SYRACUSE — It’d be a pretty tall task for Wawasee’s wrestlers to replicate what they did last winter.
An Indiana High School Wrestling Coaches Association Class 2A state title, the program’s first IHSAA sectional championship in eight years, 14 regional berths, nine semi-state appointments and three IHSAA State Finals qualifications are each impressive accomplishments in and of themselves, but to do all that in a single season is flat out special.
The Warriors aren’t focused on equaling last year’s success, however. Instead, they want to do even better.
“We’re not focused on winning another state championship as a team. We’re looking to take another step,” said head coach Frank Bumgardner. “We don’t want to replicate; we want to exceed everything that’s happened. Our schedule is going to be much tougher this year. We’re looking to be better, and if that means that the same results come or more results come, so be it.”
The Warriors certainly have the horses to make another special run.
Two of Wawasee’s state qualifiers from last season return in senior Geremia Brooks and freshman Jace Alexander, and the Warriors have a third state finalist back in senior Braxton Alexander, whose heartbreaking injury default in the ticket round at last season’s East Chicago Semi-State prevented him from a second straight state finals appearance. In fact, most of the Warriors’ roster returns from last year’s banner campaign, including seniors Braxton, Brooks, Damien Rodriguez, Alex Castro and Chris Schuller, as well as a number of skilled juniors in Garrett Stuckman, Isiah Faurote, Logan Baugh and Fernando Hernandez.
The defending IHSWCA state champs are looking to pick up where they left off last season, and they enter their 2018-19 campaign after putting in the work in the offseason.
“Our guys worked really hard, whether it was in the weight room or the wrestling room, over the summer so we’re looking for another great year,” said Bumgardner. “Our guys are in the right frame of mind right now. They’re training very, very well. Obviously we’ve got a lot of excitement in the community and our program. When we were looking at we know that nothing is guaranteed and we may not even be the favorites going into this state tournament. But our guys are better, and we believe in our guys and we’re going to bet on our guys when it comes to it that we’re going to be there and we’re going to be ready to fight.”
In addition to the team’s core of veterans, there are a number of talented freshmen joining the ranks this season, and this year’s senior members are showing them the ropes and teaching them exactly what is expected of a state championship squad.
“As far as newer guys go, day one before we even got a lift in, we just had a talk with our freshmen and with our newbies that this is our program, this is our culture, this is what we do and this is why we do it and this is what we’ve had come from it. So they get a little crash course before we even start of what to expect,” explained Bumgardner. “Then obviously the lessons come in day after day, but our upperclassmen, those that have been here, they’re leaders, and they’re leading very, very well right now.”
“We’ve got a lot of younger new kids in the room, and I want them to learn everything from us before we graduate so they can carry on this program and keep making it successful,” echoed Brooks. “We’re going to do our part this year and carry on what we did last year and try improving every day, but we also need to teach these younger kids to get better as well, to carry that on.”
Brooks is coming off a particularly impressive junior season. The returning Warriors 132-pounder collected 40 wins for himself on the way to a seventh-place result at last year’s IHSAA State Finals and will return to the 32-pound class this year.
“It’s pretty natural. I’m only weighing about 138 right now, which is only six pounds. For a wrestler, that’s nothing,” explained Brooks. “So my natural body weight stayed where it was last year, which is awesome because then I get the chance to go 132 again and wrestle these kids bumping up weights. There’s only one other kid in my weight class that is staying the same weight, and we wrestled last year for seventh and eighth (at state). It was a great match, and we wrestled multiple times this offseason. Plus, I wrestled heavier this offseason so I got a feel for the heavier guys, and I think 132 is the best fit for me again and for the team aspect of it. Everybody lines up in the roster perfectly.”
While Brooks lends his knowledge and experience to the team, he also brings an exciting and unique style of wrestling to the roster and a true competitor’s mindset. Like the Warriors in general, Brooks doesn’t want to settle for a repeat of what he did last winter. He’s demonstrated growth both on and off the mats, says his coach, and the stage appears to be set for a memorable senior season.
“My junior season, it was a great season. I set my goals high, and I fell a little short from what I wanted. Of course everybody wants to be in the state finals, but I fell a little short,” recalled Brooks. “I had a lot of tough competition last year, and there are still a lot of seniors that are tough this year. I plan on coming to morning practices and just putting in more work than I ever have before.”
“He brings kind of the ‘it’ factor. He does some things that very few other people can; it’s hard to coach,” said Bumgardner. “So when he came to us as a sophomore, we had a lot of conversations about how we were going to wrestle, how we were going to coach each other, just how we were going to interact. Now it’s a lot more working together rather than working against, saying ‘You need to fit this mold.’ This is where we have a philosophy of score points and have fun. He fits that so we’re just trying to emphasize what he does best, fix some holes in his game and continually get better. His personality, he’s a great, great human being. He cares about people, but when it’s time to compete, there’s not a lot of love out there. So he’s got that switch, and he flips the switch very well.”
Brooks and company open their season at the Warsaw Wrestling Invitational this Saturday and will host their super duals the following weekend, Nov. 24. Between a deep cast of returning wrestlers, some talented newcomers and the right mindset, this year could be even better than last. Stay tuned, says Brooks.
“They look pretty good right now, and we’re pretty excited,” Bumgardner said. “And we think that our underclassmen can really contribute, and if they can fill some of those voids that we lost as far as graduation or weight or whatever, we’re going to be pretty solid.”