtsis and others at the Region Wrestling Academy. It came to fruition as he prevailed in a weight class that featured seven all-Americans and a national champion, Mount Vernon's Paul Konrath, who Reitz topped 4-2 in a thrilling overtime final.
With the graduation of fellow state champions, three-timer Stevan Micic and back-to-backer Gelen Robinson, Reitz figures to become the next face of region wrestling, a distinction unto itself.
We get to know these kids mainly as athletes during their four years on the high school scene, but the early and extended success of Micic and Robinson enabled us to get a peek at them as people, too. I'll long remember the two chatting in the hallway at Merrillville during the semistate. It was just a couple teenagers, a couple teenagers about 100 pounds apart with five state championships and two college scholarships between them.
Beyond their uncompromising work habits, there is a humility about their accomplishments and a gratitude for what they have achieved. Both made a point of thanking everyone who has played a role, large or small, in their success. Robinson, when addressed about his subdued reaction following his victory, talked about the respect he had for his fellow wrestlers and the desire to not insult them by making a spectacle of himself. He simply pointed and smiled to his section of supporters. No need for more.
Class personified these two.
Micic, also a straight-A student, will go to Northwestern to wrestle. We may see him in the Olympics some day. In all likelihood, we won't see Robinson on the mat again, his athletic attentions to focus on football at Purdue. A few people have said he could be playing on Sundays in five years.
Whatever levels they happen to reach, Micic and Robinson will not only be remembered for carrying on the storied tradition of high school wrestling in Northwest Indiana, but also for representing their sport and home in a top-shelf manner.
Thanks, guys, it's been a pleasure. Looking forward to following you in college and beyond.
Thurman Stone remembers a moment during the 1999 Indiana state wrestling regional.
The then-Calumet senior had pinned an opponent, but struggled with him.
His wake-up call was a talk he got from Calumet coach Jim Wadkins. He had Stone outside the Calumet locker room and challenged his 135-pounder.
"You're the toughest, meanest kid in school and you let him dominate you," Wadkins shouted to Stone.
"I remember he had some choice words about me not letting my opponent get the best of me," Stone said. "He knew what I could do and just wanted me to be the best.
"I was frustrated that whole match because every time I tried to get a single leg in, we went off the mat."
Stone answered the call and went on to win the 1999 state title at 135 pounds and he did so on Feb. 20 that year — his 18th birthday.
He beat South Bend Washington's Vinscent Minor, who handed him his lone loss a week before at the Merrillville Semisitate, for the title at Market Square Arena.
"At the time, it didn't sink in right away," Stone said. "I was proud and I just had to savor the moment. I remember looking at that medal."
Stone then took off into the stands at the downtown Indianapolis area, but was stopped on his way to the top.
"A youth coach asked me to talk to his group of little kids, so I did," Stone said. "It made me feel like a big shot and I could see how happy the kids were. I told them they could be up there one day (as a champ)."
He then was asked to address a group of young Munster youth wrestlers.
"They had a scrapbook with my articles in them and that made me feel like I was 10 feet tall," Stone said. "Eric McGill was in that group and funny, I coached most of those kids at Munster a few years later."
Stone and his twin brother, Larry, also a fine wrestler at Calumet, shared a bedroom. The two had a system for helping Thurman make his weight every week.
"We used to barricade the door so if I got up, it would make noise and Larry would wake up," Thurman Stone said. "He would get me back to bed so I couldn't have that midnight snack.'
Stone is a truck driver for Superior Construction and said what he took from wrestling was more than a state title.
"They say being a state champ won't get you a job or a raise and that is true," Stone said. "On the other hand, it does because the life's lessons and discipline you learn from the sport puts you in a position to be successful in life."
Thurman and Larry, who was a state qualifier, were two heavily followed wrestlers.
"People come up to me now and tell me they loved to watch us wrestle because we were so aggressive," Stone said.
He credits Wadkins and assistant Jeff George for pushing him.
"I really want to credit Jeff because he spent a lot of time working with me on my technique and making me a better wrestler," Stone said. "You don't realize it at the time, but those guys really cared about you as a person."
INDIANAPOLIS | Growing up in Cedar Lake, Stevan Micic idolized Andrew Howe, the three-time state champion for Hanover Central in 2006-08.
Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Micic joined the elite club, winning his own third title with a 10-5 triumph over Penn's Zachary Davis at 126 pounds.
"He was my role model since I was little," Micic said of Howe. "I'd go up and see him practice. I always looked up to him. He always knew I'd be good. I didn't know if I'll get on his level or not. Hopefully, I'll pass him."
The 106 champ in 2012 and '11 runner-up at at 103, Micic edged Davis 9-7 in the 113 final last season. Their eighth meeting in high school, all won by Micic, wasn't as close. The nation's top-ranked 126 scored five takedowns to Davis' five escapes.
"I knew he was just trying to stay close," Micic said. "I had to make sure I got my points. I've wrestled him enough times. I'm relieved the season is over. I respect him for coming up to my weight and challenging me."
Micic is the 10th region wrestler to capture at least three state titles.
Lake Central's Gelen Robinson (52-0) capped his second straight undefeated season with another 220 championship, besting Kokomo's Fletcher Miller 9-3 in a replay of a year ago.
"It's an amazing feeling. There's nothing else like it," Robinson said. "I've been looking forward to this day since last year's win, anticipating, knowing it wouldn't be easy. It's been a great process."
The bout, he said, was "most likely" his last, but "not 100 percent."
"I'm glad to say I've been this successful throughout my high school career," he said. "I couldn't have done it without my coaches, teammates and everyone in the stands rooting for me. It all worked out for the good for me."
Griffith's Jeremiah Reitz (45-1) may attain Micic's status in a few years. The Panthers' 106-pounder did something that Micic didn't even do -- win a title as a freshman. Reitz scored an overtime takedown on Mount Vernon's Paul Konrath (48-3) to prevail 4-2.
"I can't even describe it," Reitz said. "It's everything I've worked for. All year, I didn't focus on wins and losses. I just made sure I learned each time I wrestled, just improving as much as I could. Everything that happened came out as planned."
Griffith's first state champion since Angel Escobedo won his fourth title in 2005, Reitz fought off a tight headlock by Konrath to register the winning points.
"That's where the mental part comes in," Reitz said. "You can't give up. You have to push through the whole time."
Merrillville sophomore Jake Covaciu (138) and Crown Point junior Darden Schurg (152) were both runners-up.
Lawrence North's Tommy Cash (47-1) jumped in front of Covaciu (45-5) and milked the final minute for a 5-3 victory.
"He threw my offense off a little bit," Covaciu said. "I couldn't get to his legs. He's a good defensive wrestler. His offense is off his defense. I just didn't open up like I wanted to. I know I can compete with anyone, everyone, I just have to stay confident and work my offense. I had a really good run. It just didn't finish the way I wanted to. I'll use it as motivation for everything. I'm never satisfied. I'm always after more."
Schurg (37-3) was spladled for a pin at 2:24 of the 152 final by Evansville Central's Brendon Kelley (50-0).
"He's really slick on his feet. He lived off his scrambles," Schurg said. "I went out thinking I had it, but he had a little more going for him."
After missing state as a sophomore, the freshman medalist (fourth) at 113 was happy to be back on the podium.
"Going from semistate qualifier to second in the state is pretty big," Schurg said. "I'm pretty happy with it. I've come leaps and bounds through this. I don't know if I was expected to be first or second. I proved a lot of people wrong."
INDIANAPOLIS | When the sole aim is to wrestle under the spotlight on the center mat, it's not easy to retrieve the mojo for a consolation match.
Merrillville's Shawn Streck fought that empty feeling, but shook off the disappointment of a semifinal loss in the 285-pound weight class to top Jay County's Eric Hemmelgarn 3-1 in the third-place match Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
"I didn't warm up right. I was moping around when I shouldn't have been," Streck said. "I feel like I let myself down at the end of the tournament. It's a big part of the season, but it doesn't define my season."
Streck (44-2) was pinned by unbeaten senior Wesley Bernard of Indianapolis Cathedral at 1:17. Bernard hit Streck with a bull rush takedown that put him on his back and was unable to get up.
"I didn't know where I was with the out of bounds line," Streck said. "He caught me standing up straight. It's one of those things you have to be ready for at any moment, and I wasn't. He wrestled a better match. If I ever see him again, it would be a different match, but I probably won't."
Streck was the only freshman to medal at 285 last year, when he was seventh, and was the only sophomore to place this year.
Hughes responds: Lowell's Drew Hughes (37-2) was stunned in the morning quarterfinals at 138, where Center Grove's Tyler Fleener pinned him in 59 seconds. The 120 runner-up in 2013, he won his next matches to salvage fifth.
"I knew (the spladle) was coming. I felt it, but I couldn't stop it," Hughes said of his loss. "He just got me. It's real disappointing. It made me mad, a little more driven. A lot of guys, after they lose in the quarters, stop wrestling. They don't care. How Indiana is, the best you do is fifth. That's tough when your goal is to win it."
Hughes' brother Kenny took sixth at 160.
The 'other' Indian: Gelen Robinson wasn't the only Lake Central wrestler to have a big weekend. Jake Sebahar came in with 10 losses, but went 3-1 at 145 to claim third. Sebahar reached the semifinals with a 14-8 upset of Greenwood's Bailey Schober despite having a bandage wrapped around his head to try to contain a nose bleed.
"It was the only way I could keep going," Sebahar said. "To finish the season off with a win is definitely something I wanted to do and to get third place, it's pretty cool. It's one of the best tournaments I've ever wrestled and for it to come in my last one, that's something."
Great Scott: Hanover Central's Tyler Scott's season ended with a pair of losses, 10-3 in the 195 semifinals to Warren Central's Katrell Moss and 7-6 in the consolation match to Mooresville's Randy Scott (no relation), but the Hanover Central senior still took home the fourth-place medal.
"It's a big thing for the team," Scott said. "I could've done better, but it happens. High school's over with. I have to look at that and get ready for college. I hope I can help the younger kids in the Rick Larsen club. I wasn't very good when I was young, but I hope I can show that if you put the hard work and time in, you can really do something."
Pirate bounty: Among Merrillville's six medalists, Isaac Rentas (145) was fifth and Willie Armstrong (160), Clarence Johnson (126) and Mike Garza (113) were all seventh. The performance pushed Merrillville to a top-10 finish."
"The highlight was probably getting six guys through (the first round)," Streck said. "I'm happy for our team."
Hashtag irony: Hobart's Brendan Black, who made the field due to an injury and won a Friday match because of an opponent getting sick, defaulted his seventh-place bout at 120.
Medal count: Other region medalists were Munster's Jason Crary (sixth, 113), Portage's Steven Lawrence (seventh, 138), and Kankakee Valley's Tim Schoonveld (sixth, 182).
INDIANAPOLIS | Given a choice, Brendan Black would've rather wrestled, even with the prospect of facing a semistate champion who placed at the state finals last year.
As it was, the Hobart freshman, who made the tournament as a fill-in when South Bend Clay's Jake Hartman was unable to compete, wasn't going to turn down the forfeit.
Black advanced to the state quarterfinals when Danville's Brock Hudkins was unable to take the mat for Friday's 120-pound first-round match at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
"I wasn't really too happy. I wish I would've earned it," Black said. "I'll come out (Saturday) and try to show people I deserved to be there."
Black was in the warm-up room when he said the Danville coach came up to him and told him Hudkins (41-1) was sick and had been taken to the hospital. In the end, Black wound up being the only 120-pounder from the Merrillville Semistate to advance.
Portage's Gaige Torres, disqualified for an illegal slam on Hartman last week, was on hand to support teammate Steven Lawrence, who wrestled without Indians coach Leroy Vega in his corner. Ejected for arguing the Torres call, Vega couldn't even be in the building. He was at an Indianapolis hotel watching on live stream as Lawrence pinned Warren Central's Trent Pruitt.
"(Vega) and coach (Eric) Keith have been in my corner ever since I started wrestling," Lawrence said. "My main motivation was to do what I had to do for my boy Gaige. That was in the back of my mind. He's my drilling partner. He's more than a wrestling friend. He's like a brother."
With assistants Eric Keith and Pat Wilkins in the coaching chairs, Lawrence finished off Pruitt with a cradle at 1:46.
"I saw film on him and I knew I'd be able to break him," Lawrence said. "The low single was open the whole match. I knew something would end up popping up. Even though (Vega) couldn't be here watching, he told me if I just go out and wrestle, I'll win the match."
Jake Covaciu was part of a perfect first round for Merrillville, which advanced all six of its qualifiers. The Pirates sophomore pinned Lawrenceburg's Jake Ruberg (44-2) in 3:52 at 138.
"I've worked too hard, put too much in," Covaciu said. "It's paying off. I was here my freshman year, facing the No. 1 guy in the state. I didn't wrestle too good. I let the nerves, the building, get to me. Coach (David) Maldonado says to use blinders, just keep my head right and stay focused on my match. I've got the jitters out now. I'm feeling good."
Lake Central's Jake Sebahar (145) joined defending 220-pound champion Gelen Robinson in the quarterfinals with a 12-6 decision over Carroll (Fort Wayne)'s Alexander Arney.
"It felt awesome just qualifying and to get even further is that much better," Sebahar said. "It's my senior year. I made it this far. This could be the last time I wrestle. I want to keep going as far as I can."
Hanover Central's Stevan Micic began his quest for a third title with a forfeit.
The region advanced 18 of its 25 qualifiers.
Every now and then, one of Keith Davison's sons will pull their dad's heavily-adorned Chesterton letterman's jacket out of the closet, put it on and post pictures of themselves on Twitter.
They'll also look at the rings from his three state wrestling championships, two as an individual and another as a member of the 1989 Trojans wrestling team.
"It comes up quite a bit," said Davison, whose three boys all wrestle. "Anybody who's been around since back in the day brings it up."
Davison will be honored Sunday by the Indiana High School Wrestling Coaches Association on the 25th anniversary of his second title, which coincided with Chesterton's victory, the school's first by a team in any sport.
