Team State to showcase state's best

Dane Fuelling
Sports Editor

Decatur Daily Democrat

What began as a necessity to the wrestling community to fill the void left by the cancellation of the IHSAA-sponsored Team State tournament, has blossomed into the largest regular-season wrestling tournament in the state of Indiana. The IHSWCA Team State Duals have expanded to 40 teams in four classes, a stark contrast to the 24 teams who were invited to the initial duals in December of 2012.
The fine-tuning of the event, now in its ninth year, has increased the number of wrestling programs which include the Team Duals as part of their goals each year. Whether it is winning the event, winning a match on the day, or just qualifying for the event, more teams have bought into the event each year as something that is good for Indiana High School wrestling.
Covid restrictions will break the tournament up into different sites for the first time, but the 1A and 2A teams will still compete in the same arena, at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum. The teams formerly competing in the largest class, 3A, will now compete in two separate classes. Those schools with over 2500 students are in a new super class, while the rest of the old 3A stays in that class. Two schools, Evansville Mater Dei and Indianapolis Cathedral, have elected to compete at the sport’s highest level and are two of the favorites to hold the 4A trophy Saturday evening.
Another big change to this year’s tournament has been a transition back to a bracketed format, as opposed to the pools of three that have been used in the preliminary rounds for the past few years.
While spectators are limited at all three sites, the tournament will be available to purchase for streaming online, with wrestling fans able to watch all four classes with one purchase.

4A preview
For fans of this tournament, there will not be much difference between this year’s 4A tourney and last year’s 3A event, won by Cathedral in an exciting dual over Mater Dei. All eight teams in this year’s field were invited to last year’s tournament, with only Chesterton declining their invite. The top six in 2020 are all back and seeded in the top seven in 2021, with Chesterton also accepting. Avon, who finished 10th last year, are the eight seed.
The tournament, to be held at Brownsburg, is a chance for the state’s elite teams to showcase their talent to the state.
This year’s 4A field could be the most competitive yet, as there are many coaches who feel that their team has a true chance to win the event.
“At Brownsburg, we talk about two goals,” says coach Darrick Snyder. “Winning Team State and winning IHSAA State. I love the dual aspect of wrestling as it involves strategy and our least-talented wrestler is just as important as our most talented wrestler.”
Snyder’s coaching abilities have brought Brownsburg to the forefront of Indiana wrestling. The Bulldogs did not participate in the first three years of the event, but they crashed the party in 2016 as the newcomer and the two seed, going on to win the entire event. They followed that up with three more consecutive titles in the most dominant stretch any class has seen since the inception of the event.
Mater Dei and Perry Meridian are the only 4A teams to wrestle in the event for all nine years and both are contenders this year, although Mater Dei has the advantage of being seeded in the top spot. They have begun the year with seven dual wins and a tournament title to their credit.
Warren Central are currently 6-0 and hold the title of Marion County Champions. Wins over Brownsburg, Avon, Cathedral and Perry Meridian show just how good this team is.
Cathedral are the defending champions, winning the event for the first time last season, 32-26 over Mater Dei.
Perry Meridian’s only defeat has been outside the dual format, making them and their 14-0 record an interesting team at the #6 spot in the bracket.
If you want a preview of February’s state finals, keep your eyes on the 4A field Saturday.

3A Preview
The 3A portion of this year’s Team State is the new toy we all get for Christmas. Some will be asking: Was it worth it? Will it be competitive? If anyone spends a few minutes looking at the teams involved and their results so far this season, the answer is a definitive yes.
“It was needed,” says Franklin Community head coach Jim Tonte, whose school is hosting the event. “My ego says that we only want to compete with the best,” chuckled the coach who coached the 3A champion Perry Meridian Falcons in the very first year of the event. “But what’s most important is that we compete and this is going to be a tournament that is more competitive than any of the others.”
Coach Tonte’s team entered the 2014 tournament as the defending champions, but the Marion County school was knocked off by his current school, Franklin Community, in Johnson County.
The Grizzly Cubs enter the new format as the top seed, and while coach Tonte appreciates the spot in the bracket, he has had his eye on another team, second-seeded Columbus East, since April.
The Olympians recorded wins over Crown Point and Brownsburg last week at Perry Meridian and are in no danger of being overlooked this weekend.
“It didn’t take what they did at Perry for me to know they are good,” says Tonte. “They’ve been good all year. From their 106 and 113, all the way up to heavyweight. Morrill, Law, they’re all very solid and they have wrestled a lot over the last 12 months.”
The new 3A format has provided a new platform for schools between 900 and 2500 student enrollment to build their programs. And a program, not just a team, is what Tonte feels Columbus East has.
“It’s a great example of an entire program heading in the right direction, from the youth to the high school varsity lineup. They should be the envy of every school in the state,” remarked Tonte about coach Chris Cooper’s Columbus East program.
Tonte feels that the loss of Bloomington South, who backed out of the event for covid reasons, makes his team’s path tougher, as it moves East Central from the opposite side of the bracket into the top half. Tonte feels that the Trojans may be overlooked heading into this weekend.
Terre Haute South, who tied with Roncalli on the initial final vote for the eighth spot, were added to replace Bloomington South.

