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."