"Back then, obviously, it was a surreal experience," Davison said. "We'd stated that it was a goal of ours, but to think that it would really come true, it was really a bit of a shock."
By the time the finals rolled around, coach Bob Trzeciak's math showed that the Trojans already had the title locked up. Davison defended his 171-pound weight class, while Jeff Aaron was runner-up at 125, losing for the fifth time to Merrillville's Mark Rosenbalm. Aaron was 42-0 against the rest of the state. Ryan Jackson placed third at 160. No other Trojans scored.
"In addition to knocking off some important point-getters for other contenders, lightning struck from other sources," Davison said. "It was a good deal of hard work, but there was also some luck."
Chesterton returned home to a hero's welcome, receiving an escorted ride around town. No region wrestling team had won state since 1963 (Hammond) and only one, Crown Point (2009), has since.
It was a big year on the mats for all of Northwest Indiana with Wirt's Dwone Williams (103), Hammond's Omar Martin (152), Hobart cradler extraordinaire Rob Pavletic (160) and Roosevelt's George Porter (heavyweight) also garnering titles.
"Pavletic … lost to Ryan every time they wrestled," said Chesterton coach Chris Joll, then a young assistant on the staff. "Ryan lost to a big cradler from Fort Wayne Northrop. Rob was not so affected by that move."
Davison considered Joll an integral part of his success, which led to a scholarship to Wisconsin.
"He beat me up, but I soaked it up to where I was able to compete," Davison said. "He definitely made me a better wrestler as well as a person. I remind people that I was fortunate to have a room full of great coaches and workout partners there to motivate me every practice."
Not one to point to his name on the practice room wall, Davison motivates without bringing attention to himself. He will miss Sunday's banquet in order to coach kids from the Duneland Wrestling Club in a tournament. The honor is nice, but helping future Chesterton wrestlers takes priority.
"My son Jack asked me how I went from a marginal wrestler my freshman year to doing so well my third year," Davison said. "I chipped away at it little by little. I did pushups looking up at the (names) of the other (two Chesterton state champions, John Dehart and Jim Popp). It went from a dream to a goal to a reality. It was a culture where it was cool to work hard."
Twenty-five years later, that culture could be making a comeback in Chesterton wrestling, and Davison will again be an integral part of it.
During one of Gelen Robinson's matches at the Calumet regional, somebody yelled, "Who is that grown man wrestling with these boys?"
The Lake Central senior's accomplishments enter wrestling rooms and gyms long before he does. His legacy is cemented not just in wrestling but in athletics as a whole in the region annals.
This weekend, he'll attempt to add some of the finishing touches to a stellar career as he goes for his second state championship at 220 pounds this weekend at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
"Another state title was the only goal I had this year," Robinson said. "It's been a great year and I've done some great things, but if this year didn't end with a state title I wouldn't be satisfied."
"It wasn't an option."
Robinson is 48-0 on the season. He hasn't lost since the second to last match of his sophomore campaign, giving him a streak of 98 consecutive wins. He's compiled a 142-8 record over his last three seasons. The webmasters at Indianamat.com haven't changed the No. 1 ranked wrestler at 220 pounds in over two years.
All that attention doesn't get to Robinson, though.
"I wouldn't say there's any more pressure now. It really doesn't bother me," he said. "(The recognition) is for the fans and its great to have their support, but when all is said and done it's up to me to do the job."
Robinson won't rule out the possibility of wrestling in college, but he knows it will be difficult to fit it into his schedule. He'll attend Purdue in the fall on a football scholarship.
"Gelen's true passion is football but as a college wrestler he would be pretty damn tough once his technique was cleaned up," L.C. coach Ryan Alb said.
Track is also part of his college plans. Robinson is state-championship caliber in shot put and discus. In an age where many prep athletes focus on a single sport, it's important to him that he's known as an athlete who could be successful in multiple arenas.
"I definitely want to be remembered as a great wrestler, as one of the best 220's to come out of Indiana. But kids don't have to be single-sport athletes," Robinson said. "Being a three-sport athlete pays off in the long run."
Robinson's long run in tormenting area 220-pounders will come to an end soon, no matter what happens this weekend. Alb said he'll need to win that second state title to be ranked among the best in Indians history on the mat.
But of course, ending this season any other way was never an option for him.
When: Friday, 5 p.m. (first round); Saturday, 8:30 a.m. (quarterfinals, followed by semifinals); 2 p.m. (consolations), 5:30 (championships).
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, 125 S. Pennsylvania St., Indianapolis.
Tickets: $8 (session), $20 (both days).
Favorite: Indianapolis Cathedral.
Local wrestlers' first-round pairings
106 -- Jeremiah Reitz (Griffith, 41-1) vs. Jaron Katzer (Goshen 31-12), Colton Cummings (Lowell, 34-2) vs. Hunter Langeloh (Columbia City, 32-8).
113 -- Jason Crary (Munster, 45-2) vs. James Pritchett (Ben Davis, 27-10), Michael Garza (Merrillville, 39-4) vs. Jacob Skaggs (Greenwood, 35-6).
120 -- Tristan Dembowski (Valparaiso, 36-14) vs. Griffin Schermer (Bloomington South, 38-6), Ruben Rodriguez (Morton, 32-4) vs. Bailey LaHue (Corydon Central, 24-1).
126 -- Clarence Johnson (Merrillville, 36-5) vs. Elliott Molloy (Danville, 39-4), Stevan Micic (Hanover Central, 38-0) vs. Austin Bethel (Mount Vernon, 27-4).
138 -- Jacob Covaciu (Merrillville, 42-4) vs. Josh Ruberg (Lawrenceburg, 40-1), Steven Lawrence (Portage, 27-10) vs. Trent Pruitt (Warren Central, 29-6), Drew Hughes (Lowell, 34-1) vs. Dillon Eldred (Westfield, 39-9), Mike Krzyston (Andrean, 32-7) vs. Tommy Cash (Lawrence North, 43-1).
145 -- Isaac Rentas (Merrillville, 41-2) vs. Logan Neher (Bellmont, 30-15), Jake Sebahar (Lake Central, 35-10) vs. Alexander Arney (Carroll-Fort Wayne, 40-6).
152 -- Willie Armstrong (Merrillville, 36-8) vs. Seth Ferguson (Martinsville, 33-5), Darden Schurg (Crown Point, 34-2) vs. C.J. Damler (Brownsburg, 41-7).
160 -- Kenny Hughes (Lowell, 34-1) vs. Luke Decker (New Castle, 38-5).
182 -- Tim Schoonveld (Kankakee Valley, 44-3) vs. Michael Petrole (Frannklin, 33-4).
195 -- Morgan Kral (Crown Point, 34-3) vs. Randy Scott (Mooresville, 39-3), Tyler Scott (Hanover Central, 40-3) vs. Blake Brown (Evansville Memorial, 44-4).
220 -- Steven Potosky (Crown Point, 28-5) vs. Dylan Faulkenberg (Indianapolis Ritter, 43-0), Gelen Robinson (Lake Central, 48-0) vs. George Brantley (Hamilton Southeastern, 26-9).
285 -- Landon Blackburn (LaPorte, 40-4) vs. Tyler Beeson (Greenfield Central, 38-2), Shawn Streck (Merrillville, 41-1) vs. Chet Maxey (Hamilton Southeastern, 28-13).
Fast facts: Micic is a two-time state champion, winning at 106 in 2012 and 113 in 2013. ... Robinson is the 220 defending champion. ... Streck finished seventh at 285. ... Drew Hughes was 120 runner-up. ... Perry Meridian is the defending team champion. ... Northwest Indiana has 24 qualifiers, led by Merrillville's six, with none at 132 and 170 and four at 138. — Jim Peters, Times sports writer
One season removed from junior varsity, Tristan Dembowski faced a long leap to make it all the way to state qualifier.
"This is like the ultimate goal," the Valparaiso sophomore said. "I knew I wanted to get to state, but I didn't really think I would get there this year."
The trip came sooner than expected thanks to Dembowski's second-place finish at 120 pounds in Saturday's Merrillville Semistate. A 2-0 quarterfinal win over Benton's Central Cole Lukaszka punched his ticket.
"It was really no surprise to us," Vikings coach Mark Line said. "Tristan had a great draw, and he wrestled well. He wrestled the whole six minutes (each match). He had close matches, but did what he needed to do to get it done. He had beaten (Lukaszka) at Connersville, so that really helped out with his confidence coming in."
Dembowski reached the finals by virtue of an injury default, going the distance with unbeaten Jake Sinkovics of Mishawaka.
"I knew if I could win my first match, I had the upper hand (on Lukaszka)," Dembowski said. "I knew I would have to wrestle really good, and I definitely did. I don't think it sunk in until after the match. I was a little nervous (for the finals), but excited at the same time."
With 14 losses, Dembowski may have been the unlikeliest of the 28 finalists. As a freshman at 106, he saw the varsity mat just six times, and half of those were forfeits. Line, then a volunteer coach, saw something in Dembowski even then.
"He was one of those kids coach (Jake) Plesac and I were looking at when we took over who we thought, 'Wow, there's some talent there,'" Line said. "He's not going to throw anybody around the mat, but he's pretty slick with some stuff. He's very technically sound. He's got a lot of mat savvy. As the season went on, he was getting better. We told everyone early on, we're going to take some lumps, but you're going to start believing in yourselves, your teammates and the program."
Also a sectional and regional runner-up, Dembowski credits the practice time he put in during the summer for his progress.
"Just working hard, having people push me, my teammates and coaches," he said. "I think I just got a lot better, more confident. I really like (wrestling) on my feet. I'm definitely not the most physical guy, but if I work my tie-ups, my moves, I can score on anyone."
Dembowski began wrestling at the age of 4, following half brother Max Buckley into the sport. He was at Bankers Life Fieldhouse last year, when Buckley qualified at 126. He likes the idea of being on the floor rather than in the seats this time.
"It's going to be definitely different, pretty exciting," Dembowski said. "It's going to be a good experience. If I make it next year and the year after that, I won't be as nervous as maybe someone else who's there for the first time."
No matter who it was, getting a wrestler to state was a significant step for Line in his first year.
"It's huge," Line said. "We're trying to build a program, and that's always a positive note to build off of. We had three guys right there, and they're all underclassmen. Five of the six (semistate qualifiers) are coming back. They see some guys who did qualify and think, 'Man, I only lost by a point or two points to him. That really could be me.' We're already discussing taking more next year. I promise we will."
Alex Coriano built off one moment in in his wrestling career.
He doesn't think about what might have been or use it as an excuse for failure. Coriano lost the IHSAA 125-pound state championship, 7-1, to Lawrence North's Jason Smith. It was a match where he made a mistake and it cost him, but he used that as a springboard.
"I was upset because I thought I was the better wrestler," Coriano said. "I think by getting second, that made me work harder and I wanted to prove that I was better." "When I got to Purdue, there were a lot of state champs and I was a second-place (guy). That pushed me to work even harder."
Recruited as a walk-on, Coriano went on to earn a scholarship at Purdue. His 40 wins in 1996 were the program's single-season record until two years ago. He qualified for the NCAA tournament three times and was a two-time captain for the Boilermakers.
After college, Coriano still had more to prove on the mat so he went on to wrestle for Puerto Rico's national team. A four time Puerto Rican National Champion, he competed internationally in the Central American Games, Pan-American Games, and just missed making the Olympics in 2000.
He earned a degree in industrial design at Purdue and turned his education and creativity into a career. Coriano is a senior industrial designer and project lead in IDEO’s Bay Area location. IDEO is an award-winning global design firm that takes a human-centered, design-based approach to helping organizations in the public and private sectors innovate and grow. Before that, he worked in Chicago at Lund and Company as a toy and game inventor.
"Designing toys was fun because I enjoy drawing and building protoypes plus I am kind of like a big kid," Coriano said. "I think it was great that I got my start designing toys for a living. When I came to IDEO, I also invented toys."
He now is with the company's general design community working in teams across many industries as a designer and project lead. He also works closely with clients, which requires research and travel.
To stay in shape and give back to the sport of wrestling, Coriano teaches takedowns to MMA fighters at El Nino Training Center in San Francisco, home of UFC fighter Gilbert Melendez and the Scrap Pack.
"I try and stay on the mat at least once a week and share my knowledge of wrestling," he said. "The fighters I work out with are hungry to learn and in return I learn the art of fighting."
Five years ago, Coriano combined his passion for design and sports and teamed up with his business partner Craig Diamond of Diamond MMA to create protective gear for athletes.
"We started out designing fight shorts and gloves for fighters but found a need in the market for better groin protection. Craig and I created the Diamond Compression Jock System which has a patented four strap jock sewn into compression shorts and includes an athletic cup that can be used for all sports."
His passion for wrestling and art was first established when he was in Scott Middle School.
"My art teacher Mr. John Pimentel encouraged me to use my creativity as well as to try out for the wrestling team," Coriano said. "Mr. P was also the wrestling coach and chess coach, he moved up with us to Morton and encouraged us in the classroom and on the mat."
Coriano said he often draws and colors with his two boys Alejandro and Enzo, tells them wrestling stories as a youth and teaches them how to play chess.
Wrestling has served as a vehicle to take Stevan Micic many places.
For all his travels, the Hanover Central senior and two-time state champion still ranks the high school finals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse near the top of his list.
"I love it," Micic said after his Merrillville Semistate title at 126 pounds. "I've wrestled a lot overseas, around the country, and state is still one of my favorite tournaments in the world."
Micic hasn't lost since the state semifinals of his freshman year. The Northwestern recruit won it all at 106 as a sophomore and 113 as a junior.
"I've got two," he said. "I want a third."
Capital G: Gelen Robinson's winning streak isn't quite as long as Micic's, but still impressive in its own right. The defending 220 champion hasn't lost since the state semifinals as a sophomore.
"People are starting to hit their peaks going into state," Robinson said. "There are always big upsets, great matches. It's exciting. I'm going to work hard to pull off another win."
