By Anna Kayser
If you’ve been an unfamiliar passerby in the town of Brownsburg, Ind. over the past seven years, one of the first things that might catch your eye are the purple street signs – deep purple markers adorned with a bulldog, two on each corner if you’re lucky.
At least, that’s what I noticed as I drove through the small – but not too small – suburb of Indianapolis en route to the fourth official practice of the 2022-23 IHSAA wrestling season, with no prior knowledge other than what was scribbled on the notepad next to me.
One thing I hadn’t taken note of prior to passing the “Welcome to Brownsburg” sign on Highway 139, and something that might give any other small-town Midwesterner the same familiar wave of recognition: The residents of this town about 30 minutes northwest of downtown Indy live and breathe Brownsburg High School athletics.
The 2021-22 Brownsburg wrestling team was nothing to snub at. The Bulldogs went 18-1 in duals and extended their program-record streak to eight consecutive Hoosier Crossroads Conference championships. Jake Hockaday led the lineup with the first state title by a freshman in school history, continuing Brownsburg’s reign of crowning one champion each year since 2016. More on him later – I promise.
But that was last year, and while the result is indicative of the journey to get to where they are now, it’s not the full story. What better place to begin than at the beginning – when the Bulldog wrestling program transitioned from a bottom-of-the-barrel finish to an HCC Championship in two years, to an IHSAA State Championship in four.
“Regardless of what it is, I have high expectations,” Brownsburg Community School Corporation Superintendent Dr. Jim Snapp said. “My experience has been if you want to have a state contending team, you [hire a coach] who has done it before.”
After beginning his head coaching career at Mishawaka High School – a time in which he led the program to three consecutive top-two finishes and a pair of championships in 2008 and 2010 – Darrick Snyder found himself as the subject of a coaching inquiry almost 150 miles dead south of the place where he was a Northern Indiana Conference champion and state place winner.
From Snyder’s point of view, there were a number of perks to coming to Brownsburg. And when his wife asked him about the wrestling team’s recent lack of success, he saw the potential to upgrade the team to something special.
“Yeah – but there’s no reason [for that lack of success],” he said. “All the pieces are there.”
Immediately, things began to shift. During Snyder’s first two seasons, the Bulldog program went 36-12 in duals and was crowned 2015 HCC Champions. Of course, that success comes not entirely from the corner but from the center of the mat itself – it’s a combination of what happens behind the scenes and the performances under the spotlight.
That first piece of the puzzle, the one that is encapsulated in the public eye each time the mats are rolled out: The athletes.
The success of that 2015 team was boasted by a pair of wrestlers that took center stage on the IHSAA State podium come February – Ty Mills (106), Brownsburg’s first finalist since Mark Meunier’s title in 1977, and Nathan Walton (170). As four-year place winners at the state tournament, they were two of four key athletes named by Snapp as being difference-makers in raising the heights of the program.
None was more instrumental under Snyder’s tutelage, however, than All-American and two-time NCAA Division I Championships qualifier Brayton Lee, Minnesota’s current starting 157-pounder. A leader that, without Snyder’s drive to create a pipeline from younger levels into a high school program the town could be proud of, might never have donned the purple Bulldog in the first place.
“[My family] knew that [Snyder] was a good coach and had a lot of success, but we weren’t that familiar with him,” Lee said. “We went to Brownsburg for a high school tournament to meet up with him when I was in middle school, and we just talked. He was just supportive and said that he would help me to become the best wrestler I can possibly be. We were really excited about Snyder, he pretty much sold us [on where the Brownsburg program would go].”
Not only is building the high school program a key part in escalating success, but also what feeds into it. The implementation and management of a strong program for middle school students ensures that development and love for the sport occurs at a younger age.
“We were fortunate enough to get some kids [like Lee] that came here because of him, and he’s worked on [building up] the middle school program – kids want to come here, kids want to stay here,” Snapp said. So, we’ve got this interaction of developing the feeder program and kids that, if they’re going to wrestle in the Indianapolis area, they [want] to come to Brownsburg.”
With two established wrestling academies nearby – Contender’s Wrestling Academy in Brownsburg and Red Cobra Wrestling in Avon – growth through both the school program and external coaching elevates athletes even higher.
Lee, a product of Red Cobra, was a good example of how development can skyrocket through that extra effort and help outside of a school program. What the Bulldogs standout star lacked early on, however, was the team aspect.
