What makes a great wrestling team?
The definition in the Indiana high school state tournament has varied over the years, depending on how the champion was determined.
From 1997 to 2012, a dual format decided the winner. While it provides the most pure reflection of the best team, it wasn't a money maker for the IHSAA, which returned the following year to the individual tourney as the basis for the team title.
Northwest Indiana's prowess is unquestioned. The Region annually leaves its mark on the state stage with multiple individual champions.
For all of the local boys who have made it to the top of the podium at Bankers Life Fieldhouse or Market Square Arena before that, team honors have largely eluded schools in the 219.
"That's a tough question," Portage coach Leroy Vega said. "It is surprising. To have a true champion, you also need to have (full) wrestlebacks."
Nobody's won it in the last five years and while Portage, Crown Point and Griffith all reached the finals in the dual era, only the Bulldogs broke through, winning in 2009. Prior to that, it goes go back to 1989, when Chesterton claimed the big wooden trophy.
Ties to that title remain with the Trojans. Assistant coach Chris Joll is the head coach. Keith Davison, the 171-pound champ, is an assistant coach, his son Lucas the favorite at 195. Chesterton won that year with 59.5 points, several years before weight classes were increased from 13 to 14. It won with just one champ, a runner-up and a third as no team, Joll said, had more than three wrestlers advance to Saturday.
Decades later, the formula hasn't changed. You have to have quality and quantity. Brownsburg put up 100 last year with just one champ, but had a whopping seven medalists with two runners-up, a third and a fourth. Chesterton was next at 80 with a first, two seconds and a fourth.
Indianapolis Cathedral (10), Portage (nine), Columbus East (eight) and Brownsburg (seven) bring the biggest contingent. Cathedral and Yorktown had five semistate champs, one more than Brownsburg, Chesterton and Portage.
"To be honest, (semistate) is to get out as many as you can and just go from there," Vega said. "But it doesn't mean anything when it comes to the (state) bracket. You're 0-0. It's a new game each week. If you get three in the finals, you have a good chance of winning. The team champion could be somebody, if we'd wrestle them in a dual, we'd win by 50."
Portage's state roster is its largest ever. It has realistic opportunities for deep runs in about six weights, which would put it on par with Brownsburg's winning template from last year.
"We're set up with nine and it's nine who are capable of placing," Vega said. "We've had groups who made it to state, the problem was, we didn't do anything when we got there. Ricky Hegedus is a kid who we didn't even know would be in the lineup. He had to battle to win a spot, proved himself and now he's a state qualifier, somebody who can score points. I believe we can go 9-0 Friday night."
What's the difference this time?
"Everyone's been around a while," Vega said, "They've bled together, cried together."
The stacked roster includes seniors in Colin Poynter (126), Kris Rumph (138), Kasper McIntosh (145), Drake Guerrero (170) and Jeremy Torres (182). The others — Jacob Moran (106), Hegedus (113), Brock Peele (120), D.J. Washington (152) — are all juniors. Only Guerrero and Hegedus are new to the stage, five of the others having won state medals, Washington's coming as a freshman in Illinois.
"I'd definitely say we're ready," McIntosh, a three-time medalist, said. "I'm really proud of all the guys. They’ve all wrestled well. Guys like Drake making it, I'm happy to see how happy they are. Even the others who didn't make it, they improved so much. The difference is a lot of guys have been here. They've seen it. They weren't as prepared (last year). I think we're a little more humbled."
Rumph's confidence reflects that of the Portage nine as a group.
"Our whole team does stuff most kids don't do," he said. "We prove it out here."
This is where Vega set the bar when the charismatic Portage and wrestling icon returned home in 2011 to take over the program that spawned his hall of fame career. For the first time, he has a team that can clear that bar.
"It's been the goal from day one," he said.