Back for more: Shawn Streck of Merrillville accomplished the rare feat of placing at 285 as a freshman last year, finishing seventh after giving eventual champion Donte Whitfield his closest match of the tournament, 1-0 in the quarterfinals. Among last year's eight medalists, it was Streck and seven seniors.
"(The tournament) won't be as big to me," Streck said of his year's experience. "I'll know what to expect. Four more (matches)."
First-timers: Like Streck last year, Griffith's Jeremiah Reitz (106) and Munster's Jason Crary (113) will be making their state debuts. Though they're young, both can lean on their out-of-school experience.
"(That) really does help in big matches," Crary said. "You just try not to think about it too much."
"You have to look at it as just another tournament and stay calm," Reitz said. "That helps you fight the nerves."
To dye or not to dye: After bleaching his hair blonde last year and winning the semistate, Lowell's Drew Hughes decided to go with the look again. He's two for two after hanging on to edge Merrillville's Jake Covaciu 6-5. Hughes' brother Kenny, who didn't dye his hair, suffered his first loss of the season in the 160 final, 6-1 to Penn's Joey Mamolenti.
Not this week: Hanover Central's Tyler Scott faced Crown Point's Morgan Kral in the 195 final at the sectional and regional, but Penn's Kobe Woods beat Kral in the semistate semifinal, preventing another meeting. Scott topped Woods and credited some of his success to Kral and Valpo's Derrick Suttles.
"Going head to head with the best people prepared me for this," Scott said. "I was fortunate to have those two guys in the sectional and regional."
New faces: While region powers Merrillville (six), Lowell and Hanover Central (three each) account for half of the area's state qualifiers, a few schools not known for their mat prowess are on the list. Morton's Ruben Rodriguez Jr. advanced at 120, as did Andrean's Mike Krzyston at 138 and Kankakee Valley's Tim Schoonveld at 182.
Awaiting word: If South Bend Clay's Jake Hartman is unable to wrestle at state, Hobart freshman Brendan Black will take his place at 120. Black gave eventual champ Jake Sinkovicz of Mishawaka his closest match, losing 5-2 in the quarterfinals. During the same round, Hartman hit his head and couldn't continue his match with Portage's Gaige Torres. Hartman was awarded a contested disqualification victory as Torres was called for an illegal slam with 10 seconds left. Hartman defaulted his semifinal and third-place match, leaving his status for state up in the air.
"We'll see," Clay coach Al Hartman, Jake's dad, said. "He may not be cleared."
Not on the list: As always, several big names with big resumes didn't advance. Notables among the ranks are C.P.'s Zach Donaldson (34-2 at 132) and Josh Fuqua (138), a two-time state qualifier who was the 103 runner-up as a freshman, Hobart's Scottie Sopko (170, 28-3), a 2012 medalist at 160, LaPorte's Mike Eldridge (182, 40-2) and River Forest's Robert Yanez (285, 33-2).
MERRILLVILLE | They may look like freshmen, but Griffith's Jeremiah Reitz and Munster's Jason Crary sure don't wrestle like them.
Youth was served at Saturday's Merrillville Semistate as the Northwest Crossroads Conference ninth-graders each pocketed titles.
"It's OK to be a freshman. You just have to wrestle like a senior," Reitz said.
Reitz (41-1) reversed his only loss of the season with a 4-2 decision over Penn's Drew Hildebrandt.
"I just made sure I wrestled all six minutes," Reitz said. "I had to make sure I didn't let him rest, to wear him out."
That was a big factor for Crary, who scored a third-period takedown and another in overtime to down Merrillvlle's Michael Garza 4-2. Garza edged Crary in the regional.
"I've been working really hard on my conditioning in practice and it paid off at the end," he said. "That really helped, especially in overtime."
Hanover Central's Stevan Micic (126), Lowell's Drew Hughes (138), Lake Central's Gelen Robinson (220) and Merrillville's Shawn Streck (285) all repeated as champions.
Hanover's Tyler Scott (195) was the local first-timer, downing Penn's Kobe Woods 9-6 to earn his trip to Indianapolis.
"It's a great feeling -- I went from the bottom to the top -- but it's not even close to being over yet," Scott said. "I'm closer to my goal of finishing high on the (state awards) podium, but I'm not there yet."
Hughes survived the closest of close calls, holding off Merrillville's Jake Covaciu 6-5. Hughes led 5-0 but was taken to his back in the third period, barely eluding a pin. Covaciu let him up on the re-start and wasn't able to hit the winning takedown.
"It was pretty scary," Hughes said. "It came off my shot, which kind of sucked. I was right on the edge. I couldn't tell where the line was. I was just trying to not get pinned. I thought he'd let me go, but I was pretty confident with my defense at the end."
Streck handed West Lafayette's John Duvall his first loss, 15-6, and was still feeling just as spry afterward.
"I could've wrestled another whole match," Streck said. "I should've put him away. I was a little tentative on my shot. The big thing at heavyweight is conditioning. Nobody's in the shape I am. The training we do, nobody can match it. They push us hard. This is the easy part."
Robinson (48-0) and Micic have been there and done that. The two chatted in the hall and took pictures together after Robinson's pin in 1:14.
"It's a great time of the season," Robinson said. "You can't look past anybody. It's the best feeling to have, knowing my body's primed and I'm mentally ready to go. It's been a hectic year, but I wouldn't have it any other way."
Micic (38-0) was his usual technical fall machine, ending all three of his matches by points, racking up 55 points in less than 11 minutes on the mat.
"I was just trying to keep the pace going, make sure I'm still focused. That's the biggest thing," Micic said. "There may be an underdog coming up, so I can't let that happen. It's good to have (more) matches. My lungs were working good. I wrestle my best when I get my lungs flowing."
Merrillville finished second to Penn (125) as a team with 102 points. The Pirates qualified six wrestlers, tops among area schools.
"This is a tough tournament, wrestling four matches," Merrillville coach David Maldonado said. "At this point in the game, you just try to get through every match and at the end, when the dust settles, figure out where you're at.
"The most important thing is getting in position to succeed (at state)."
MERRILLVILLE | Saturday's Merrillville Semistate came to an abrupt end for Portage sophomore Gaige Torres and Indians coach Leroy Vega.
Up 5-1 on South Bend Clay's Jake Hartman in a 120-pound quarterfinal match, Torres was 10 seconds from a state finals berth when he was disqualified for an illegal slam call. Vega was subsequently ejected from the meet and escorted outside by police for arguing the decision.
"We're winning, why would we slam him?" Vega said by phone. "I thought they could have called unsportsmanlike (conduct). It was a judgement call. At that point, I couldn't do anything about it.
"It was put in the ref's hands and he made a decision. He called a slam. It wasn't a slam."
Torres (30-2) was ranked top five in the state and placed seventh at 113 pounds as a freshman.
"I don't know what to tell him," Vega said. "I'm at a loss for words. How do you explain that to a kid?"
Hartman defaulted his remaining matches. According to his dad Al, who is also his coach, he was taken home and will undergo an MRI to determine what coach Hartman believes is a concussion.
"I saw the same move 20 times," Vega said. "It was because of the situation. He didn't get up so they called a slam."
"It's very unfortunate," Al Hartman said. "I think the call could have gone either way. (Torres) didn't do it on purpose, but he had (Jake's) arm trapped. I think that's what the ref saw."
Hartman said his son asked if his spot for state could be given to Torres.
"I have a lot of respect for Gaige Torres," Hartman said. "We felt so bad about what happened. We didn't want his season to end that way."
Vega did not regret his vociferous defense of Torres.
"Emotions took over," he said. "I'd do it again. As a coach, it's my job to fight for my kids. I believe in my kids. I may look back in 20 years and say I shouldn't have reacted like that, that I should have picked a different fight, but I'm going to stand by what I believe.
"I did what I had to do."
Vega said he is prepared to accept the consequences of his actions, which could mean he will not be allowed to coach Steven Lawrence, Portage's sole qualifier, at state Friday.
"I'll live with it," he said. "If I can't coach, we've got a great coaching staff who will do a great job coaching Steven and getting him ready."
Lawrence advanced as part of an all-region quartet at 138, edging Penn's Jarod Swank 4-3 in the quarterfinals. He finished third.
Valpo's Tristan Dembowski was Porter County's only other qualifier. He scored on a switch in the final seconds to top Benton Central's Cole Lukaszka 2-0 in the quarters. He reached the finals by virtue of Hartman's default and lost to Sinkovics 15-4.
LaPorte 285-pounder Landon Blackburn advanced with a third, losing to Merrillville's Shawn Streck in the semis before finishing with a win. Slicer 182-pounder Mike Eldridge (40-2) was upset in the ticket round 4-1 by Penn's Jeff Wiseman.
Also in the round to go, Portage's Travis Williams lost in double overtime to Penn's Clayton Stohler at 220 and Indian Matt Hedrick fell 1-0 to Crown Point's Morgan Kral at 195. Kral's second-period escape accounted for the only point.
Chesterton advanced none of its six wrestlers. At 170, Alex Katsafaros' comeback came up short as he lost 4-3 to Delphi's Hunter Mote.
Prep wrestling in the region has a multitude of family lineages whose roots run deep in the sport.
You know the names.
Schurg, Tsirtsis, Maldonado, Escobedo. The list goes on.
At Calumet, it's Fowler.
A quartet of brothers — Nate, Noah, Nick and Kobe — have combined to win 317 matches, eclipsing the mark of 303 established by the Buffingtons in 1986.
A 2010 grad, Nate is the oldest of six boys (and one girl), but certainly not the first Fowler to wrestle for the Warriors. Among other relatives, his dad Artty was a senior on coach Jim Wadkins' first team in 1991 and his uncle Eddie was a two-time state qualifier.
Nate won 119 matches in his career. Nick, a junior who will wrestle in Saturday's Merrillville Semistate, stands at 98. Noah, a senior, finished with 84 victories, while Kobe, a freshman, earned 16 wins in an injury-shortened season.
"They're just incredibly strong kids," Wadkins said. "It's a solid family. They're very supportive of the kids. Their favorite sport by far is probably football, but they've had a lot more individual success in wrestling."
Nate is now on Wadkins' staff, a testament to his experience wearing the Calumet singlet.
"I have a passion to coach," Nate said. "What better way than to come back to my old high school and coach my three brothers?"
Both Wadkins and assistant Andy Trevino, a '91 state champ for Calumet, tell Nate all the time that Nick wrestles just like him.
"I want him to surpass everything I've done," Nate said. "To be up there with the top dogs, you have to put in the work, the time. I've told them I set the standard and I hope they surpass me in all my stuff."
At some point next season, Nick will eclipse Nate in wins. If Nick reaches the century mark Saturday, he'd be Wadkins' first junior to reach 100 Ws. More importantly, it will mean he's the first of the Fowler brothers to qualify for state.
"That's a big deal," Wadkins said.
With seventh grader A.J. on the way, the Fowler timeline will continue to 2019. Wadkins doesn't expect to be in the chair if/when Kade Fowler, age 5, gets into the sport.
"I hope to be around, but I hope not to be one of the coaches," Wadkins said. "I have no crazy longevity goals like that."
Numbers aside, Wadkins takes great pride in the positive impact he's had on the Fowlers and so many other boys in his program. In an ultra blue-collar school district situated far from the lap of luxury, he's steered many a kid out of harm's way onto the right path.
"Calumet wrestling's saved a lot of kids' lives," he said. "We've developed skills, attributes that will pay dividends down the road. When they come back, it may not be the records they remember, it will be being a part of something.
"Not every kid is going to get a Master's degree, a Ph. D., and be a professional, but if they come with a work ethic every day, they'll be able to take care of themselves and their family. Then I'll feel like I've done my job."
The Fowlers are proof of that.
"Wrestling teaches you a lot of things," Nate said. "You have to have pride in the sport. You can't be soft-minded or you'll never have your hand raised on the mat. You spend all the time in the room, the hours of sweat, getitng beat up, you don't go out there to lose. Whether you have a great career, decent or mediocre, it definitely builds character."
Michael Garza clenched his fists, flexed his arms and let out a primal scream as he walked back to the center of the mat to have his hand raised as the Calumet regional 113-pound champ.
He'd just beaten Munster's Jason Crary ranked No. 2 in the state, and the relief on the Merrillville senior's face was apparent. Garza is ranked No. 5, himself, but the victory gave him a new-found confidence.
"Mike knows what to do and he's starting to put it together mentally and that's kind of putting him over the edge," coach David Maldonado said. "A lot of times, that's all you need. You just need to figure it out."
Garza takes a 36-3 record into Saturday's Merrillville semistate, where he'll be seeded No. 3. He admits that he was in a mental slump early in the year but both Maldonado and Garza say his work on and off the mat over the last few weeks has been different. It's been better.
"It's like I got over that slump and I've been working my butt off every day," he said. "It's just working harder, a better attitude."
Maldonado has known Garza since he was 5-years-old, both as a wrestler and because their families go to the same church.
"Mike Garza's been wrestling most of his life, so he's a wrestler at heart," Maldonado said. "Sometimes he gets beat to position and sometimes he loses focus, but he's a wrestler at heart and when you stay close, any good wrestler can beat you."
Garza was a state qualifier both as a sophomore and as a junior. He's got a chance to make it a hat trick this weekend.
"He just needs to open up and enjoy the rest of this season, look for positions and just continue to wrestle," Maldonado said. "Whether he wins or loses, that's what he's going to remember."
"Right now, I'm on a natural high," Garza said. "It's going to be exciting. It's my senior year, wrestling for the last time at our semistate, our own building."
"It's my last hurrah, so I'm going to make the best out of it."
Nearly two full seasons on the mat and only a handful of varsity matches to his name, Matthew Hedrick found himself nearing a crossroads in his Portage wrestling career.
"I had it in my mind that if I didn't go in and do anything big, I was going to take my junior year off and try out for basketball," Hedrick said. "My dad (Sheby) played and I wanted to follow in his footsteps for a year."
