When Keith Back's family moved from Culver to Union Township, the three-year varsity wrestler figured he'd worn his last singlet.
The start of a wrestling program at Wheeler not only gave Back another season on the mat, it affords him the chance to help set the foundation for the sport's future at the school.
"It's my main sport. I was excited to know they were going to have it," Back said. "I was down when I found out it was only JV, but the way I look at it now, I'm teaching it to the younger guys. Obviously, I have experience that they don't, so I can be the teacher now instead of the learner."
Back is among 17 boys who comprise Wheeler's first team and one of about half a dozen with a background in the sport, most of them in Boone Grove's club. The rest are all first-timers, including seniors John Janson and Logan Soto, who hopes to segue into mixed martial arts after graduation.
"It's something new I wanted to try," Janson said. "It's fun. It's a lot of work. That was tough to get used to. I want to see how good I can get by the end of the season, keep doing it and see where it takes me."
Save for a couple varsity tournaments, Wheeler will compete at the junior varsity level this season before making the jump next year, when it will be eligible for the postseason.
"When I came here, I was told the kids weren't used to being pushed very hard," coach Scott Houldieson said. "In my opinion, 90 percent of the sport is mental toughness. I've pushed them to the limit from day one. I'm not taking it easy on them. It was a rude awakening for some of them. Some of them dropped off, but the others responded well."
Houldieson was a 152-pound state qualifier at Griffith, where he coached at the middle school after graduating from Purdue. He heard about the Wheeler opening from Marc Buehler, a co-worker at the mill, who has a son there.
"He was explaining the situation to me, how they were starting from scratch, and that really appealed to me," Houldieson said. "I liked the idea of coming in and building it from nothing, teaching things in the manner I feel is best. I feel like I have a certain perspective I can share with the kids in a way that wasn't done with me."
Parents raised $7,000 that covered much of the cost for a new mat, and Lowell High School gave Wheeler a practice mat for just $200. Old mats found in the school have been taped to the cinder block walls of the practice room, a cozy upstairs corner in the fieldhouse that previously served as equipment storage space.
Wheeler had to postpone its first two matches, because its singlets hadn't come in, but made its debut Monday at Hanover Central.
"It was an exciting night," Back said. "It's a big deal for Wheeler, for the whole community."
Houldieson liked what he saw and appreciated the kind words from Hanover coach Nick Petrov.
"(We) were impressed with how aggressive the kids were," Houldieson said. "It's something I've been trying to teach from day one. Go forward. Don't be shy. I got a pretty good grasp of the things we're picking up and the things we need to work on."
At this stage, Houldieson's primary aim is to teach the basics and help his kids become better people through the values wrestling can teach.
"They're not going to make a career out of wrestling," he said. "They're going to be a professional in other things. I feel what it does for discipline, teamwork, goal-setting, working hard day in, day out, starting something and finishing it, that's so much more important, no matter how good they do."