By STEVE KRAH
Penn has been an IHSAA state championship contender in most years since Brad Harper took over as head coach of the Kingsmen in 2006.
In 2015, Penn won its first state team title.
The goal every year is reach the top of the Indiana heap.
Itâ€™s also to grow the programâ€™s reputation in the state and beyond.
At any given time during the high school season, there are around close to 100 wrestlers striving to get better while also forming a bond.
â€œThe family atmosphere â€” thatâ€™s huge for us,â€ Harper said. â€œThatâ€™s why we have 90 kids on the team.
â€œWe probably have 14 seniors and only three of them start. Why are you letting the seniors stay out? Because they want to be a part of it.â€
Long-time assistant coach Chad Hershberger, a 2000 Penn graduate, hears the word every time the Kingsmen break from a meet or a practice: â€œFamily!â€
â€œThatâ€™s what we are,â€ Hershberger said. â€œWe are a family from the time we step into that (practice) room until we leave. Itâ€™s 24-7, 365.â€
One of Harperâ€™s teammates at Mishawaka High School (Brad won a state title in 1998 and was a state runner-up in 1999) was Mike Cramer, who is now associate pastor at New Life Baptist Church in Osceola.
Cramer has been coming to Friday practices for years to give motivational talks that relate life to wrestling. Topics include hard work, teamwork, determination and â€” of course â€” family.
Not every athlete buys into the family values that the coaching staff of 20 constantly talks about.
But most do and thrive because of it.
They gravitate to coaches like five men who have been at the core of the coaching staff for the past decade â€” Harper, Hershberger, Dave Manspeaker, Jim Rhoads and Tom Dolly.
They also go to the many longtime volunteers to learn wrestling technique, but also to be motivated or to just have a friend and role model.
â€œWe mentor some of these kids,â€ Hershberger said. â€œSome of them donâ€™t have much and they just want to be a part of something.â€
So while individuals set their own goals, the team goal is always a high one and everyone is expected to contribute.
At some schools, they call them â€œprogram kids.â€
At Penn, itâ€™s â€œnext guy in.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve got to be ready because you never know when someone is going to go down,â€ Harper said.
Getting wrestlers ready to jump into the fire is a schedule that has junior varsity wrestlers taking part in many varsity tournaments.
â€œThe only way that some of these kids were going to be able to step into that role is to have the varsity experience,â€ Hershberger said. â€œAre we always going to win? No. But thatâ€™s not what we ask. Itâ€™s about getting better and getting that varsity competition so when we do have injuries, that next kid is ready to step in. They are battle-tested.â€
Penn, which placed sixth in Class 3A at the Indiana High School Wrestling Coaches Association State Duals Friday, Dec. 23 in Fort Wayne, also derives success from its feeder program. Three middle schools â€” Discovery, Grissom and Schmucker are all on the same page with the high school.
The Penn Wrestling Club begins with pre-kindergarten grapplers and goes all the way through high school, where itâ€™s known as Midwest Extreme Wrestling (MXW) and wrestlers come from all over to take part in national team events.
It begins with the Kings Kids (Pre-K through First Grade) and goes to the Noble Kingsmen (Grades 2-5) Elite Kingsmen (Grades 2-6) and Black Knights (Grades (6-8) before high school.
Chad Harper, Bradâ€™s brother and a member of Mishawakaâ€™s 1991 IHSAA team champions, is clubâ€™s event coordinator and vice president on the board of directors. He said there are currently 176 active wrestlers though eight grade and there are 40 or more in the high school club.
When the high schoolers travel to Indiana events, they tend to go as the Penn Wrestling Club. At national tournaments, they tend to represent MXW.
MXW promotes wrestling regionally, nationally and possibly at the world level.
â€œIt just makes for a good wrestling room,â€ Chad Harper said.
Through fundraising efforts (each wrestler has their own account), club wrestlers travel all over the nation â€” from Las Vegas to the Fargo Nationals to the Disney Duals in Florida and more.
â€œWeâ€™re seeing competition nationwide and thatâ€™s huge,â€ Brad Harper said. â€œOur goal is not just to be good in the state, we want to be No. 1 in the nation.â€
On April 7-8, 2017, PWC and MXW will again host a national dual tournament inside Compton Family Ice Arena at the University of Notre Dame. The 2016 duals â€” the first wrestling meet on the ND campus since 1992 â€” drew eight regional teams and the hope for 2017 is 16.
â€œWe want to grow it every year,â€ Chad Harper said. â€œWe want to help build up the Notre Dame club.â€
Fran McCann, who helps coach at the high school and club levels at Penn, was the Notre Dame head coach when the school discontinued intercollegiate wrestling.
Heading into 2016-17, Pennâ€™s single-season leaders were Austin Kunze (217 takedowns in 2009-10), Tim Koch (37 reversals in 1987-88), Alex Gregory (35 pins and 50 wins in 2010-11), Derrick Jones (87 near falls in 1997-98) and Trevor Manspeaker (31 technical falls in 2012-13). Career leaders were Kenny Kaiser (331 takedowns from 1985-88), Tom Ginter (62 reversals from 2002-05), Alex Gregory (102 pins from 2007-11), Jeremiah Maggart (197 near falls from 2004-07), Trevor Manspeaker (93 technical falls from 2012-13) and Zach Davis (169 wins from 2011-14).
Penn won its first Northern Indiana Conference title in 1980. The Kingsmen went into this season with a five-year streak of NIC crowns.