Due to a surprising turn of events, the hoop dream never happened for the kid once called 'Good Burger' and '40 Percent,' for a poor work ethic. Fortunes did not look favorable for Hedrick last year when he cracked a rib.
Rather than hit the couch and snack drawer, he ran and dieted. Hedrick shed 11 pounds in two weeks, returning to practice with designs on the varsity spot at 195 pounds. Not only did he win the wrestle-off to make the sectional lineup, he won the title.
"It was the best feeling I ever had," he said. "I was living the dream. I thought I would be a first-round dropout. I was just happy to be there. I was hoping to come in fourth and qualify for the regional."
It was a quick comedown for Hedrick, who lost in the opening round of the regional, but the match had been lit.
"It was great knowing that if I kept the dedication, I could come back the next year and show I deserve to go to semistate, to start a legacy I hope I can finish off at state," he said.
Hedrick held down the 195 spot all season and defended his sectional crown. Last Saturday, he took the next step by winning the regional.
"If you would have told me he was going to be a sectional champion last year, and a sectional and regional champion this year, I would've told you you're crazy," Portage assistant coach Glenn Ballor said. "He turned it on at the end of the year. The only thing that motivates him is winning. He'll let us beat the tar out of him. The more he wins, the better he wrestles."
In a cockeyed way, Portage has WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) to thank. Hedrick started wrestling in eighth grade, thinking he could hit people with steel chairs. Seriously.
"It inspired me to do it," he said. "I'd never been to a meet. I was in for a big surprise. I always liked the adrenaline rush you get. The hard work, the time you put in, it kept me in shape."
As a freshman, Hedrick toiled on JV at 220. While it may not have seemed like much, a title at the Goshen JV tournament provided a big lift.
"It was the first time I took a (bracket) board home," he said. "The feeling of success I had, it made me really stick with it. I was able to showcase my talent. I showed what I had to offer."
Hedrick has benefitted from a full season of varsity experience that has included three matches with top 10 foes. He lost by just two points to top-ranked Tieshawn Johnson of Elkhart Memorial.
"Seeing how I stacked up against them, it gave me a lot of confidence," Hedrick said.
The self-proclaimed 'Dark Knight' stands 26-9, taking a string of nine wins into the Merrillville Semistate.
"Knowing everything's on the line, it makes me work harder," Hedrick said.
A ticket round match with No. 2 Morgan Kral of Crown Point likely looms.
"I tell my guys they have to cross that line belieiving they can win," Balllor said. "That's the key to winning. (Hedrick)'s been so close. I think he finally believed in the regional finals. He looked great. He was ready to go."
When: 8:30 a.m. Saturday (finals approximately 5:30 p.m.).
Tickets: $10. (Enter Gate H or R).
Advancement: Top four finishers in each weight class qualify for the state finals Feb. 21-22 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Local wrestlers to watch: 106 -- Colton Cummings (Lowell), Jeremiah Reitz (Griffith); 113 -- Michael Garza (Merrillville), Jason Crary (Munster); 120 -- Gaige Torres (Portage), Daylan Schurg (Crown Point); 126 -- Stevan Micic (Hanover Central), Clarence Johnson (Merrillville); 132 -- Jake Gross (Lowell), Zach Donaldson (Crown Point), Alec Noworul (Calumet); 138 -- Jake Covaciu (Merrillville), Drew Hughes (Lowell), Josh Fuqua (Crown Point); 145 -- Isaac Rentas (Merrillville), Denton Schurg (Crown Point); 152 -- Willie Armstrong (Merrillville), Darden Schurg (Crown Point); 160 -- Kenny Hughes (Lowell), Jake Klemiola (Lake Central); 170 -- Scottie Sopko (Hobart), Alex Katsafaros (Chesterton); 182 -- Matthew Hollins (Merrillville), Mike Eldridge (LaPorte), Jaycee Jensen (Chesterton); 195 -- Tyler Scott (Hanover Central), Morgan Kral (Crown Point), Matthew Hedrick (Portage); 220 -- Gelen Robinson (Lake Central), Steven Potosky (Crown Point); 285 -- Shawn Streck (Merrillville), Landon Blackburn (LaPorte), Robert Yanez (River Forest).
Fast facts: Micic (113), Drew Hughes (120), Robinson (220) and Streck (285) are returning local champions. ... Fuqua (126) and Sopko (170) were runners-up last year. ... Micic, Kenny Hughes and Robinson are undefeated. ... Merrillville, Crown Point, Penn and Harrison (West Lafayette) won the regionals that feed into Merrillville. — Jim Peters, Times sports writer
CROWN POINT | Several wrestlers came into Saturday's Crown Point Regional with payback in mind, and three of them exacted it.
Lowell's Jake Gross and Drew Hughes and LaPorte's Mike Eldridge all reversed sectional losses with regional victories.
One thing that didn't change as the host Bulldogs rolled to their eighth straight regional title. With 10 finalists and four champions among 12 entrants, C.P. racked up 195 points, well in front of runner-up Lowell (123.5).
"Up until the finals, we only lost two matches. You've got to be happy with that," 'Dogs coach Scott Vlink said. "We wrestled really well. If you get enough guys through and one or two who weren't expected, you put yourself in position to be in the running for the semistate championship.
"It's always fun to win."
Gross scored the day's top upset with a 6-2 decision over C.P.'s previously-unbeaten Zach Donaldson at 132. A late takedown-near fall provided the margin.
"We train together all summer. I knew it would be a close match," said Gross, who lost 2-1 to Donaldson a week earlier. "I was in position a couple times last week and wasn't able to score. I just had to fine-tune some details, fix some things to help me win the match.
"It felt good to come out on top this time."
Hughes hadn’t lost before a 4-2 sectional defeat at the hands of Crown Point's Josh Fuqua. He won the 138 rematch 4-0.
"I didn't have anything to prove (before)," Hughes said. "After I lost, it really helped me get motivated. It's better that it happened at sectionals. I just felt a lot better.
"What makes it so close is we know what each other do. Last (time), I wasn't shooting at all. That was in the back of my mind. I needed to attack."
Eldridge bounced back from a 15-13 sectional loss, his first of the season, to Chesterton's Jaycee Jensen by pinning him in 3:23 at 182.
"A lot of the problem last (time) was I was too consistent," Eldridge said. "The whole match, I was kind of out of control. Those matches are entertaining, but you leave it up to chance, wrestling like that.
"I just had to slow down, be overall smarter. There was a little revenge factor. You have to wrestle every match like it could be your last."
In another rematch, Hanover Central's Tyler Scott edged C.P.'s Morgan Kral for the second straight week at 195, holding off a late shot to prevail 5-4.
"It's always a good match," Scott said. "He has the height and I have the strength and speed factor. He's so tall, you can't tie up too much. You have to stay low. One long reach and you're on your back."
Three of Crown Point's four champions were named Schurg, Daylan at 120, Denton at 145 and Darden at 152. Darden and Dusty took regional titles last year, but this marked the family's first regional hat trick.
"Their matches are before mine, so they set the bar for me," said Darden, a winner by technical fall over Kankakee Valley's Andrew Schulteis. "Our family's competitive. It'll be one of things where we'll be saying, 'Oh yeah, I pinned my kid' or 'I teched my kid.'"
Hanover Central's Stevan Micic (126) and Lowell's Kenny Hughes (160) remained perfect, though Hughes had to hang on for a 9-8 victory over John Glenn's Adam Dodson.
LaPorte's Landon Blackburn downed Valpo's Ian Suttles 6-2 at 285.
"He stands straight up," Blackburn said. "It's hard to take him down, but it sets up my low shot."
CALUMET TWP. | Merrillville coach David Maldonado says the key to winning a wrestling state title is winning the regional as an individual, so as to avoid meeting another regional champ later in the bracket.
Merrillville put nine wrestlers in the finals at Saturday's Calumet regional and seven of them will be right where Maldonado wants them to be after winning their respective weight classes.
"We had a good day," Maldonado said. "You've always got to be happy with a win, especially against teams like Portage and Lake Central and some of these other individual (wrestlers)."
The Pirates scored 201.5 points and will advance 11 wrestlers to the semistate it hosts next weekend.
"There's nothing like rolling out of bed and getting to work," Maldonado said.
Willie Armstrong avenged four losses to Lake Central's Kody Christenson in the 152-pound championship. The Pirates' senior won a 5-3 overtime decision in what may have been the most exciting match of the day.
"That was the victory that I needed. I can't really explain how happy I was," Armstrong said. "In overtime, I was like 'Man, I'm in the same predicament.' I just kept thinking 'This is going to send me to semistate, so just push through it and hope for the best.'"
Merrillville's Michael Garza was just as excited after winning the 113-pound final with a 3-2 decision over Munster's Jason Crary. Garza screamed and flexed as the third-period buzzer sounded.
Crary, who wore a bulky knee brace Saturday, beat Garza 3-0 at the Al Smith Invitational in December.
"I wanted this more than anything, like it was my last match," Garza said. "It's a big milestone, because (Crary's) ranked second in the state. It makes me feel like I'm a possible contender for that state title."
Portage finished second as a team with 149.5 points. Gaige Torres won the 120-pound weight class with a 7-3 decision over Morton's Ruben Rodriguez.
Torres, who was in control most of the match, said his experience wrestling Rodriguez's younger brother Rickie gave him an advantage in his first meeting with Ruben.
"I knew what his brother did, so I just stayed away from his setups and just plowed ahead for six minutes," Torres said. "My coach (Leroy Vega) always tells me to go out there and give 100 percent and just make sure you dominate."
Merrillville's other champions were Clarence Johnson (126), Jacob Covaciu (138), Isaac Rentas (145), Matthew Hollins (182) and Shawn Streck (285).
Other champions include Lake Central Jake Kleimola (160) and Gelen Robinson (220), Griffith's Jeremiah Reitz (106), Calumet's Alec Noworul (132), Portage's Matt Hedrick and Hobart's Scottie Sopko (170).
When the email from Indiana High School Athletic Association Assistant Commissioner Robert Faulkens arrived in Jim Wadkins' inbox before last week's sectional, the contents came as a surprise to Calumet's wrestling coach.
"I've been around 35 years, and I'd never seen a contingency plan," Wadkins said.
The memo cited guidelines for tournament hosts on what to do should there be a weather issue. Like every sport, wrestling has been hampered by the unrelenting snow and cold, but the length of its events puts the postseason schedule in a unique, don't postpone unless a state of emergency is declared, situation.
"There's less leeway with wrestling," Faulkens said. "It's more difficult to reschedule. It would take two (weekdays), and most schools don't have that time to devote to it. You can't start at 4, because you can't get everybody there, and you can't start at 6, because you can't have them wrestling at midnight. It's tough on the administration, and it's tough on the kids."
While last Saturday's prep sports schedule was largely wiped out, the area's four wrestling sectionals gutted it out.
"Attendance was down, but everybody was there. Everybody had a chance to compete," Faulkens said.
The most eyebrow-raising aspect of the plan is a stipulation that allows tournaments to be held as long as 50 percent of the participating schools get there. In theory, if Gelen Robinson couldn't have gotten to East Chicago or Stevan Micic to Crown Point, the defending state champions would've been done. Thankfully, it didn't come to that. As stunning as the prospect sounds, Faulkens said nothing that drastic has ever occurred.
"In 1978, I was at South Bend LaSalle, and our team couldn't get to LaPorte," Faulkens said. "The school didn't provide transportation. Guys drove themselves over."
Similar parameters were given in 2004 when an ice storm hit the Richmond area, but Faulkens doesn't recall anyone not making it, one way or the other.
"We want to leave the decision in the hands of the site management," he said. "Now if the state police say there's going to be a $250 fine to be on the road, then you better cancel. If the superintendents get together and decide it's not in the best interests to go, then don't do it, reschedule."
Crown Point Athletic Director Bill Dorulla said in an email they plan to run their regional with no delays. Because the range of teams in the Calumet Regional isn't as extensive as most locations, Wadkins isn't sweating it.
"It's Northwest Indiana; it snows, man," he said. "I'm not going to worry about it until it happens. I'm more concerned with Track Wrestling than I am with the snow. We're not going to pressure anybody to get here. We'd hold off. If we were to have to start at noon or 1, we're out of the gym by 6 or 7. I'm pretty confident we'll get it in."
A postponement is a resort no one wants to face. From an administrative standpoint, a midweek finish puts the squeeze on semistates to get brackets prepared. As a coach, Wadkins hates the idea of a Monday restart.
"The person who made up that plan didn't have kids who had to make weight," he said. "Kids aren't going to go home and go to the health club. They're going to go eat. They say we can't practice Sunday, so you're going to have kids who are overweight all over the place, even with the two-pound allowance. I'd hate to have to make it up before Tuesday."
Snow is in the Saturday forecast. Keep your fingers crossed.
There are no days off for Jack Tolin.
Out of school sick Monday, the Chesterton freshman still found a way to feed his wrestling fix, watching the Ohio State-Purdue match.
"I'm definitely all in," Tolin said. "I've always liked the one-on-one aspect, you against the other guy. It's different than basketball ... or football ... The pressure's on you."
Growing up in Cleveland, Hal Tolin wrestled in high school and passed his passion along to sons, Jack and Danny. Jack began in the Duneland Wrestling Club when he was in second grade.
"I always look up to him," Tolin said of his dad. "He's always been tough. He talks about never having had as much technique or coaching as us. I heard (club coach Keith) Davison was a great coach. I don't think there's a bigger (wrestling) fan. I had nothing to lose, having such a great guy with so much experience coach me. I know how there's so much more to the sport, so much you can do after it."
It was several years before Tolin had success, finding the drive to improve in his struggles.
"The first probably four years, I was always getting frustrated after matches," he said. "Coming up to Chesterton, I knew I had to get better, that I could surpass the guys I wanted to beat if I kept working hard. The past couple years, I started winning the close matches. I could see everything coming together."
Though he's just 15, Tolin boasts a background and mature approach that belies his age.
