By STEVE KRAH
Each time Cale Gray steps on a wrestling mat he wants to be better than the last.
The Norwell High School senior wants constant feedback.
The 220-pound Gray stays after workouts to consult with Knights head coach John Johnson, going over moves and studying film.
“He tries to be a student of the sport,” says Johnson, who has coached Gray since the sixth grade. “After every match he wants to breakdown how he wrestled. I don’t find a lot of guys like that.
“He really tries to improve technically all the time.”
With four pins in as many matches, Gray (18-0 so far in 2019-20) helped Norwell place fifth in Class 2A at the Indiana High School Wrestling Coaches Association Duals in Fort Wayne.
The Knights went 3-1, losing 44-32 to Western then beating West Vigo 51-21, Wawasee 46-27 and Oak Hill 36-33.
Asked his best quality as an athlete and Gray replies that is his willingness to take instruction.
“It’s my ability to listen to my coaches and take in information that they give me,” says Gray. “It’s constructive criticism. I take it into account.
“Coach Johnson always critiques me on my feet and he wants me to be more heavy-handed. I’m pretty light with my hands. I don’t use them enough. Whenever he critiques me, I’ll ask him to work with me after practice.”
Gray grappled at 170 as freshman, 182 as a sophomore and 195 as a junior.
“I’d like to think I was a bit under the radar,” says Gray. “No one knew my name.”
That started to change when he placed second at the Jay County Sectional and Jay County Regional and third at the Fort Wayne Semistate, avenging sectional and regional championship losses to Jay County’s Chandler Chapman.
Gray then placed sixth in his first appearance at the IHSAA State Finals in Indianapolis and finished the 2018-19 season at 31-7.
“Last year I was definitely predictable,” says Gray. “I had a good set-up and it got me pretty far on my feet. But when I got to the semistate and state that didn’t really work.
“I was kind of a one trick pony.”
This season, Gray has been helping Johnson to diversify his attack from his feet.
“We’ve worked this year on being able to attack both the trail leg and the lead leg,” says Johnson. “He’s a big, strong guy and super athletic for his size. He can do multiple things. It’s just doing them.”
“I’ve seen him hit probably three of four (Granby Rolls) already this year and you just don’t typically see a lot of big boys doing that.”
Gray is fond of an expression that sums up his approach.
“I like to be a jack of all trades and master of none, but it’s better than being a master of only one,” says Gray. “If I have only one thing to go to and it doesn’t work, I don’t have much to go off of.”
“I try embrace every aspect of wrestling except legs. I try to pick up things and know what to do in match situations.”
Gray long ago fell in love with weight training and even worked out with a strength coach in Colorado last summer.
That continued when he got back to Indiana and before his final season of high school football (he was an all-Northeast Eight Conference defensive end for the second straight year and also played fullback).
“When I was on my own time, I’d lift every day of the week I could and I’d eat like five to seven meals a day to get bulking,” says Gray.
“When football started coming around, I didn’t have as much time to eat those meals or lift. We only lifted three times a week and I’d have time to eat three of four meals a day.”
Gray, who also did some folkstyle wrestling in the off-season, got up to 235 pounds but was unable to pack on more weight and it was decided he would wrestle at 220 for Norwell instead of 285.
As Gray has gone up in weight, he has noticed a difference in styles.
“220’s do a lot more power ties and slide-bys and they move around for a snap single,” says Gray. “Hand-fighting is something I need to get better at.”
Gray hopes to wrestle in college and study exercise science and kinesiology. He has gotten attention from smaller collegiate programs.
“I only placed sixth last year (at the State Finals),” says Gray. “My goal is to become a state champion.
“Hopefully, those D-I’s will take notice at that point.”
Cale is supported by his family. He is the son of Mike and Tracy Gray and Chris and Danny Droke. His has and older brother (Dylan) and a twin sister (Cassidy).
Before the IHSAA state tournament series (sectional Feb. 1, regional Feb. 8, semistate Feb. 15 and State Finals Feb. 21-22), the Knights has a home dual against Leo Jan. 14, the Garrett Invitational Jan. 18, a road dual against South Adams Jan. 22 and the Northeast Eight Tournament at New Haven Jan. 25.
Johnson, who is in his fourth season leading the high school program, has watched Gray come a long way.
“Cale was a very average middle school wrestler,” says Johnson. “Even as a freshman, he was OK.”
Like with many successful wrestlers, something clicked and Gray became really committed to mat game.
“Once they start to buy in, there’s no ceiling for them,” says Johnson of the mentality he shares with his athletes. “At the end of the day it takes sacrifice.
“I don’t care if it’s your weight and staying after practice to watch because this is what’s going to make you stand out.”
The coach says shortcuts won’t help you get there.
“Make them beat you because they’re a better wrestler, not because you cheated yourself,” says Johnson.
For those dedicated like Gray, Johnson says wrestling is with them all the time.
“It really becomes a lifestyle that you have to buy into — some kids do it well and some really battle with it,” says Johnson. “That’s why wrestling is really the best preparation for just being an adult.
“I always make it about more than wrestling because it really is. I want to teach them about real life. Get to practice on time. Little things like that.”
Wrestlers who are late for practice at Norwell know they have running and/or suicides in front of them.
“If you’re going to commit to something, let’s do it well and be reliable,” says Johnson. “I want to make these young men ready to hit the adult world and be responsible and productive.”