There's a different vibe on the Boone Grove gym balcony, a developing sense of worth, pride and accomplishment.
The wrestling program, hanging by a thread last season with six kids and zero morale, is starting a revival under new coach Dave Hinkel.
"I quit halfway through (last) season," senior Alex Kacher said. "With the new coaching staff, I decided to come back. When we had a callout meeting, I asked him what he was going to do to make the team better and he said anything we need to do."
A collegiate wrestler at Miami (Ohio), Hinkel was an assistant coach at Benton Central, Portage and Merrillville, working with state-caliber wrestlers before stepping away to spend more time with his kids. The family moved into the Porter Township School Corporation when son Carson, who wrestles, was in seventh grade.
"It was a major change," Carson said. "There weren't a lot of kids."
Dave offered to help at Boone, but said he was declined. Former coach Julio Cisneros resigned after last season and Adam Metzger was expected to take over, only to end up taking a job at Kankakee Valley.
"I was like, 'Dad, we need you,'" said Carson, now a sophomore.
The week before the season, Dave took the job.
"Nobody wanted it," he said. "I come from a wrestling family. Being with great coaches, being at the state (finals), it was real disheartening. Half of them didn't know the fundamentals. It's like a first-year program. Somebody was going to suffer, either my kid not getting to wrestle, or me, since I'm old and falling apart. I told them I'd do it for my son, now I'm doing it for all of them. It's like a family."
The roster has nearly tripled to 17 with all but two lineup spots filled. Boone has won seven dual matches and finished fifth in the Greater South Shore Conference tournament, where it was 10th and last a year ago.
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"Everything's up," Kacher said. "Even the new kids are starting to win. There's more motivation. (Hinkel) pushes us hard. He makes us sweat. I feel I've improved a lot faster since he's come. What he teaches in practice, you can actually use on the mat. If you do something wrong, a coach is there to see it."
Hinkel is helped by Tom Magiera, a state champion at Merrillville, whose sons Mac and Zac are on the team. Hinkel's brother, Scott, the former coach at Purdue, has also made appearances.
"It's night and day," Carson said. "There was no control. We didn't have our own place. We used to pull the mats out and put them back. We'd even have to go to the elementary school. Every year, it changed."
The team still shares its training area, which also houses weight lifting equipment, but at least they're in the same place every day.
"Last year, I was dragging myself to practice," Carson said. "Now, I'm like, 'Hey, we've got practice.' It's more fun."
Hobbled by sprained ankles and a torn hip labrum, coach Hinkel quickly remembered why he took time off from coaching, but still can't stop himself from getting involved.
"It's a thankless job," he said. "Nobody coaches for the pay. I'm old enough not to concern myself with wins and losses. It's all about effort. Wrestling's a sport where you can make up for talent. Hard work can take you a long way. We stress just go out and and wrestle hard and whatever happens, happens. If you make it through a season of wrestling, you've accomplished something. What we're trying to make them understand is that behavior translates to the real world."
Hinkel will start a youth program after the high school season.
"Hopefully, it's a springboard to next year and maybe we can get up to like 30 kids," he said. "There's a new football coach and it sounds like he's going to promote wrestling. The kids are excited about it. I just want to get things moving and point them in the right direction."