By STEVE KRAH
Cousins Conner Graber and Owen Eveler were born into a wrestling family.
Every time the Northridge High School seniors step on the mat, they have a small army of relatives clad in green and gold enthusiastically cheering them on.
“It’s a huge factor,” says Owen of the family appreciation for the sport. “It’s been bred in us since we were young.
“You can definitely pick out the Northridge crowd.”
Such is also the case for sophomore Oliver Eveler, junior Adam Hooley and freshman Logan Hooley. They also part of the second generation in a clan that loves its wrestling.
“They are the loudest fans,” says Northridge head coach Eric Highley. “But they’re not malicious or inappropriate. They’re always encouraging. They’re a great family.”
In the Raider rooting section, there’s first-generation mat mavens Scott Graber (NHS Class of 1982) and his brothers Jeff (NHS Class of 1984) and Ted (Class of 1986) and sister Tonya (Graber) Eveler (NHS Class of 1988).
Tonya is married to Mark Eveler (Goshen Class of ’85) and they are parents to Owen, Oliver and seventh-grade grappler Sydney.
Scott, Jeff and Ted were all semistate qualifiers as Raiders. Pull out the 1982 Shield yearbook, turn to page 56 and there’s a photo of Scott Graber pinning an opponent.
Jared Graber (NHS Class of 2007) and Drew Graber (NHS of 2009) are Scott’s sons. Drew was a three-time State Finals qualifier and finished second twice (171 in 2008 and 182 in 2009) while winning 117 career matches. He is now Northridge assistant coach.
Ted and Rolonda (Hooley) Graber (NHS Class of 1989) are parents to Conner. Rolonda’s brothers Brad Hooley (NHS Class of 1982) and Allen Hooley (NHS Class of 1985) were also wrestlers.
Adam Hooley is the son of Brad and Logan the offspring of Allen.
“It helps me to compete, trying to be one of the best in my family,” says Adam Hooley, who remembers watching cousin Drew Graber’s drive on video. “We talk about future matches and previous matches (at family gatherings) and how we can get better.”
Logan Hooley has soaked up a lot of knowledge from his cousins.
“I’ve learned a lot by watching them,” says Logan, who began wrestling as a seventh grader. “It helped me understand it more.”
Oliver Eveler has also felt the love.
“It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, at the end of the day you always have your family behind you,” says Oliver.
At those family outings, there’s plenty of friendly smack talk, especially among the second generation.
And at some point, it becomes more than talk.
“There always seems to be a wrestling match until something gets broken and then we’ve got to shut it down,” says Ted Graber, who has a wrestling mat in his basement as does Mark Eveler.
Heading into the Elkhart Sectional, 182-pounder Conner Graber is 34-1 on the 2017-18 season and 132-21 for his career. Only Steve Zimmerman (NHS Class of 1995) with 138 and Ross Powell (NHS Class of 1997) with 133 rank ahead of him on Northridge’s all-time wrestling victory list.
Conner won a single-season school record 44 matches and placed seventh at the IHSAA State Finals at 182 in 2016-17.
Conner Graber’s secret sauce?
“It’s just a good work ethic,” says Conner, the 2018 Northern Lakes Conference champion at 182. “Weightlifting is a big part of it and working all my moves in practice and building up my endurance.”
In matches, Conner heeds his coach’s advice to have a plan, be fast and work the angles. He grappled at 160 as a freshman, moved to 182 as a sophomore and has been in that class ever since, though he has bumped up to 195 a few times this season to see better competition.
Drew Graber came back to the program knowing he would get a chance to help his cousins and that includes Conner Graber.
“Every year he’s had more drive to open and wants to learn more and get better,” says Drew of Conner. “With success came some confidence and some open-mindedness with some moves. This year, he’s a completely different wrestler than last year. He’s scoring more points.
“Seniors are often very set in their ways. But Conner has been very flexible with technique and trying stuff.
“As a coaching staff, we model that continued growth with all of our wrestlers.”
Two of his notable victories were 4-2 decisions against New Haven senior Jonyvan Johnson and Indiana Creek senior Grant Goforth. His lone loss is a 5-4 decision against Wabash senior Noah Cressell.
Owen Eveler (145) goes into the sectional at 33-4 this season and 116-29 in his career.
“I’ve improved my mat skills this season — top and bottom,” says Owen, who placed third in the NLC at 145. “My neutral’s always been there.”
Ted Graber credits Mark Eveler for getting the Raider Wrestling Club going about a decade ago.
“He’s been very instrumental,” says Ted of Mark. “He has touch a lot of lives.”
Conner Graber has seen the fruits of the Raider Wrestling Club’s labor.
“That helped a ton,” says Conner. “We expanded on everything we had already talked about and done in a limited capacity at Fairfield.”
When Conner Graber and Owen Eveler were kindergartners and before Northridge had its own club, they went to Fairfield High School to participate in the Talon Wrestling Club run by Dan Glogouski and Jesse Espinoza.
Ron Kratzer was head coach for the Raiders from 1975-88 and coached Scott, Jeff and Ted Graber. Kratzer was followed by Tom Fudge, Mark Hofer, Mike Wickersham, Scott Giddens, Joe Solis and Shawn Puckett.
Since 2013, Highley has headed the program. His current assistants beside Drew Graber are Puckett, Jeff Howe and Mike Price.
“Northridge is blessed in many ways with their coaching,” says Ted Graber. “The parents are very appreciative.”
Highley is grateful for the support shown not only by the Grabers, Evelers and Hooleys, but all the dads and moms.
“We’ve got all these parents that have been involved with it for a long time. They understand what’s going on. They understand the sacrifices their sons have to make.”
There is a big banner in the Northridge practice room that reads: You Get What You Earn.
“If they are willing to go in and put in all that sacrifice, all that time and all that hard work, then they are earning their chance to achieve what they want to achieve,” says Highley. “They are going to see the results.
“If you want to be lazy, that’s fine. But you’re probably not going to go as far as you want to go.”