No teams were hit harder by Covid than Tell City and Bellmont this season, but both were seeded in the top spots for 1A and 2A, respectively.
The defending 2A champion Bellmont Braves have just three dual meets wrestled this season, and are coming off a disappointing 64-6 loss to Penn Tuesday. They will have to grow quickly as a team if they are to hold off teams like Garrett, Western and Oak HIll at the Coliseum.
Bellmont defeated Garrett twice over the span of two weeks last season to win their second Team State title.
The 2019 2A champion Western Panthers, have just one loss, one that they share with Bellmont, in Columbia City.
Those teams will be challenged by Mt. Vernon (Posey), a team that is making its first appearance at the event since 2015, where they finished tied for last. The Wildcats, ranked fifth in the state by IndianaMat, made the semifinals in December of 2014.
Another storyline for 2A is the late addition of Jay County and Monrovia into the field after New Castle and Boonville pulled out of the tournament. Jay County brings a 22-match winning streak and a whole lot of respect for this tournament to the Coliseum.
“Our team was ecstatic when they found out we got in,” said Jay County head coach Eric Myers. “We had wrestled that day and I did a Google Meet with them. Several of them thought the meeting was going to be an announcement of being shut down. They were shocked at first but really excited. They want to compete in this tournament.”
The late addition has added some extra work to coach Myers’ plate.
“We’ve had to make sure that we could get a bus, scout our opponents, change our schedule and a few other things. Our team has been working hard in the practice room as we’ve tried to pick it up another notch.”
Coach Myers’ involvement in the event dates all the way back to the first edition, when he was the head coach at South Adams. The Starfires finished seventh in 2012. He brought Jay County to the event for the first time last season.
New Prairie hope to play the role of spoiler, as they enter the 2A field unseeded, ready to pick off one of the top seeds in an upset.
“We believe we belong,” says assistant coach Dan Luther. “We are just as capable as any team here to win it. We know it won’t be easy as there are great teams here but we feel like if we wrestle to our potential, we will be a tough out.”
Luther echoed the sentiment that qualifying and being invited to the event is validation for his program.
“We base our program off a team-first mentality, not individual success, so qualifying for Team State is proof for the kids that their efforts are paying off.”
Another coach with great respect for the event is Brett Smith of Prairie Heights. His school has won the event three times and will look to return to the top of the heap as the fourth seed.
“1A is always exciting, with several good dual meets coming down to the wire,” says Smith. “For us specifically, receiving an invite to the Team State Duals helps add a few new kids each year to the team. It has been a great recruiting tool. Kids see that as a great opportunity and want to be a part of it.”
The event has traditionally been dominated by teams from northeast Indiana, but last year the balance of power shifted south, as North Posey became the first team outside the Ft. Wayne Semi-State to hoist the trophy.
The Vikings are seeded second this year, behind Tell City, last year’s third-place finishers.
A newcomer to the event this year is Cowan High School. The Blackhawks did not have a team when this event first started, having built their program up from nothing in recent years. Head coach Tony Abbott relishes the opportunity to have his team competing against the state’s best.
“We are a bunch of home-grown kids at Cowan. We’ve got twins and sets of brothers throughout our lineup and we’ve worked hard to reach this level. It is an honor to compete with these other teams at the Coliseum,” says Abbott.
Rensselaer Central is also a first-time participant, and head coach Hunter Hickman says this is his school’s biggest opportunity since the program began in 1969.
“We’ve had this date circled on our calendars since last February when we knew we had qualified. With Covid, we were unsure if this opportunity would come, but we are incredibly grateful to be a part of it.”
Hickman says his team is young and hungry.
“My hope is that our kids will go and scrap for six minutes every match. I want our kids to go and push the pace for six minutes and let the cards fall where they may.”
Hickman especially appreciates the opportunity to see different teams from around the state, including an old friend in the very first round.
Rensselaer will wrestle Bluffton, coached by Ben Sprunger, who was Hickman’s coach at VMI and his club coach when he wrestled in high school while Sprunger was wrestling at Purdue.

Event not just an honor for teams, but officials also
The IHSWCA Team State event does not just include the top teams, individuals and coaches from the Hoosier state, but also its best officials.
Henry Wilk, a 1969 individual state champion from Mishawaka, and former head coach of the Penn Kingsmen, feels that participating in Team State as an official, is an equal honor.
“It’s an honor and a privilege,” says Wilk. “As an official, I don’t think the general public realizes how hard officials work at their craft.”
Wilk says officials spend a lot of time in Association meetings and in other communications discussing wrestling situations and scenarios.
“There are just over 130 licensed wrestling officials in the state and we will have 48 of the top officials working the four classes.”
Wilk says all officials involved take the assignment seriously and appreciate being involved in it.
To give some perspective, Wilk recalled traveling to the State Finals in 1966, his freshman year.
“South Bend Adams won the team title that year and it was so exciting for myself, two teammates and coach Moe Aronson to witness that Saturday. While it was exciting from an individual’s perspective, nothing compares to the excitement generated when the whole team, coaches and community share in winning a Team State Championship!”