SYRACUSE – Sometimes it’s hard to really see the emotion of a wrestler. Often dialed down to stay disciplined, other times to not give anything to an opponent. Wawasee spent much of its season in a business-like state, taking on the next challenge with the same mindset as the match before. But in a season where the Warriors really raised the bar, it’s becoming evident this program is starting to show its cards. It wasn’t a royal flush, but Wawasee wrestling tossed out a lot of winning hands during the 2018-19 season and stand as our Ink Free News All-IFN Team of the Year.
“There’s a lot of pride in this program, and this award is something to be very, very proud of,” said Wawasee head coach Frank Bumgardner. “We have a lot of talented kids and athletes in our area, and a lot of talented coaches in our area. But to be recognized as the program of the year is pretty humbling. It really is. It speaks to us having a lot of great kids in the program. A lot of great athletes and better human beings, and once again, it speaks to the validation that what we are doing, we are doing at a high level and doing consistently.”
Bumgardner, in his fourth year at Wawasee, did acknowledge his team had a fantastic 2018-19 season and is rapidly heading in the right direction. After sending a number of kids through the state tournament and posting team marks in a breakout 2017-18 season, which included a Team State championship, expectations in and out of the Wawasee program were sky high.
Starting with a No. 1 ranking from the IHSWCA to begin the season, Wawasee opened as winners of its first 10 duals and champions of the Warsaw and Wawasee Duals in November. Wawasee ran into bumps in the road in the middle of its calendar, losing solo home duals to Culver Academy, Penn and Northridge – the Raider loss key as it kept Ridge at the top of the Northern Lakes Conference ledger.
Wawasee would enter the Team State as defending champions in Class 2-A, and again reach the final opposite Western. Coming down to the final dual of the night in what was nearly a 12-hour gauntlet all told at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, Western was able to best Wawasee in overtime of the 145-pound match to claim the team title. A lot of teachable moments came from that day, per Baumgartner, both in technique against some of the top teams in the state, but also in handling winning and losing with class.
Without a Northern Lakes Conference Championships this year because of weather, Wawasee finished second to Northridge in the standings but took the Plymouth Sectional by storm the following week. To say the team was focused was an understatement as Wawasee sent all 14 of its wrestlers to the regional and retained the team championship for a second straight season. Not one slip up in the bunch. In the parade were five class champions in Geremia Brooks, Braxton Alexander, Garrett Stuckman, Alex Castro and Haegan Slusher and six runners-up. The following week was just as impressive, as Wawasee saw nine of its wrestlers advance to the semi-state, with Brooks and Alexander regional champions.
Three Warriors made it through the ticket round of the semi-state at East Chicago, Brooks and Alexander again won class titles, and Jace Alexander also reached State after taking third at 120 pounds.
“It didn’t surprise us this year, but last year it was a surprise,” Bumgardner said of his team’s all-around tournament success. “This is two years in a row that we have put everybody in a regional. This year we felt like we had the guys to do it. To qualify nine guys to the semi-state was about right on par for what we could do. We thought we were capable to do more, but the potential of that regional could have had less. Obviously, you want to win more matches, and always greedy and want more, but this year was a really good tournament for us as a wrestling program.”
All three of Wawasee’s State appearances saw a win in Friday’s ticket round, affording the Warriors podium spots in all three classes. Jace Alexander lost in the second round to Brayden Lowery by a fall to finish sixth place. Geremia Brooks capped his successful high school wrestling career in third place after working a 5-4 decision over Jimtown’s Matt Gimson. Brooks scored two decision wins before losing to Avon’s Asa Garcia – the eventual champion – by decision in the semis. Braxton Alexander became the first Wawasee wrestler in nearly two decades to wrestle under the lights at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. The senior scored a fall and two decisions to reach the final. There, Columbus East’s Cayden Rooks maintained control for most of the match to score a 9-2 decision for the championship.
“This was a really good run, really was, and was just a good postseason altogether,” offered Bumgardner. “This is the year that we’ve done the best job of peaking for individual guys. Some guys need to be peaking at the sectional or regional, and other guys were peaking two weeks later at the state finals. I thought we did a good job of maintaining expectations throughout the tournament.”
Where Bumgardner took a similar level of pride was what his team was able to do away from the lights of competition. Four of his wrestlers signed on to continue athletics in college – Isaiah Tipping, the team’s 220-pounder, signed to continue in track at Marian University; Ray Torres, at 170 pounds, signed to wrestle at Calumet College; Alex Castro, a 182 pounder, signed to wrestle at Defiance College; and Damien Rodriguez, at 195 pounds, signed with Indiana Tech. Bumgardner also bragged about his wrestler’s academic work, with four named Academic All-State in Tipping, Logan Baugh, Evan Gregory and Fernando Hernandez.
In a culture where ultra-aggressive and mat results are the perception, Bumgardner is more concerned with the quality of overall person that comes through his program.
“We have a lot of work to do,” stated Bumgardner. “We want to be state champs. We want the individual success. But we also want to be national champs. We want to win at the high school level, the college level, whatever level we’re at. We’re trying to build young men and women who can go out in society and be very, very successful at a high level. That’s got to be the goal, always looking forward.”