“It was definitely different, just because I had never been on a team before – I had just wrestled on my own,” Lee said. “I had grown up going to our very intense wrestling club and on both sides, practices were tough. I appreciated and respected that. [Snyder] was always making us do lots of tough stuff intertwined with wrestling.”
Prior to Lee’s first of three IHSAA state titles in 2016 – a year in which he, along with five other state placers, led the charge on Brownsburg’s IHSWCA Dual State championship and IHSAA state runner-up finishes – the Bulldogs had only crowned two individual champions in school history.
“We were always focused on the next day,” Lee said. “The first time I won, it was awesome, and I was grateful for it – but there was always a team aspect. I wanted to win with our team, and that idea of winning definitely pushed us. I think me winning helped bring other guys along. Knowing I was kind of a leader, knowing that my success was inspiring other guys on the Brownsburg wrestling team made me want to keep pushing.”
For Lee’s career specifically, the results of the drive to win as a team came quickly. His second title at 145 pounds saw seven Bulldogs on the IHSAA podium and a franchise-high three finalists – Mills and Blake Mulkey included as runners-up – to lead Brownsburg to its first IHSAA state championship in school history.
That influx of high-performing athletes jumpstarted Brownsburg’s rise to the top of high school wrestling in central Indiana.
“You put those kids together – we had a core of four, good kids – and Darrick coached up other kids around them,” Snapp said. “That started [a stretch] of us winning the conference every year for the last eight years, we’re in the strongest athletic conference in the state of Indiana. Our wrestling team has dominated. It hasn’t even been close.”
The second piece to the puzzle, where Snapp, the administration and coaching staff as a whole come into play, is the support Snyder continues to have behind him.
The best example? The wrestling room at Brownsburg High School, built during Snyder’s reign as head coach and designed by Snapp to help raise the standard of the program and accommodate the growing numbers of the extracurricular.
“I knew I was going to have [Snapp’s] support on just simple things,” Snyder said. “My first year here, I wanted to take a fan bus to individual state… and I was told no [by the athletic director]. I said, ‘This is a really important to the program. These guys need to watch this event, it’s incredible.’
“I called Jim, and every year [since], just like most teams, we get to take a team bus to state.”
The backing from Snapp and the administration is a means to an end in shifting the culture not just in the Brownsburg wrestling room, but in the town that loves its high school athletics.
“That first year, there wasn’t really anyone there for the kid that was wrestling [at state]. When you win, you want to look up and see a bunch of purple and sit with those people between rounds,” Snyder said. “We’ve really tried to change that around, anything like that.”
It also extends to the actual competition and helping those wrestlers reach the mats at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
In order to develop the athletes coming to Brownsburg or growing through school programs the Bulldogs support, the level of competition needed to continuously be raised.
“When I first got here, no program did any overnights or anything out of state,” Snyder said. “I went to [the athletic director] and told [them], ‘I’ve got to get out of Indianapolis’ – I was tired of wrestling the same teams over and over again, and then we got to the point that there weren’t many teams in our area that would be competitive.”
This upcoming season, the Bulldogs’ schedule includes the Walsh Jesuit Ironman Wrestling Tournament from and the Crown Point Invitational – Crown Point defeated Brownsburg 178-105 in the 2022 finals, setting an IHSAA record for the largest margin of victory by a team champion by over 20 points – on back-to-back weekends in December.
That elevation in competition level allows wrestlers to face some of their biggest challenges early and prepares them for high-pressure situations come February.
“I always tell [our guys] that our schedule is not meant for them to go undefeated,” Snyder said. “If you do, that’s great, but we’ve set up a schedule where we’re going to take some losses. That took administrative support to be willing to allow us to do overnights, to allow us to go out of state.”
Pushing athletes beyond their comfort zone to prepare them for future career hurdles is a common theme in Snyder’s coaching style, something that is on record in helping wrestlers reach their full potential.
And, well, maybe no one can attest to that better than a Big Ten starter.
“I think just his competitiveness and him pushing us every day helped me,” Lee said. “He helped push me past my comfort zone a little but more than maybe I would myself, and that’s really the main purpose of a coach. Snyder knew I wanted to be great, and he helped me move into a little bit more uncomfortable territories which is important for any athlete, especially when you’re trying to go to the next level.”