By STEVE KRAH
The Diaz family was on the ground floor in building the wrestling program at Wheeler High School.
Now, two Diaz siblings are reaching for the heights during the 2017-18 IHSAA state tournament series.
At the Jan. 27 Crown Point Sectional, senior Jose Diaz Jr. placed second at 113 pounds and sophomore Giovanni Diaz finished first at 106. They both move on to the Feb. 3 Crown Point Regional.
“He’s very intelligent,” says third-year Wheeler head coach Robin Haddox of Jose Jr. “He knows the sport very well. He’s extremely fast. He’s strong. He’s got the whole package.”
A 106-pound Jose Jr. became Wheeler’s first State Finals qualifier in 2016. He placed eighth at 113 in 2017. Giovanni was an East Chicago Semistate qualifier at 106 in 2017.
Jose Jr. explains why he enjoys wrestling.
“It’s you and another person,” says Jose Jr. “You go out and show who you really are. It’s what you decide to put on the mat.
“Winning feels great. Every time I get my hand raised, it feels great and motivates me to keep going.”
Giovanni likes to be pushed to his limit — something that he gets with wrestling.
“I like everything about it,” says Giovanni. “Most days, we try to push ourselves even when it’s supposed to be a light day.
“You’ve got to have a certain mindset. If you want to achieve your goals, you’re going to have some toughness and think you’re going to break.”
While they sometimes drill with other wrestlers in practice, Jose Jr. and Giovanni often trade moves.
“It’s always close when we wrestle,” says Jose Jr. “It’s always fun.”
Says Giovanni, “sometimes it get a little rough, but we keep it under control.”
The Wheeler Bearcats officially hit the mats six years ago. Jose Jr. was a seventh grader. Giovanni was a fifth grader. Father Jose Sr. introduced the boys to the sport soon after they were born.
Jose Sr. wrestled at Taft High School in Chicago, placing fourth in the city championships — just one win from the Illinois State Finals — as a senior in 1999.
“I loved it,” says Jose Sr. of the sport. “Wrestling helped me stay out of trouble. That’s what it does for a lot of Chicago Public Schools kids.”
The elder Diaz and wife Patty moved their family to unincorporated Valparaiso near uncle Luis Del Valle.
“It was one of the best decisions we made,” says Jose Sr. “It’s a better than the life I lived.
“There have been a lot of opportunities for all of my kids (Jose Jr., Giovanni, third grader Aidan and second grader Emma).”
Jose Sr. knew he wanted his boys to wrestle and they began training at home, but he waited for them to commit to competition. When Jose Jr. was in third grade and Giovanni first grade, they joined the Boone Grove Wrestling Club as athletes and their father as a coach.
Then came the Wheeler Wrestling Club and the high school squad. Steadily the numbers have grown. This winter, the Bearcats filled nearly every weight class in most duals. The club has swelled to more than 40 wrestlers and the middle school team competed for its second season.
“Wheeler is not a dominant program yet, but we have guys who go down-state,” says Jose Sr., a construction contractor.
Jose Jr. likes the idea of leaving a legacy.
“I want to be remembered at this school as a good wrestler,” says Jose Jr. “When I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a role model. I was always shy. (Success in wrestling) helps me understand that I can be. It helped me with my confidence.”
Jose Jr. stays after high school practice each day to help younger club grapplers and is proud of what Bearcats wrestling has become.
“I love coaching the little kids and giving back to the community,” says Jose Jr. “With our numbers. our program has started getting 10 times better. Being part of this program means a lot to me.”
The Diaz boys will also leave their mark at Wheeler for his academic achievements.
Jose Jr. carries a 4.089 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale and is on his way to making the Wheeler Academic Hall of Fame. Giovanni has a 4.105 GPA.
“Wheeler is great for academics,” says Jose Jr. “Teachers are always there for you.”
With about 500 students, the teacher-to-student ratio allows for one-on-one attention.
Jose Jr., a National Honor Society member, has been accepted at educationally-prestigious Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., where he will compete in NCAA Division I wrestling. He plans to study health science with the aim of becoming a physical therapist.
“It’s a perfect fit for Jose,” says Jose Sr., of Franklin & Marshall, where Mike Rogers in head wrestling coach. “It’s a small private school. The student-to-staff ratio is 9-to-1. The school has history. It’s like an Ivy League school. A degree from there opens up a lot of doors. You go to Franklin & Marshall for academics, not for wrestling.
“I get a good feeling, handing over my son. Jose has been coached by me. I’ve been his dad and his coach. It’s a big step. I wanted to make sure Jose goes into a program that fits him.”
Jose Jr. knows it will be transition.
“I’m nervous to not have (my father) in my corner,” says Jose Jr. “He’s been there since Day 1. He sees what I don’t see. He tells it straight on.
“I’m not always happy about it, but it helps me tremendously.”
The student half of student-athlete is important throughout the Wheeler wrestling program.
“This is the highest grade-point average team I’ve ever been involved with,” says Haddox, an industrial construction manager. “The majority of our kids are 3.0 or better. We have not had to worry about grades at all with any of our wrestlers.”
Haddox wrestled at Chesterton High School, where he graduated in 1981, and the University of Tennessee. After a time in Texas, he moved back to northwest Indiana and began helping with the Portage High School wrestling program before Wheeler came calling.
Besides Haddox and Jose Diaz Sr., the Bearcats are coached by Alex Bravo (former Valparaiso High School wrestler) and Yusef Mohmed (who has a background in mixed martial arts).