SYRACUSE — Wawasee senior Damien Rodriguez will go from one Warriors lineup to another next season, but he’ll be wearing the orange and black of Indiana Tech when he does. Luckily for him, Rodriguez feels pretty comfortable in that color.
“I was messing around with my dad, and I told him that I chose them because I look good in orange,” said Rodriguez with a laugh. “But really, I really liked the coach and the program that they had and what they had to offer me as a school as well.
“It feels great. The first person in my family to go to college for a sport, it’s pretty exciting. It’s a big deal.”
Rodriguez is a 2018 Plymouth Sectional champion at 195 pounds, a three-time regional qualifier and a two-time semi-state qualifier. This past winter, he finished with a record of 16-6 according to trackwrestling.com while earning his second straight East Chicago Semi-State berth.
He plans to study sports management while at Indiana Tech and owns a 6.6 grade point average, a big part of the reason he was asked to join Indiana Tech’s lineup, where he hopes to slot in at a familiar 197 pounds.
“It’s a lifetime of work that he’s put in here, and it shows. It’s a lifetime achievement award for K through 12,” said Wawasee head wrestling coach Frank Bumgardner. “I’m really proud of him for how he’s responded through adversity, whether it be some personal situations or some tragic losses. He’s always responded very, very well to adversity, and I think that’s what put him in this position. He’s going to have the opportunity to go to college for free, but not just because of his athletic ability. Mainly because of his academics, and that’s what we’re really trying to stress to everybody is be a well-rounded human being and a well-rounded student athlete. He’s exemplified that.”
Also a standout defensive end for Wawasee football, wrestling is the sport that’s nearest to Rodriguez’s heart. It’s also the sport that maternal grandfather Harold Hymer liked best, and when he passed last season, Rodriguez recommitted himself to the sport and dedicated each match to his grandfather, pointing skyward after every bout.
“I was good at football and liked football. But after my grandpa died — he was like my second dad, and I saw how much my wrestling meant to him — after he died I dedicated every match to him. I’d always point up to the sky, win or lose, every match, and I just thought that I’ve got to do wrestling for me and for him,” Rodriguez explained.
Family is pretty important to Rodriguez, and both sides of the clan were well-represented at Thursday’s signing ceremony at Wawasee High School. Located in Fort Wayne, Indiana Tech is only about 10 minutes away from his father and not far from the rest of his family, either, which was a big part of his decision-making process.
“My whole family is like a tribe; they follow me around everywhere. They’re my cheer block. That’s one of the reasons that I wanted to stay close,” he said.
Rodriguez may be swapping one Warriors singlet for another next season, but he’ll be moving from a high-level program to another one. Indiana Tech wrestling won a repeat Sooner Athletic Conference championship this past season after finishing the regular season ranked second in the national polls and sent 12 to the NAIA National Tournament. Rodriguez will find himself in good company coming from a Wawasee program that won the team state duals in 2018, went on to finish second in 2019 and has advanced a host of wrestlers deep into the individual state tourney each of the past two years.
“There’s always room for improvement. The next level is going to be tough, of course, but I’m working out constantly still, still getting as many practices in as I can, so I’m really trying to make sure I’m ready for the next level. I think all the preparation over summer will really help me, but we won’t know until we find out,” said Rodriguez, adding “I’d just like to thank my family and the coaches at Indiana Tech and all the coaches here.”