"Jack is the first wave of year-round wrestlers coming up," Chesterton coach Chris Joll said. "No one other than Andy St. Germain has come in with more experience. He knows what he's doing. There's not a lot you have to tell him. He works hard."
Assistant coach Jason Cook, a state champion at Valparaiso, can’t help but see a bit of himself in the 5-foot-3, 106-pounder.
"He just loves wrestling," Cook said. "I'll reference a video on Flow Wrestling, and the next day he's already watched it twice. He can name moves a college wrestler hits. He can connect the dots, put together higher-level technique. He's been doing it for a while."
It's evident in the results. With a 32-2 record and a LaPorte Sectional title, Tolin is satisfied, for now, but still looking forward.
"I've seen freshmen have success, and I didn’t think I'd be any different," Tolin said. "Realistically, I think I had to have goals (to) beat anyone, set them high, or I wouldn't have the motivation I have. The coaches do a real good job pushing me, keeping my mind focused, while creating an enjoyable atmosphere. Wrestling is so much based on reactions, and they've drilled us to where it's just muscle memory."
Joll credits Tolin for being open to coaching, incorporating different styles and moves to complement what he already does. A 4.38 student with several honors classes, Tolin watches college matches to try to expand his wrestling knowledge.
"I try to find guys who fit what I'm doing, who have the same building blocks," he said. "I see what works for them and add it to my repertoire. I just try to do what I want to do, keep it sound, not look for anything too big. I can compete cardio-wise with anybody in the state and technically; I definitely have a chance to compete with anyone."
Having been to the state finals the last three years as a spectator, Tolin plans to be a participant this time.
"Just watching, it really looks like it's something special to wrestle a match under the lights," he said. "(Winning state) has been a goal since I started the sport, but it doesn't happen overnight. I'm still learning."
When: 9 a.m. Saturday.
Advancement: Top four wrestlers in each weight class qualify for the Feb. 15 Merrillville Semistate.
Wrestlers to watch: Calumet -- Alec Noworul (132), Nick Fowler (182); E.C. Central -- Robert Rivera (195); Griffith -- Jeremiah Reitz (106); Hobart -- Brendan Black (120), Scottie Sopko (170); Lake Central -- Kody Christenson (152), Jake Kleimola (160), Gelen Robinson (220); Merrillville -- Michael DeLaPena (106), Michael Garza (113), Clarence Johnson (126), Jacob Covaciu (138), Isaac Rentas (145), Shawn Streck (285); Morton -- Ruben Rodriguez (120); Munster -- Jason Crary (113); Portage -- Gaige Torres (120), Juan Duque (126), Steven Lawrence (138), Travis Williams (220); River Forest -- Robert Yanez (285).
Fast facts: Merrillville won last year's regional crown. ... No other team has won a regional since Portage in 2005. ... Garza, Torres, Covaciu, Rentas, Robinson and Streck are returning individual regional champions.
Crown Point Regional
When: 9 a.m. Saturday.
Advancement: Top four wrestlers in each weight class qualify for the Feb. 15 Merrillville Semistate.
Favorite: Crown Point.
Wrestlers to watch: Chesterton -- Jack Tolin (106), Mike Double (132), Sawyer Hallas (160), Alex Katsafaros (170), Jaycee Jensen (182), Connor Smith (220); Crown Point -- Daylan Schurg (120), Zach Donaldson (132), Josh Fuqua (138), Denton Schurg (145), Darden Schurg (152), Morgan Kral (195), Steven Potoskey (220); Glenn -- Adam Dodson (160); Hanover Central -- Stevan Micic (126), Tyler Scott (195); Kankakee Valley -- Tim Schoonveld (182); Knox -- Eric Dan (145), Jacob Krause (152), Michael Sustaita (195); LaVille -- Tristan Weaver (126); LaPorte -- Zack Wells (120), Mike Eldridge (182), Landon Blackburn (285); Lowell -- Colton Cummings (106), Drew Hughes (138), Kenny Hughes (160), Isaac James (170); New Prairie -- Chris Trent (113), John Trent (138), Wade Young (170); Valparaiso -- Austin Line (113), Ian Suttles (285).
Fast facts: Crown Point is defending champion. ... Chris Trent, Micic, Drew and Kenny Hughes, Josh Fuqua, Darden and Dustin Schurg, Eldridge, Scott and Kral are all returning titlists.
— Compiled by Jim Peters and David Funk
There are names painted on the wall in the Calumet wrestling room. Each one was a previous Warriors wrestler who qualified for or placed at the state meet.
Senior Alec Noworul is fifth in career wins (128) at Calumet — having just passed assistant coach Andy Trevino — but his name is not yet on that list.
He's desperate to remedy that situation.
"My main goal this year was to qualify and place at state," Noworul said. "I felt like I was close last year and that motivated me so much."
The 132-pounder has twice qualified for semistate. He admits that he was beaten badly in the first round of the semistate as a freshman by Harrison's Reise Overby. Noworul was overwhelmed, nervous and not the technically proficient wrestler he is now.
"He is a student of the sport, watches everything he can see on the (Big Ten Network) about college wrestling," coach Jim Wadkins said. "He has become more patient, or more mat savvy, this season. Some guys are so aggressive for falls that they put themselves in bad situations.
"At this stage of the season, the goal is to make it through to the next match, then the next week. You don't have to have falls and (technical falls) to qualify for the state finals."
Noworul missed the postseason during his sophomore season with a broken thumb. It was difficult to watch wrestlers with whom he felt he could compete advance though playoffs.
He took a 3-2 loss to Valparaiso's Max Buckley as a junior. Buckley would go on to be the last state qualifier from the Merrillville semistate.
This year, Noworul says, he understands what it takes.
"I'm wrestling the best I ever have right now," Noworul said. "I expected everything to just happen last year. Now, I know you have to work. I know what to expect."
Noworul plans to wrestle next season at Manchester College, where he'll major in civil engineering. But first he's got some unfinished business, beginning with Saturday's Calumet regional.
"It would be extremely gratifying (to see Noworul's name on the wall)," Wadkins said. "That's a nice legacy to leave behind for any of our kids, not to mention pretty cool to see your name up there in perpetuity."
CROWN POINT | Crown Point senior Josh Fuqua was relaxed standing mat side in his sweats about 45 minutes after his upset victory at 138 pounds Saturday.
Earlier, Fuqua and his Bulldogs' teammates brought a heightened intensity to the mat, as the hosts emphatically won their 12th consecutive sectional crown, amassing 263 points to outdistance runner-up Valparaiso’s 194.5.
Lowell took third with 187 points.
“It was really put out there that we had to do better than we were seeded,” Fuqua said.
Crown Point coach Scott Vlink said scoring bonus points on falls in the early rounds gave his charges a cushion going into the finals.
“We told our kids all week we thought this was going to be close, and we had to score,” he said.
Teams get two bonus points for each fall in an individual match, and Vlink estimated they picked up 10 falls in the early rounds.
“In the finals you just worry about winning matches and getting good match-ups for next week,” he said.
Fuqua (11-2) stunned previously unbeaten Drew Hughes (27-1), of Lowell, with a 4-2 victory, scoring a takedown with 20 seconds left in the match.
“I just tried wrestling to win and not to lose,” Fuqua said.
“He wrestled a very good strategic, tactical match,” Vlink said.
In all, Crown Point qualified 12 wrestlers, including six champs, for next week’s regional.
“We thought this was going to be tight,” Vlink said. “Our kids really stepped up.”
Valpo was a bit of surprise at second and qualified 11 for the CP Regional, including two champions -- Austin Line at 113 and Ian Suttles at 285.
First-year coach Mark Line told his kids to believe in their schedule, their teammates and what they’ve done.
“You come in, you wrestle hard and work to exceed your seeds,” he said. “Our kids are starting to believe right now. We’re young. We’re diaper dandies.”
Lowell advanced eight with three champions and four runner-ups on the day, including unbeaten Kennith Hughes (28-0) at 160.
“We wrestled well,” coach Bobby Howard said. "Crown Point is a deep team. They’re scoring points in every weight class, and that’s what you need to win something like this.”
Kankakee Valley’s Tim Schoonveld will take a 39-1 mark into the regional after his technical fall victory at 182 over Lowell’s John Bigbie.
“I’ve got a big match against (LaPorte’s Mike) Eldrige next week at regionals, so hopefully I can have a good match against him," Schoonveld said.
Hanover’s Stevan Micic remained undefeated (31-0) at 126, while Tyler Scott (33-3) avenged an early season 2-1 loss and upset previously unbeaten Morgan Kral (29-1) 5-3 at 195, and the two will likely meet next week.
“He’ll be in the finals with me, I have no doubt,” said Scott, who won sectionals at 182 last year.
CALUMET TWP. | The mat was a sea of red as wrestlers gathered to be announced as finalists in each weight class Saturday at Calumet.
Portage put a grappler in nine of 14 championship matches and all nine took home first-place ribbons. The Times No. 4 Indians won their sixth consecutive sectional title in impressive fashion, sending all 14 wrestlers back to Calumet for next week's regional.
"We expect to win. We want to win," coach Leroy Vega said. "It's a mentality now and I love it."
In total, 13 of Portage's 14 wrestlers won their final matches. The Indians scored 293 points to Hobart's 203.5.
"That's a team coming together," Vega said. "Now we're looking forward to hopefully sending up good spots next week to move on to semistate."
Indians sophomore Gaige Torres topped Hobart's Brendan Black in a championship match that had the attention of almost everyone in the gym.
Torres' reversal in the second period started a five-point swing that led to a 9-4 decision.
"He made a mistake and tried to trip me and I just reversed him. From then, I knew I had him," Torres said. "I just kept on pounding on his head and he kept on getting frustrated."
Black and Torres will likely meet again next week.
"It'll be another good one," Torres said.
Miguel Prado (113), Juan Duque (126), Steven Lawrence (138), Davin Gonzalez (145), Iszak Morgan (152), Darren Svitko (160), Matt Hedrick (195) and Travis Williams (220) all won their respective weight classes for Portage.
Senior Alec Noworul claimed a sectional championship for the host Warriors at 132 pounds, taking a 2-1 decision over Lake Station's Steven Ames.
"(Ames) is a real good defensive wrestler, a real tough kid. I knew I would have to be active and I would end up scoring somehow," Noworul said.
"It's real frustrating (to have to grind out a win). I'd like to go out there and just dominate as much as possible, but I have to know you don't always have to do that to win."
River Forest's Robert Yanez stayed undefeated at 285 pounds. The senior beat Calumet's Marshawn Manuel for the fifth time this season in the final with a pin at 1:54.
Yanez said he's ready for the increased level of competition that the regional will bring.
"I'm really confident right now. I'm looking forward to wrestling (Merrillville's Shawn) Streck," Yanez said. "It'll be one of my first times actually wrestling good competition and I want to see how I'll do."
Other individual champions includes Griffith's Jeremiah Reitz (106), Hobart's Scottie Sopko (170) and Calumet's Nick Fowler (182).
LAPORTE | If Jaycee Jensen doesn't do anything special the rest of the postseason, he will always have this moment.
The Chesterton senior 182-pounder upset previously-undefeated LaPorte's Mike Eldridge 15-13 in the championship of Saturday's LaPorte Sectional, a back-and-forth bout that saw both wrestlers fight their way off their backs in a wild six minutes.
"It's really exhilarating," Jensen said. "It was the craziest match of my high school career. (John) Cook told me if you're hoping to upset a guy like that, you have to go all out, give everything you have, and that's exactly what I did.
"He was going to give me chances and I had to capitalize. It's a great feeling, but there are three more weeks."
Buoyed by a quick takedown and two-point near fall, Jensen led 4-0, but the lead would change hands several times as he and Eldridge each found themselves looking up at the gym lights.
Eldridge led 12-11 in the last 30 seconds, when Jensen reversed him and turned him.
"His cradle is deadly," Jensen said. "I had to stay on top and stay in good position. I firmly believe I'm one of the best in-shape 182s in the state. Coach (Chris) Joll works us really hard. It was a battle of conditioning."
Connor Smith (220), Mike Double (132) and Jack Tolin (106) also took titles for Chesterton, though New Prairie topped the Trojans, 253-242, for team honors.
"We beat them at '52, '60 and '95, and they came back in the wrestlebacks and scored more getting third than we did getting second," Joll said.
"This is a team we've been duct taping together since Mishawaka. We've had to put a lot of pressure on four younger guys who don't have a whole lot of experience, and they did well to get us that close."
Double also won in dramatic fashion, scoring a takedown at the edge of the mat as New Prairie's Eric Brown went for a headlock in the final seconds of the first overtime to prevail 4-2.
"We were both trying to hit home runs the entire match to score extra points for our teams," Double said. "Once it got to overtime, I didn't want to force anything. All he was looking for was pancakes, trying to throw me the whole entire match, so I had to drive, drive, drive, just keep wrestling smart."
Tolin, a freshman, pinned New Prairie's Kyle Gaurotte in 3:15.
"Technically, I felt good. I executed the stuff I wanted to do coming in," Tolin said. "It's a step. I have bigger goals. I'm looking toward state."
Like Jensen, Smith is a first-time sectional champ as a senior. He handled New Prairie's Miguel Ibarra 8-1 after Ibarra upset top-seeded Bayland Brown of North Judson.
"It's the highlight of my career, so far," Smith said. "All the hard work's paid off. I was able to keep pushing the pace. One of our strengths is we can keep going into the third period. I just stayed with the stuff I'm comfortable with."
Landon Blackburn (285) and Zack Wells (120) won for LaPorte. Blackburn pinned LaVille's Austin Wilson, while Wells hit a late takedown to top New Prairie's Brad Freestone 3-1.
"I worked to my advantages," Blackburn said. "I didn't take shots I didn't need to take. I did a good job controlling my opponents, keeping them down and making smart decisions, cutting them and giving them one instead of two."
EAST CHICAGO | Merrillville's David Maldonado admits that his job as a coach is hard.
He recognizes his job is to help wrestlers get better with their flaws, which could make it seem like he isn't supporting them.
