SYRACUSE — After advancing nine of its 14 out of last weekend’s Penn Regional, Wawasee’s wrestling team will take a full bus to this Saturday’s East Chicago Semi-State.
But even with so many making the semi-state cut, Wawasee would be a long shot to win a team title. So after using a team mentality to win themselves hardware at both the IHSWCA Team Duals and the Plymouth Sectional, the Warriors are shifting their focus this week as each wrestler looks to make another top four spot and earn themselves a spot at the IHSAA State Finals Feb. 16.
“It does not look like we have a chance to win as a team,” stated head coach Frank Bumgardner. “We have not even mentioned a team title but are now solely focused on the individuals.”
That doesn’t mean that the Warriors plan on playing it safe on the mat, though. They’ve been at their best when they’ve been the ones attacking. Wawasee’s wrestlers may have gotten away from that approach at times during regional, and Bumgardner is looking for a return to what has made his wrestlers so good this season.
“This week we have changed our focus to go back to being the ‘hunters’ and avoiding the mentality of ‘protecting something. We are very good when we are the ones ‘hunting’ our opponents and always striving to compete,” he said.
Because the level of competition takes a big leap from the regional to the semi-state round of the IHSAA tournament, the draws have become increasingly important this week. The higher their finish at regional, the more wrestlers are usually rewarded in the brackets at semi-state. That’s not necessarily the case for Wawasee’s lone champion last Saturday, Jace Alexander, however.
It’s not the 38-2 freshman’s opening round that has Bumgardner and his staff terribly concerned but rather what what likely waits in the quarterfinals in Indianamat.com second-ranked junior Martin Cruz of Merrillville. But Alexander isn’t simply ready to roll over, either.
“Jace wrestled very well at regionals, and his draw did not reward him for that performance,” Bumgardner said.
“That wrestler from Merrillville is a phenomenal wrestler, and I have heard he is even a better young man; but our season is not over simply because we have someone tough in our way. If you want to be a state qualifier, state placer, state champion you are going to have to beat someone tough along the way. Our wrestlers train to compete with not only the best in the state, but the some of the best in the country. Jace will be ready to perform his best this weekend.”
Wawasee’s two runners-up at Penn — Jace’s older brother Braxton and Chris Schuller — both have a good shot to make the state cut.
At 120 pounds, no wrestler in Schuller’s quarterfinal bracket is rated as highly as the 18th-ranked junior, although Hanover Central senior Alex Bautista could be a challenge in the ticket round, and No. 4-ranked Hobart senior Tylor Triana may wait in the semifinals. At 126 pounds, Braxton will have a little tougher go as he attempts to make his second state finals appearance. If the 36-3 junior gets through his opening-round draw, he’ll likely face fourth-ranked Portage senior Colin Poynter in a ticket round match-up of the No. 4 and No. 8 ranked wrestlers in the state and what could be the de facto championship at Saturday’s tourney.
“Both Braxton and Chris have similar draws — tough but we are able to navigate,” explained Bumgardner. “Braxton will have a tough wrestler from Portage in the ticket-round that is a two-time state placer, ranked tough eight in the state right now. It will be a great matchup of No. 1 (them) and No. 2 (us) in our semi-state with a state berth on the line.”
“Chris has a similar path, with a winnable first round match, and a tough kid from Hanover Central (Bautista) in the ticket round,” continued Bumgardner. “We are 100 percent confident in our kids, and we are doing everything possible to get them healthy and prepared to be successful.”
Four Wawasee wrestlers won their consolation finals at regional to improve their draw in East Chicago, meanwhile, and Bumgardner likes all of their chances. Geremia Brooks (132), Alex Castro (182), Garrett Stuckman (138) and Damien Rodriguez (195) are alive and well at semi-state.
“We very much like Brooks’ draw; we feel we match up very well with that bracket and we can show we are the best wrestler in the semi-state,” said Bumgardner. “Stuckman has the ability to shock some people and come out of his bracket and punch his ticket to state. Castro is another that can really open some eyes and win his bracket to advance. He has shown he can not only compete, but can beat the best guys in this semi-state. Rodriguez has wrestled the kid from Calumet earlier in the season, but Damien is not the same wrestler he was at the beginning of the season. We have complete confidence in him to perform well and be successful this weekend.”
While 145er Isaiah Faurote had the misfortune of drawing the state’s top-ranked wrestler in Portage senior Kasper McIntosh in the opening round, heavyweight Elisha Tipping got a good opening-round draw for a regional fourth-place finisher after narrowly dropping his consolation final by a close 3-0 decision last Saturday. The state’s top heavyweight will presumably wait in the quarterfinals in unbeaten South Bend Washington senior Isaiah McWilliams, but Bumgardner isn’t betting against his senior in his last shot out to state.
“Elisha has a great draw,” asserted Bumgardner. “Being a fourth-place finisher he drew a regional champ first round. His opponent is from Merrillville who we beat earlier in the season at LaPorte. We have multiple matches on film of his opponent and again, feel very confident in our wrestler to be able to advance through his bracket.”
Triton and Warsaw also advanced one wrestler each to Saturday’s East Chicago tournament.
For the Tigers, 106-pound sophomore Isaiah Owens will square off with unbeaten, 11th-ranked junior Colin Reagan of Frontier, while at 170 pounds, Triton’s Bo Snyder would need to get through 2017 state qualifier and No. 19-rated Mario Traficanti of Crown Point in the opening round.
“We’ll battle with anyone we see. We’re going to make a great effort to correct our errors,” said Triton head coach Ron Brown.
Also alive in the state tournament at 170 pounds, NorthWood sophomore Jake Lone will travel to the New Haven Semi-State after winning a regional title last weekend, while teammate Jake Chupp will also look for a top four finish at 145 pounds.