Wrestlers around the state will participate in sectionals Saturday, the first step on the road to the state finals.
For Luis Acuna, it's a moment that almost didn't happen.
The Portage senior, a state qualifier last season, was suspended in December, he confirmed, after his arrest for under-age drinking.
"I was pretty scared, losing my senior season," Acuna said. "I'd taken it for granted, that it wouldn't happen to me. Basically, (wrestling) was something I'd done my whole life, down the drain."
The violation of the school's athletic code of conduct carried a 40 percent of season penalty, which enabled Acuna to return for the Duneland Athletic Conference meet.
"It was a second chance for me," Acuna said. "It was a huge wake-up call. I realize anything can be taken away from you. I knew I made a huge mistake. It was dumb. Being a senior, one of the main guys returning, I felt like I let everyone down tremendously, the high school, the team, my parents. I felt embarrassed."
Acuna was able to practice while suspended and took the opportunity on his first day back to address the team.
"He lined the team up, sat in the middle and apologized," Portage coach Pat Wilkins said. "He let everybody know he made a mistake. I can't tell you many kids who would've done that. To do that in front of his peers, it's tough. But he's a mature kid."
The blow was costly to Portage amidst an up-and-down season. But Wilkins didn't dress Acuna down, figuring he was getting enough of that at home.
"I was more disappointed than anything," Wilkins said. "We were looking for a leader, big time. We were going into one of our biggest tournaments, and one of our seniors, our captains, doesn't make the trip. It was kind of deflating. He's smart enough to realize the people you hang out with, the things you do and choices you make, can derail plans. You've got the rest of your life to enjoy that stuff. It's not worth it now."
Never known for great practice habits, Acuna turned up his workout intensity during his weeks off, realizing he didn't have the time to spare once he got back.
"Coach always kids around that I'm like Allen Iverson. I have a hard time with practice," Acuna said. "I love to go out and compete. (I returned) definitely more focused."
Wilkins noticed the change, too.
"I think the time off made him miss it," he said. "You can't dwell on it. That's a waste of time. I told him to come back strong, with the determination to finish his senior year, to reach his goals and help the team out. He came back here ready to get after it. You don't want to go in sluggish, especially when your first time is the DACs."
The 135-pound Duneland champ, Acuna is 7-0 since his return and 17-1 overall.
"Practicing and meets are two different things," he said. "It was good to knock the rust off, get the competitive mentality back. I'm confident. It's going to be a dogfight, but I've been through it three times before. I'm ready to go."
Acuna aims to return to Indianapolis, then to Saturday, assuring himself a spot on the awards podium, and go from there.
"I want to go out with a bang," he said. "I don't want people to think of me as the kid who got in trouble. I want to end on a positive note."