But on Saturday at the E.C. Central wrestling sectional, nine wrestlers from Times No. 1 Merrillville captured individual titles en route to the Pirates' second consecutive title with 293.5 points, which bested second-place Lake Central at 238 total points.
"It seems like I'm not their fan because I'm their biggest critic, but they all know I'm proud of them," said Maldonado. "I have to pick them apart to make them better."
One of the Pirate champs included sophomore heavyweight Shawn Streck (34-1), who pinned Lake Central's Nick Minkema in 2:59 on his way to a second straight title at 285 pounds.
"It's been a lot of conditioning from the coaches," said Streck, who moved his career mark to 75-7.
"I still have to work harder in the rooms and couldn't improve unless coach helped me work out the bad things."
The rest of the individual champs for Merrillville were freshman Michael DeLaPena (106), senior Michael Garza (113), junior Clarence Johnson (126), junior Derrick Scott (132), sophomore Jacob Covaciu (138), senior Isaac Rentas (145), senior Deven Lee (170), and senior Matthew Hollins (182).
The train keeps rolling for Lake Central 220-pounder and defending state champ senior Gelen Robinson (41-0), who won his third sectional title with a pin of Bishop Noll junior Jesus Loe in 1:02.
"This has been a great experience for myself because I've had a lot of help from my teammates," said Robinson, who moved his career mark to 141-13. "The downstate competition is impressive, but because I have more experience now, I have become more focused."
In perhaps the wackiest match of the day, EC Central junior and No. 3 seed Robert Rivera first defeated No. 2 seed Clark junior Rene Zamora in the 195-pound semifinal 15-14 in four overtimes.
But then he beat Morton's No. 1 seed Adrian Palacios via pinfall at the 5:27 mark in the final to grab EC Central's first individual wrestling sectional title since 2010.
Other champions included Morton senior Ruben Rodriguez (120), Lake Central junior Kody Christenson (152), and Lake Central sophomore Jake Kleimola (160).
Jeremiah Reitz is a self-described "adrenaline junkie."
But the Griffith freshman doesn't jump out of planes or bungee jump. He wrestles.
"I do it for that feeling you get right before the match or right after the match, when that work you put in during the week pays off," Reitz said. "It's like being paid. It's like getting a paycheck."
Reitz has been paid well — metaphorically — this season. He's 30-1, ranked No. 4 in the state at 106 pounds and can count himself as both Lake County Tournament and Northwest Crossroads Conference champion.
"He's only a freshman, but he's got a really high wrestling IQ," coach Dan Bedoy said. "He's got all the tools. It's just a matter of putting it all together."
Bedoy calls Reitz a smart, humble kid. Seeing his name on the state rankings or online message boards can be overwhelming, so Reitz tries to avoid the hype that surrounded him before he took a high school class.
"There's no special recipe with this sport. You just have to work hard," Bedoy said. "He's just got to get to the next rung on the ladder and not look past it."
Reitz has taken his game up a notch this season. His technique was never the problem, but this season he's worked on his physicality and getting into his opponent's heads.
It has made all the difference, he said.
"I've worked on my confidence and I'm starting to trust myself," Reitz said.
He's got second- and third-place finishes in the middle school state championship under his belt, plus a host of top 10 finishes in regional and national tournaments dating back almost five years.
"I'm trying to get him to enjoy each moment," Bedoy said. "He's looking toward state, but he should know that winning the conference is cool and winning the sectional is cool, too."
Reitz has eyes on only one prize, though. In fact, he says he wants four state championships before he leaves Griffith and knows what he'll be doing if he doesn't get one this season.
"I'll be in some sort of practice room the very next day," he said. "That'll give me the drive to make sure I get there next year and not be satisfied."
Wrestling and school may not seem to have much in common.
When Hebron junior Brandon Sanchez learned the two actually have plenty of similarities, he unlocked the door to success in both.
"Wrestling helped me a lot with what was going on," Sanchez said. "I've learned how to set goals, what I need to do. Having a plan for a match is helping me set goals for real life. If you want to go far, you can't give up on what you want to do. You've got to earn what you're working for."
The process has not come quickly or easily for Sanchez. He left the team as a freshman, struggling with his grades and his wrestling.
"I wasn't ready for the hard work," he said. "It was a whole other level I wasn't prepared for. I didn't realize how important (school) was."
That summer, Sanchez asked to return to the team, assuring Hawks coach Todd Adamczyk he had gotten his priorities in order.
"The message we send to kids is you're here for school first and wrestling second," Adamczyk said. "You can use wrestling as a vehicle to make you successful in the classroom.
"He was still struggling in school. We had to make sure he was turning things in, getting things done, but you could see the progress. He was getting it. Sometimes he's still got to get a kick in the pants, but he's definitely understanding the accountability of it. It's not just about him anymore. He would be letting his team down, too."
In the classroom, Sanchez began to seek help when he didn't understand, rather than give up.
"I'm realizing I'm getting closer to graduation. I have to get ready to face the real world," he said. "I needed to buckle down, man up, face facts. Grades are first more than anything."
On the mat, Sanchez also found the value of opening his ears.
"I was doing my own thing," he said. "I realized if I listened to coach, things actually fall into place a lot more. He's always there, helping me out. I'm taking it more seriously. I'm accepting the pain and going for more. I've improved so much, especially my takedowns and confidence."
After finishing 18-19 last season at 220 pounds, Sanchez is 20-8 this year at heavyweight, competing at about 235 pounds.
"The light bulb went on," Adamczyk said. "Before, the things we'd work on in practice, shouting from the side of the mat in a match, he wasn't doing. Now it's, hey, coach actually knows what he's talking about. He finally started to figure out, if I do the things he tells me to do, I'll have more success. He's buying into what we're coaching. He knows what's at stake. He has something to lose."
It's not an easy situation for Sanchez, who has no true practice partners. Hebron's next heaviest wrestler is 160-pound Tony Fritsch. Adamczyk is close to Sanchez's size, but can't drill with him for long durations.
"I've never had anybody close to my weight class," Sanchez said. "Most of our big guys are on the basketball team."
Sanchez is seeded third for Saturday's Crown Point Sectional. While Adamczyk hopes he can qualify for the regional with a top-four finish, Sanchez is aiming higher.
"Last year was my first time in a sectional," he said. "I'm looking forward to getting second or first. It's some of the same guys, but I still want to win, to make it to the top."
No matter what, Sanchez likes the direction he's headed.
"I'm looking for a more positive year, next year," he said. "School, grades, wrestling. It'll be my last year. I'm going for it."
When: 9 a.m. Saturday.
Participating schools: Calumet, Lew Wallace, West Side, Griffith, Highland, Hobart, Lake Station, Portage, River Forest.
Wrestlers to watch: Calumet -- Alec Noworul (132), Doriante Bryant (138), Nick Fowler (182), Marshawn Manuel (285); West Side -- DeAnthony Hall (160); Griffith -- Jeremiah Reitz (106), Ben Stassing (160), Ryan Dunlap (182); Highland -- Ryne Kijurna (195); Hobart -- Brendan Black (120), Sergio Castellanos (126), Matt Burns (132), Scottie Sopko (170); Lake Station -- Jonah Shultz (220); Portage -- Tyler Joseph (106), Gaige Torres (120), Steven Lawrence (138), Travis Williams (220); River Forest -- Jose Zambrana (170), Robert Yanez (285).
Fast facts: Portage has won five consecutive sectional team championships and 20 in the last 22 seasons. ... The Indians sent 13 of 14 wrestlers to the regional in 2013. ... Joseph, Torres, Sopko and Yanez are returning individual sectional champs.
Crown Point Sectional
When: 9 a.m. Saturday.
Participating schools: Andrean, Boone Grove, Crown Point, Hanover Central, Hebron, Kankakee Valley, Lowell, Valparaiso, Wheeler.
Favorite: Crown Point.
Darkhorse: Hanover Central.
Wrestlers to watch: Crown Point -- Daylan Schurg (120), Zach Donaldson (132), Denton Schurg (145), Darden Schurg (152), Morgan Kral (195), Steven Potoskey (220); Hanover Central -- Isaac Cortez (106), Chris Ruiz (113), Adoko Neil (120), Stevan Micic (126), Evan Larsen (145), Tyler Scott (195); Kankakee Valley -- Tim Schoonveld (182), Alex Berdine (220); Lowell -- Colton Cummings (106), Jake Gross (132), Drew Hughes (138), Kenny Hughes (160), Isaac James (170); Valparaiso -- Austin Line (113), Ian Suttles (285).
Fast facts: Crown Point has won 11 titles in a row. ... Micic, Scott, both Hugheses, C.P.'s Josh Fuqua, Riley Akers, Darden Schurg, Kral and Potoskey are returning champions. ... Micic, Donaldson, both Hugheses and Kral are undefeated.
E.C. Central Sectional
When: 9 a.m. Saturday.
Participating schools: E.C. Central, Hammond, Bishop Noll, Clark, Gavit, Morton, Lake Central, Merrillville, Munster, Whiting.
Darkhorse: Lake Central.
Wrestlers to watch: E.C. Central -- Robert Rivera (195); Hammond -- Shamar Shields (220), Ronald Burnett (285); Bishop Noll -- George Sons (113), Jesus Loe (220); Clark -- Chris Diaz (120), Ismael Quintanilla (132), Maurice Dawkins (145), Kensha Funches (182); Gavit -- Frederick Taylor (126), Michael Maravilla (160); Lake Central -- Branden Truver (126), Jake Sebahar (145), Kody Christensen (152), Gelen Robinson (220); Morton -- Julian Miranda (106), Rickie Rodriguez (113), Ruben Rodriguez (120), Andy Key (170); Merrillville -- Mike Garza (113), Clarence Johnson (126), Jacob Covaciu (138), Isaac Rentas (145), Willie Armstrong (152), Matt Hollins (182), Shawn Streck (285); Munster -- Jason Crary (113), Rudy Magana (120).
Fast facts: Merrillville has won nine team sectional titles in a row. ... The Pirates won nine weight classes last season. ... Garza, Rickie Rodriguez, Covaciu, Christensen, Rentas, Armstrong, Robinson and Streck are returning individual sectional champs.
When: 9 a.m. Saturday.
Participating schools: Chesterton, Glenn, Knox, LaPorte, LaVille, Michigan City, New Prairie, North Judson.
Darkhorse: New Prairie.
Wrestlers to watch: Chesterton -- Jack Tolin (106), Sawyer Hallas (160), Alex Katsafaros (170), Connor Smiith (220); Knox -- Michael Sustaita (195); LaPorte -- Mike Eldridge (182), Landon Blackburn (285); New Prairie -- Chris Trent (113), Dalton Escobedo (160).
Fast facts: Chesterton is defending champion. ... Trent, Escobedo, Glenn's Austin Coach, James Frey and Adam Dodson, Chesterton's Mike Double, Eldridge and Sustaita are returning individual champions.
— Compiled by David Funk and Jim Peters
(Previous ranking in parentheses)
1. Merrillville (1)
2. Crown Point (2)
3. Hanover Central (3)
4. Portage (4)
5. Chesterton (5)
6. Lake Central (6)
7. Kankakee Valley (7)
8. Lowell (8)
9. Valparaiso (9)
10. Hobart (10)
HAMMOND | No Morton senior will ever be part of a Governors team that didn't win the Great Lakes Athletic Conference tournament.
In fact, the class of 2014 was in seventh grade the last time Morton didn't win the GLAC championship. The Govs have now won five straight conference tournaments after dominating Thursday's meet in Hessville.
"There's no reason why we shouldn't be (conference champs). We should be pushing for sectional championships," Ruben Rodriguez said. "(Coach Kevin Persley) always says that (other GLAC schools) want to be conference champions but we should want to be something more."
Rodriguez won perhaps the most anticipated final of the night, topping Clark's Chris Diaz at 120 pounds. The match was 2-2 heading into the third period when Rodriguez heard his coaches yell, "send a message for next week."
The Governors senior won the match 11-4.
"I started off slow because I wasn't confident, yet, in my shots," Rodriguez said. "It just kept progressing. It kept getting easier and started opening up."
The younger Rodriguez, Rickie, won his class, too. Rickie pinned Gavit's Jameir Hightower in 32 seconds at 113 pounds. Morton won seven of 14 weight classes -- three by fall-- to finish with 200 points. Clark finished second with 142.5.
Clark's Ismael Quintanilla stepped up his game for the conference meet. The 132-pounder took a 17-1 decision from Hammond's Javante Jones. Quintanilla won a four-point decision in the pair's previous meeting.
"There was just a little bit more at stake (tonight), so I pressed a little harder," Quintanilla said. "It didn't matter (that I'd wrestled Jones before). There was no strategy, just attack, attack, attack."
The closest match was at 195 pounds, where Morton's Adrian Palacios topped Clark's Rene Zamora 6-4 in overtime. Zamora was awarded a point less than a second before the buzzer sounded for the end of the third period, tying the match at 4-4.
"All of my matches come down to the last take down," Palacios said. "I guess I pulled through with everybody cheering me on."
Gavit finished third with 124 points. Hammond had 91.
Robert Yanez remembers his freshman wrestling season at River Forest like a bad dream.
The program was nearly discontinued because of a lack of interest in the early 2000's and hadn't yet fully recovered. Coach Brian Wesley took over during Yanez's sophomore year and started recruiting athletes from other sports, even if they didn't have a wrestling background. Yanez recruited, too.
"I wasn't really planning on trying to make the program better. I was trying to get more guys," Yanez said. "Wrestling is definitely better now. (Wesley) puts a lot of effort into making the team better."
Yanez was still bringing in wrestlers this year, adding a couple freshmen he said had natural ability.
The Ingots have earned back the respect of the area and Yanez's role in that extends beyond his recruiting pitch.
"He may not be the strongest kid. He's a smaller heavyweight, but he's got quickness and he's not afraid to take a shot that a lot of heavyweights won't take," Wesley said. "He's been wrestling since he was a little guy and he knows what he's doing."
