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."