A Backbreaking Finale
By Mike Deak
INDIANAPOLIS – It was a storybook ending that many couldn’t make up. At least in how the story would finish. Usually the story of an athlete overcoming his struggles to reach uncharted territory ends with an improbable championship and a ticker tape parade.
Jace Alexander’s weekend ended in a hospital bed.
The Wawasee 138-pounder ran into a bigger struggle than what any wrestler could throw at him at the IHSAA Wrestling State Finals. One that would eventually derail his shot at a state championship.
Alexander was having one heck of a season, having lost just once as he made his fourth straight state finals. After a disappointing loss on day one of the state finals as a junior, Alexander was poised to top his sixth-place finish as a sophomore. And Friday night had Alexander on his way, beating Floyd Central’s Gavinn Alstott in a decision.
But what was starting to beat Alexander was a stiff back. It would continue into Saturday of the two-day tournament.
Alexander showed some serious guts in his quarterfinal match against Oak Hill’s Brody Arthur. The Marines recruit displayed a never-say-die attitude after an 11-4 advantage suddenly turned 11-10 as Arthur made his move while Alexander’s back started to seize up. With Arthur down one and rallying hard, Alexander made a turn and reversed into a hold and a near fall, getting enough cushion to outlast his back and Arthur, 16-14.
But while the glory of making the semi-finals in his fourth and final try was in hand, he wasn’t thinking about any feel-good moments.
“You could just see it, something was not right,” opined Wawasee wrestling head coach Frank Bumgardner. The coaching staff were aware of Alexander’s deteriorating physical status, but the senior refused to tap out. “After his match (against Arthur), he had that look like ‘I might be done.’”
In the time between his two matches on Saturday, Wawasee did everything they could to keep Alexander able. Bumgardner had to help Alexander in and out of his warmups. They worked on his back, and had the training staff offer their advice. Nothing was getting the situation better for Alexander, whose muscle spasms in his back were becoming overbearing and crippling all at the same time.
Alexander refused to quit. And so the collective decided to send him out. Maybe there would be a divine moment, maybe Bloomington South’s Delaney Ruhlman would get caught offguard. Alexander had only lost once all season, he knew how to handle the moments. So he did what he knew, strap up and get out there.
Bumgardner had to help Alexander into his ankle bands for the semi-final. The senior barely walked to the scoring table to check in, Bumgardner saying Jace basically yelled his name to check in.
“His stance was horrible,” said Bumgardner. “The kid (Ruhlman) grabbed him at the start and we just saw it, he literally couldn’t do anything.”
Alexander fell to the mat, unable to move, and perhaps the state record for the quickest pin in state history could have been on. But it took Ruhlman 28 seconds to get Alexander pinned. And it took an eternity to get Alexander off the main floor.
“I’ve only seen Jace Alexander cry twice in all the years I’ve been around him, both this weekend,” Bumgardner said. “Once before the match, the second after the match.”
The transfer of Alexander from the floor to the team camp in the upper level of the arena took over 15 minutes, including a ride up a utility elevator. Another portion of time saw the team have to decide what to do with the third-place match. Alexander obviously was in no condition to carry on, but in a journey through the wrestling state tournament, no one wants to just disappear.
After some consultation, Wawasee decided to medical default Alexander for his final match as a high school wrestler. Again, the team had to reconstruct Alexander, who needed a ride back to the fieldhouse from the hotel. After declaring defeat in his final match to Evansville Mater Dei’s Blake Boarman, Alexander was declared fourth in his weight class for the 2020-21 season. A crushing end to an outstanding individual career, but a noble way to go out. Standing on the mat he worked so hard to get to, trying to fight to the very end.
Alexander would eventually get some medical treatment offsite in Indianapolis as his weekend came to a close.
“We decided to just soak it up, go out there and enjoy the moment,” the coach said of the agreement with both Alexander and the Mater Dei camp. “It was glorious, tragic and concerning all at the same time.”