The senior is ranked No. 12 in the state with a record of 27-0 with 26 pins in his first season as a heavyweight. The only opponent he didn't defeat by fall was Calumet's Marshawn Manuel during the Lake County tournament. Yanez pinned Manuel a week later in the Greater South Shore Conference tournament.
"Other kids join wrestling because of Robert, because they see him being successful," Wesley said. "They think 'Why not me?'"
Yanez has come just short of qualifying for state twice, including falling one position short as a sophomore. His goal is to make the podium at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in a month.
"It's a completely different bracket (this year). I've learned to wrestle better and I've beaten state-ranked wrestlers," Yanez said. "I know what to expect."
He would be the first River Forest grappler to make it to Indianapolis since Javier Salas did it in 2003. In 2004, only three wrestlers came out for the Ingots squad.
"Every day I walk down the hall (at school) and see the (River Forest athletic) Hall of Fame," Yanez said. "I read what the other wrestlers have done. I want to be up there."
Years from now, Ryan Gough will be the answer to a Wheeler trivia question.
At this point, his title in Saturday's Greater South Shore Conference tournament, the school's first in the sport, is anything but trivial, a cornerstone for a program in its initial full varsity season.
"It's big for the rest of the kids to see, that if you work hard and do the right things, you can win," Bearcats coach Scott Houldieson said. "They see it in practice. Ryan is one of our hardest workers and he gets the results."
The top-seeded Gough pinned his way through the tourney at 152 pounds, but he wasn't thinking in terms of history.
"It made me happy to be a conference champion more than being the first to do it," said Gough, who took second at the same weight last year. "It means a lot. I hope it motivates guys to go further than me, to push even harder, to accomplish more for the team, for the school."
On a team full of fledglings, Gough is an exception to the rule, already possessing a grasp of the basics.
"He's been a leader from day one," Houldieson said. "The kids voted him captain, which shows what they think of him. They look up to him. (His background) gives him body awareness on the mat, (good) positioning, technique. He's got a very good support group in his parents, which is a big part in the success of young kids."
While living in Merrillville, Gough's parents put him in the wrestling club during elementary school. He wrestled through middle school, placing second in the conference meet as a seventh-grader at Pierce. His family moved to Union Township before Gough's freshman year, at which point Wheeler didn't have wrestling.
"I just figured I was done," he said. "I was really excited when they started it. It's by far my favorite sport. It's fun to me. It's always been what I was best at. I like to try to push myself. I don't like giving up. You can't rely on anybody else. You get out of it what you put into it. It's your own fault if you lose."
That's only happened once in 19 matches for Gough, his sole loss coming against Lake Central's state-ranked Cody Christenson. All but three of his victories have come by pin.
"I'm in way better condition," Gough said. "My skills have improved a lot. I'm a lot more fluid with my moves. I just try to feel out a guy, see what I can do, then try to break them down and work whatever move I can. Coach Scott and coach Corey (Crew) have caught me up on what I missed."
While it came against a back-up, Gough ranks his win over Crown Point at the top, given the Bulldogs' status as a state power.
"I like to see good competition," he said. "It's good to wrestle tough matches. It tests my ability."
That'll be the case in 10 days when Wheeler competes in its first sectional.
"It's his last shot, his one and only shot," Houldieson said. "We've got a little mat time left. All we can do is try to get better, keep grinding it out in practice and see how far it takes us."
The brutally tough Crown Point site features five of the teams from this week's Times top 10.
"I'm excited. I've never been to a sectional in a sport," Gough said. "I'm not going to be wrestling in college, so I know this is it. I'm just going to try to go out there and have fun, wrestle my best and go as far as I can go."
(Previous ranking in parentheses)
1. Merrillville (1)
2. Crown Point (2)
3. Hanover Central (5)
4. Portage (3)
5. Chesterton (8)
6. Lake Central (7)
7. Kankakee Valley (NR)
8. Lowell (4)
9. Valparaiso (6)
10. Hobart (9)
MERRILLVILLE | Never be satisfied.
Moments after winning the 138-pound weight class at Saturday's Duneland Athletic Conference tournament, Merrillville sophomore Jake Covaciu hurried over the fieldhouse track, where he promptly ran several sprints and did pushups.
"The season's never over," Covaciu said following his 1-0 decision over Crown Point's Josh Fuqua. "You have to keep working hard."
Covaciu scored the sole point on a second-period escape and rode Fuqua for the final two minutes to hang on.
"Coach (David) Maldonado always tells us, keep your mind clear, focus on your match," Covaciu said. "Use blinders. First point, first takedown. It was a high-pressure match. I love getting after it, competing with good guys."
The head-to-head win helped the Pirates pull away from the Bulldogs for the team title, 217-204.
"We matched up pretty well. The kids wrestled tough," Maldonado said. "We pride ourselves on wrestling on the mat, holding a lead when we have to. It's hard to judge this team. We're probably not as good, on paper, this year, but we're much better as a group. We've got a lot better chemistry. They push for each other."
Merrillville won five of its seven championship matches with Mike Garza (113), Clarence Johnson (126), Isaac Rentas (145) and Shawn Streck (285). Streck pinned LaPorte's Landon Blackburn in 3:10. Of Blackburn's four losses, three have been to Streck.
"He's a little hard to score on, but I end up picking on a couple of his mistakes," Streck said. "He gives me a tough time every time. I just try to stay physical with him."
All the unbeaten wrestlers in the field remained that way -- CP's Zach Donaldson (132) and Tyler Kral (195), LaPorte's Mike Eldridge and Lake Central's Gelen Robinson (220).
Kral (29-0) topped Derrick Suttles of Valpo 5-3.
"I like tough matches. It keeps me motivated," Kral said. "He's real strong. A lot of guys I wrestle are a lot stronger than me, but no one's my height (6-foot-6). I have lot more leverage than most guys."
Robinson (36-0) fit another DAC title amidst his official recruiting visit to Purdue. He spent Friday night there and returned to West Lafayette after the meet, where he pinned Portage's Travis Williams at 5:56.
"He put up a great fight," Robinson said. "It's always good to have great competition locally."
Eldridge improved to 36-0 but not without some anxiety. Prior to pinning Merrillville's Matt Hollins at 4:27, he found himself on his back in the second period.
"I wrestled him earlier in the year and it was actually somewhat similar," Eldridge said. "I was on my back and I ended up pinning. You're never really comfortable when you're on your back. Both of us are aggressive competitors, so it's going to be a good match."
Jack Tolin was the only freshman champ. The Chesterton 106 pinned Portage's Tyler Joseph in 3:09.
"January and February are the most important months," said Tolin, who edged Joseph 12-11 previously. "It's the time that matter, so you really have to push yourself to your limits in practice. I just try to stay in good position on meet. That stops a guy from doing what he wants to do."
CEDAR LAKE | In past years during conference championship weekend for wrestling, Hanover Central would make the trek to Illinois and compete in tournaments there.
It was a successful debut for the small powerhouse program in its first Greater South Shore Conference Tournament, as Times No. 5 Hanover Central won it going away on Saturday with a whopping 332.5 points.
"I'm really glad for the guys because it's nice to win in their first conference tournament," Hanover Central coach Nick Petrov said.
The host Wildcats had eight individual champions out of the 14 weight classes, including 126-pound and Northwestern-bound Stevan Micic, who pinned Lake Station's Jason Alaniz in 1:19, which increased his career record to a massive 166-5 and 30-0 this season.
"This is a big confidence booster for us. I'm gonna prepare the same way and we're gonna practice hard, so we can all have a good run," two-time state champion Micic said.
Isaac Cortez (106), Chris Ruiz (113), DJ Neal (120), Evan Larsen (145), AJ Goeders (160), Ashton Mutuwa (170), and Tyler Scott (195) round out the winners for Hanover Central.
"Having 11 in the finals gives us a really good feeling going into sectionals," said Petrov. "They're as ready as they're ever gonna be for the state series."
Last year's conference champs, Calumet had another impressive showing as well, tallying 272 points.
The Warriors notched three individual champs including Nick Fowler (182), Doriante Bryant (138), and Alec Noworul (132), who beat Hanover Central's Kyle Brewster in the most exciting match of the day in a 3-2 bout in overtime.
"He (Brewster) beat me earlier in the week and I knew if I could get away from him, I could squeak out a win," said Noworul.
All three aforementioned Warriors won their third career conference titles, including Bryant, who pinned Hanover's John Reeves in 4:32.
"In the past I always used to doubt myself, but now I'm feeling pretty confident," said Bryant. "I practiced a lot during the summer and coach said I'm getting better flow and technique."
Other champions included Wheeler's Ryan Gough (152), Lake Station's Jonah Shultz (220), and River Forest's Robert Yanez, who moved his record to 26-0 on the season in the heavyweight division.
LOWELL | Kankakee Valley has been waiting for this. Andrew Schulties has been waiting for this, too.
Lowell has controlled the Northwest Crossroads Conference in wrestling for the last two years, but Kankakee Valley stole the conference meet from the Red Devils 217-213.5 in Lowell's own gym Saturday.
The schools will split the conference championship after regular season points were factored in.
Schulties's 8-2 win over Lowell's Alex Mavros in the 152-pound final was a key match on the day.
"It felt so good. I've just envisioned this for so many years that to finally see it go down the way I dreamed it is just awesome," Schulties said. "(My match) was pivotal (to winning the meet). I had to go out there and get the job done for us."
A roar could be heard from one corner of The Pit as the final buzzer sounded and Schulties had clinched the win, as it seemed most of Wheatfield braved the snow and made the trip north.
"This is the best way to end my senior year because sometimes we put Lowell on a pedestal where they shouldn't be. We work hard, too," Schulties said. "To achieve this, words can't describe how good it feels."
Lowell's Hughes brothers each did their parts for the hosts. Sophomore Drew pinned Andrean's Mike Krzyston in 1:00 in the 138-pound final. Senior Kenny also won his championship match by fall, besting Griffith's Ben Stassin at 160 pounds in 1:15.
Kenny Hughes has won four individual NCC titles.
"It's good to go out strong in the last time I'll ever wrestle here," Kenny Hughes said. "I just want to get my conditioning up a little. I think my technique's good enough to hopefully make a run for a state title."
The most exciting match of the day may have been the 106-pound final. Griffith's Jeremiah Rietz topped Lowell's previously unbeaten Colton Cummings with a pin in only 25 seconds. Rietz came into the day ranked No. 6 in the state while Cummings was ranked No. 2.
Rietz said the two have been wrestling each other for years. He knew Cummings liked to take shots right at the whistle and was able to get his hips around for a cradle.
"Before the match, I got really prepared mentally and physically to get nice and warm and focused to make sure I'm ready for anything that happens," Rietz said. "It felt great. I've never really been in the spotlight like this."
Hobart finished third with 198.5 points, followed by Munster (152), Griffith (145), Andrean (104) and Highland (100).
There's an urgency for LaPorte wrestler Landon Blackburn this season, and being a senior is only a part of the reason.
Personal experience has taught him to take nothing for granted.
His dad Jay, whose childhood athletic pursuits were limited by polio, is his biggest inspiration. Then there's his uncle Dave. A hall-of-fame fast-pitch softball hurler, he won several gold medals in the Maccabiah Games before losing a leg and nearly dying in a horrific car accident in 2010. He returned to Israel last summer as a paralympian.
"Life, even at 18, is going too fast," Blackburn said. "I don't want to let a single moment go by without taking full advantage of it. I want to make every moment last. I'm ready to finish as strong as possible."
An undersized (225-pound) heavyweight last season, Blackburn went 32-16 and qualified for semistate. His options for 2013-14 were cutting down to 220 or bulking up.
He chose the latter. Bolstered by a high-protein diet, he packed on over 50 solid pounds through tireless training, twice a day, six days a week, with weightlifting coach Todd Basich.
"The biggest thing we trained was explosion — power cleans, squats, bench press," Blackburn said. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him being there for me, helping me get through the struggles, to become the wrestler I am today."
Blackburn also made the long drive to Calumet High School to sharpen his skills at the Midwest Wrestling Academy.
"Honestly, he's been self-driven since I met him as a youngster," LaPorte coach Louie Kuzdas said. "Our sport is so difficult. There are no guarantees. There aren't many people any more who go to his levels. He's one in a million."
The only time in the summer when Blackburn wasn't working out or training was a two-week stretch in July when he represented the United States in the Maccabiah Games, an Olympic-style event featuring 9,000 Jewish athletes from around the world. Wrestling men in their early 30s, Blackburn finished third in the 120-kilogram (264-pound) class for freestyle and Greco-Roman.
"Words can't really describe it," said Blackburn, who attended the games in 2009 with his uncle. "I got to experience the whole state of Israel. There's nothing better than walking in with 1,000 American athletes."
All the pieces have come together this season for Blackburn. He's ranked 13th in the state at 28-2, his only losses to Merrillville's unbeaten Shawn Streck.
"He's a kid who's always positive, who works hard every day," Kuzdas said. "I've told him ... the list is almost a mile long of kids who don't get where they deserve. Hopefully, the culmination will be making the state finals and he's able to prove what he's got."
Barring upsets, Blackburn will face Streck a third time in Saturday's Duneland Athletic Conference championship. He's also eyeing a fourth match in the finals of the Merrillville Semistate next month.
"That's where I want to be," Blackburn said. "I want to beat him really bad. My biggest goal right now is to be sectional, regional and semistate champion and to place as high as possible on the podium at state. That would be the perfect scenario."
A good finish will also help secure Blackburn an opportunity to wrestle in college, where he plans to major in physical therapy and minor in music. A drummer in LaPorte's pep and lap bands, he's also part of a two-man band, Proverbial Sun, outside of school.
"He's a well-rounded young man," Kuzdas said. "I'd bet he'll be somebody who's successful down the road. He finds out what his goals are and puts his mind to it, to how he needs to get there."
(Previous ranking in parentheses)
1. Merrillville (1)
2. Crown Point (2)
3. Portage (3)
4. Lowell (4)
5. Hanover Central (5)
6. Valparaiso (6)
7. Lake Central (7)
8. Chesterton (8)
9. Hobart (9)
10. LaPorte (10)
Duneland Athletic Conference
When: 9 a.m. Saturday.
Darkhorse: Crown Point.
Wrestlers to watch: Chesterton -- Jack Tolin (106), Sawyer Hallas (160), Alex Katsafaros (170), Jaycee Jensen (182); Crown Point -- Zach Donaldson (132), Josh Fuqua (138), Darden Schurg (152), Morgan Kral (195), Steven Potoskey (220); Lake Central -- Cody Christensen (152), Gelen Robinson (220); LaPorte -- Mike Eldridge (182), Landon Blackburn (285); Merrillville -- Mike Garza (113), Clarence Johnson (126), Jacob Covaciu (138), Isaac Rentas (145), Matthew Hollins (182), Shawn Streck (285); Portage -- Tyler Joseph (106), Gaige Torres (120), Steven Lawrence (138), Travis Williams (220); Valparaiso -- Derrick Suttles (195), Ian Suttles (285).
Fast facts: Crown Point is defending champion. ... Merrillville defeated Crown Point in their dual match last week. ... Merrillville's Garcia, Hollins and Streck are returning champions, as well as Crown Point's Fuqua, Schurg and Kral, Portage's Torres and Lake Central's Robinson.
Greater South Shore Conference
When: 10 a.m. Saturday.
Where: Hanover Central.
Favorite: Hanover Central.
Wrestlers to watch: 106 -- Isaac Cortes (HC); 113 -- Ivan Ruiz (HC); 120 -- D.J. Neal (HC); 126 -- Stevan Micic (HC); 132 -- Alec Nororul (C), Kyle Brewster (HC); 138 -- Doriante Bryant (C); 145 -- Evan Larsen (HC); 182 -- Nick Fowler (C); 195 -- Tyler Scott (HC); 285 -- Marshawn Manuel (C), Robert Yanez (RF).
Fast fact: Calumet won last year's conference meet, going 5-0. ... This is Hanover Central's first season in the GSSC.
Northwest Crossroads Conference
When: 9 a.m. Saturday.
Wrestlers to watch: 106 -- Colton Cummings (L), Jeremiah Reitz (G); 113 -- Jason Crary (M), Zach Pardus (Ho); 120 -- Brendan Black (Ho); 132 -- Jake Gross (L); 138 -- Drew Hughes (L), Mike Krzyston (A); 152 -- Andrew Schultheis (KV); 160 -- Kenny Hughes (L), Zach Slosser (M); 170 -- Scottie Sopko (Ho), Isaac James (L); 182 -- Tim Schoonveld (KV), John Bigbie (L); 220 -- Adam Kopil (A), Al Berdine (KV); 285 -- Joe Reed (L).
Fast fact: Lowell has won the conference meet each of the last two seasons.
— compiled by David Funk and Jim Peters
CEDAR LAKE | Hanover Central is no longer a little school, with a football team on the horizon and bumping up a class size in other sports.
The wrestling team offered more proof of the boom in Cedar Lake on Saturday when it topped its bigger neighbor to the north, Lake Central, to earn the Lake County Tournament crown.
It was the first time in three years a team other than the Indians raised the Lake County trophy. H.C. topped L.C. 283.5 to 258.5 for the victory.
"It does mean something for our seniors," Wildcats coach Nick Petrov said. "It's nice to win a tournament like this, to beat a Duneland Conference team and the other teams in our county. Our kids did their job today."
Northwestern recruit Stevan Micic stayed undefeated with a 18-2 technical fall over Lake Central's Branden Truver in the 126-pound final. Micic was named outstanding wrestler. But Micic wasn't the only contributor.
"Winning a major tournament like this means that everybody has to place," Petrov said. "When you get 14 kids to get you placement points, you're going to be competing in this tournament."
Lake Central senior Gelen Robinson had a big day, taking the 220-pound crown with a pin of Andrean's Adam Kopil in 1:19. Even the 59ers watching off the mat filmed the match and shook Robinson's hand afterward.
"It's always good to have people who have confidence in you and support you, especially even outside of my school and my family," Robinson said. "Half of the coaches here have been my coach in the past and they love to see me succeed. I'm glad that I can share this with all of them."
Lake Central had three other first-place finishers; Jake Sebahar at 145 pounds, Kody Christianson at 152 and Jake Kleimola at 160.
Munster freshman Jason Crary dominated the 113-pound class, eventually topping Hobart's Zach Pardus with a fall at 3:24. Crary had four pins on the day.
"I watched (Pardus) here today and he looked pretty solid," Crary said. "I was just trying to get out there and pin him as fast as I could."
Unlike horseshoes and hand grenades, close doesn't count in wrestling.
For Valparaiso's Derrick Suttles, his near misses culminated in the first round of last year's Merrillville Semistate, where he dropped a one-point decision to South Bend Clay's Jaylin Allen.
A week later, Allen finished second in the state finals.
"I was that close," Suttles said. "I've been in that situation since my sophomore year. I'd wrestle ranked guys, and I was close to beating them, but I couldn't quite do it."
Wrestling most of his junior season with torn meniscus in his knee, he put off arthroscopic surgery in order to stay on the mat. Motivated by his litany of narrow defeats and the urgency of his final year, Suttles pushed himself to get over the proverbial hump as a senior.
"He's starting to put things together," Vikings coach Mark Line said. "He's gained some confidence in himself that I'm not sure was always there. I think some of it's maturity, maybe believing in himself more. You could see it in his face, his body language (last year). He got in those (tight) situations, and he kind of panicked. Now he's wrestling more relaxed. If he's down one in a match, he realizes he's got time."
As the calendar turns to 2014, Suttles stands a sturdy 28-3. His three losses have come by a total of five points, including a one-pointer to Penn's fourth-ranked Kobe Woods.
"I definitely feel a lot more confident," Suttles said. "I worked hard in the summer. I feel I can hit my moves without worrying about getting stuck or caught. I'm strong enough, athletic enough, quick enough to get out of that position. It's my senior year. I want to make it the best I can."
The physical side of the sport has never been an issue for the muscular Suttles. He came out for wrestling in the middle of his eighth grade season and finished third in the conference on a month's experience.
"I didn't know how to do anything other than hip toss and lay on top of the guy," he said.
Under the direction of former Valpo coach Jim Smith and now Line, he's become much more than just a thrower.
"When I got into high school, I actually started learning moves," said Suttles, whose junior brother Ian is the Vikings' heavyweight. "I have a couple moves that work really good, and if they don't, I can go to an ankle pick or slide-by. Coach Smith taught me a lot of good things. Coach Line is a great coach. He's great for Valpo. In a match, he always tells me to keep my ears open."
To date, Suttles remains unranked, but with the meat of Valpo's schedule and the postseason still ahead, Suttles will get ample opportunity to show he belongs.
"I think I can compete with anybody in the state," he said. "I'm good enough. I'm aiming for top three on the (state awards) podium, maybe a state title."
Suttles hopes he can parlay his success into a chance to wrestle in college with an eye on a law enforcement career.
"I think he wants to prove to himself, and to other people, what he can become, that he can go to the next level," Line said. "I think he can."
Like the team, Suttles has come a long way in his short time on the mat.
"I'm very proud to be a Valparaiso Viking," he said, "The coaches have told us all since our freshman year to leave the program in better shape than you found it. We've really made strides."
(Previous ranking in parentheses)
1. Merrillville (1)
2. Crown Point (2)
3. Portage (3)
4. Lowell (4)
5. Hanover Central (5)
6. Valparaiso (6)
7. Lake Central (7)
8. Chesterton (8)
9. Hobart (9)
10. LaPorte (10)
GRIFFITH | Kankakee Valley's seniors will never know the feeling of losing at the Griffith Super Duals.
The Kougars cruised to a 4-0 record and won the annual event for the fourth consecutive season Saturday.
"Our main goal was to win this," K.V. coach Brad Burvan said. "You want to repeat your win, if you can. Our team came to wrestle."
Junior Tim Schoonveld won all four of his matches at 182, three of them by pin. Schoonveld said he spent much his day working on takedowns.
"We have a lot more solid competition coming up, but (Saturday) was a good day; we won the tournament," he said. "We had some kids step up (Saturday), definitely."
Burvan didn't think his team wrestled perfectly, though.
"I think we wrestled kind of sluggish; we've got to get better to compete with the bigger schools," he said. "I'm ready for the kids to get back in school. They stay up late."
Griffith was the only team to give K.V. trouble, as the Kougars won their four duals by average of almost 40 points. The Panthers kept it close, but ultimately lost 38-27.
"Griffith, they're going to get tougher each and every year," Burvan said. "They're going to be a tougher team with (coach Daniel Bedoy) in there; a tough team to beat in a few years or even next year, possibly."
Griffith 106-pound freshman Jeremiah Reitz was 5-0, which included one forfeit. Reitz's only blemish on his 19-1 season record is a loss to Penn's Drew Hildebrandt, one of only three wrestlers ranked higher than Reitz.
"I wrestled solid, but I could've done a few things better; I was a little sloppy," said Reitz, who helped the host Panthers go 4-1 and finish second. "I got away with things I wouldn't have gotten away with against other kids. I don't want to be doing that."
(Previous ranking in parentheses)
1. Merrillville (1)
2. Crown Point (2)
3. Portage (3)
4. Lowell (5)
5. Hanover Central (4)
6. Valparaiso (6)
7. Lake Central (8)
8. Chesterton (7)
9. Hobart (10)
10. LaPorte (NR)
No one in the Portage wrestling room knew much about Steven Lawrence when the freshman surprised senior Dylan Logsdon in a wrestle-off for a varsity spot early last season.
"We thought he was going to be good, but to be honest, I didn't think he would be able to beat Logsdon," Indians coach Leroy Vega said. "That's what makes our team so great. You can have a freshman JV guy beat a senior state qualifier."
Ultimately, the one opponent Lawrence couldn't beat as a freshman was the scale. Unable to consistently make weight at 126 pounds and unable to unseat another wrestler at 132, he spent much of the season on JV, seeing the varsity mat just 10 times.
"We just decided to get him as much experience as possible," Vega said.
When postseason rolled around, Lawrence was relegated to spectator status.
"It was all my fault. I wasn't disciplined enough for the sport yet. I didn't like cutting weight. I didn't want to do it. I wasn't mentally tough enough at the time," Lawrence said. "Watching all the guys (wrestle) and not being one of them, seeing how exciting it was, the atmosphere at semistate and state, it motivated me for this season."
Now settled in comfortably at 138 pounds, Lawrence has put his JV days in the rear-view mirror. He's only looking ahead.
"I've put my life into the sport," he said. "I'm taking it more seriously. I went to a lot of tournaments all summer. I practice a lot. I stay after and do extra stuff. Being full-time varsity, there's an image I need to set on the team. I need to go hard, to step up and show the young guys that it's not a joke. Somebody like me last year can get a spot at any time. It's something to think about when you're ready to quit."
Lawrence has five losses, but all of them are to state-ranked opponents, four from Indiana and one from Michigan. He is ranked 15th.
"Here's a guy who's only been wrestling since eighth grade, competing with guys who have wrestled since they were 4-years-old (in the summer), guys who are nationally ranked," Vega said. "No one knows about him. He's very athletic and he's a hard worker. He's very humble. He likes to learn. Everything's new to him. What's nice about working with a kid like that, he doesn't have any bad habits. He forms his own, but they're easier to fix."
Like most kids, Lawrence played a bunch of sports growing up. Football, which he still plays, had come to the forefront when his family moved to Portage in seventh grade. He knew nothing of Vega's prep and collegiate credentials when he visited Fegely Middle School. He decided to join the wrestling club before eighth grade and it was love at first sight.
"As soon as I started, I knew I wanted to be a state champion one day," Lawrence said. "As I got into it, I got more interested. I liked that I'm all by myself. If I get taken down, it's my fault. I like the pressure. It feels good to win a match."
Lawrence already knows he wants to wrestle Division I in college. He wants to get to the state finals this season and eventually get his photo on the wall of state champions in the Indians' practice room, a collection that includes Vega and assistant coach Eric Keith.
"He's getting better and better every day," Vega said. "I'm excited for this year and I can't wait for the next two years."
Colton Cummings admits that he was never very confident on the wrestling mat before this season.
Sure, the Lowell freshman had won a middle school state championship, an ISWA folkstyle state title, finished fourth at the USAW Folkstyle Nationals and was ranked No. 4 in his weight class in Indiana. But Cummings still had doubts in the back of his mind.
He erased those fears at last weekend's Al Smith Invitational at Mishawaka High School. He won a 3-2 decision over Penn sophomore Drew Hildebrandt — the top-ranked 106-pounder in the state — in the 32-team tournament final to keep his high school record unblemished at 18-0.
"Beating the kid ranked No. 1 made me feel good. It makes me feel acknowledged. I wrestled hard to get where I'm at," Cummings said. "Now, I'm a bit more confident. I can be more aggressive."
Red Devils coach Bobby Howard told Cummings his match with Hildebrandt would be a gauge to determine where he stood among the state's best wrestlers. Howard said he learned that afternoon that Cummings is good on the attack and needs to be trying to score for six minutes.
That shouldn't be a problem for the kid Howard calls a "ball of energy" who could "wrestle hard for 12 minutes," if he had to.
"That Al Smith tournament let me know where we're at," Howard said. "Maybe some were wondering, but now we know. Hopefully, we can cap this season by winning a match (in the state championship)."
Howard, who has been at the helm for the Devils since 2000, says that Cummings and sophomore Drew Hughes have a chance to be two of the best wrestlers to ever set foot on a mat in the Pit by the time they graduate.
"Having that target on his back, I look at that as kind of a good thing," Howard said. "The sky is the limit."
After last weekend, Cummings has the mindset to match his coach's.
"People actually know I'm good, now," he said. "I want to win four state championships. Winning four (Al Smith tournament championships) wouldn't be bad, either."
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