By STEVE KRAH
A friendship formed at a junior high football practice has led to a pair of successful high school wrestlers.
Jacob LaPlace met Joseph Walker when both were gridders at Mishawaka’s John Young Middle School.
LaPlace, who had been wrestling since age 4, saw mat potential in Walker.
“You’re really athletic, you’ve got to come out for wrestling,” says LaPlace of his invitation to Walker, who was already around 160 pounds. “Since then, we’ve been training together.”
Now in their fourth season as Mishawaka High School teammates, Walker is competing at 182 and LaPlace at 195. LaPlace is 16-0 so far in 2019-20 and 125-22 for his career. Walker is 6-0 and 75-25.
LaPlace placed fourth at the IHSAA State Finals at 138 on 2017 and was a state qualifier at both 145 in 2018 and 182 in 2019.
After being a state qualifier at 152 in 2018, Walker placed sixth at State at 170 in 2019.
Going against Walker everyday in the practice room makes LaPlace better.
Third-year Mishawaka head coach Steve Sandefer has watched iron sharpen iron with LaPlace and Walker.
“They’ve drilled and wrestled live with each other their entire high school careers,” says Sandefer. “The other person is the reason they are as good as they are now.”
“They wouldn’t be where they’re at without each other.”
LaPlace agrees with that sentiment.
“He gives me quick and agile,” says LaPlace of Walker. “He’s got a real explosive double (leg takedown). His strength and defense is really good and that helps my offense.”
“I help him because I’m bigger than him.”
Walker credits LaPlace with getting him started in the sport and is grateful to his first head coach and his current one.
“Jacob’s always been my partner since seventh grade,” says Walker. “I have the speed so I give him different looks. He keeps good position and gives me looks.”
“Adam Sandefur was my first coach and he’s always been on me, directing me. Steve (Sandefer) has also pushed me to become greater.”
Walker, a University of Michigan commit, credits his faith for his success.
“God’s my source of energy and power,” says Walker. Sandefer uses adjectives like hard-nosed, hard-working and super-athletic to describe Walker. He knows that he is also meticulous in his approach to wrestling and its technique, position and adjustments.
“He really takes the time to learn the finer details of wrestling,” says Sandefer of Walker. “He is very detail-oriented. That’s going to benefit him not just on the mat but off the mat.”
Says Walker, “I want to make sure everything is done right so I don’t do a wrongful move and don’t drill it wrong. I want to make sure it’s precise.”
While he has the physical tools, Walker is also a technician.
“Athleticism does help a lot, but I’m making sure my technique is down,” says Walker. “That’s a big factor.”
“With the bigger guys, strength is going to help a lot. But technique is the main source. I have to make sure my technique’s sharp.”
Most days, there’s a Hall of Famer in the room.
“Having Al Smith in there is a big help,” says Walker. “That’s another set of eyes watching us to make sure we’re making moves correctly.”
Walker says he likes to keep his bucket of moves open.
“If one thing doesn’t work, I can hit another thing,” says Walker.
“But all those moves, I have to make sure I sharpen them in the practice room each and every day.”
“A lot of wrestlers have one good move and it’s very hard for people to stop. That’s their move. It’s what they drill. It’s what they do. It’s their bread and butter.”
Walker chose Michigan for college because of the academic and athletic connections.
He plans to study anesthesiology while grappling for the Wolverines.
“(Anesthesiology) fascinates me,” says Walker. “You have to make sure you have the right dosage and all the math behind it and the science. Grades and school comes first. School is very heavy in my life.”
“The wrestling is very heavy in freestyle. They’re going past folkstyle. There’s a lot of international wrestling. That’s what I want to do.”
“I want excel in the sport and be the best I can be.”
Joseph is the son of William and Rhonda Walker has eight siblings, including Salome Walker (on the women’s wrestling team at McKendree University) and Queen Walker (on the women’s track and field team at Bethel University).
LaPlace, the son of Lester and Rae and younger brother of Mariah and an Indiana Tech commit who plans to study business administration, explains his mat style.
“I rely on my defense a lot,” says LaPlace. “I only have a few offensive shots, but I’m really confident in those shots.”
“I’ve always been a defensive-type wrestler. Most of my offense comes outside of a tie.”
LaPlace says he was more offensive as a freshman and sophomore when he competed at 138 and 145.
“Moving up, I figured out that you’ve got to slow down,” says LaPlace.
“You’ve got to wear out the bigger guys before you can start to get on your offense.”
As he grew and got older, LaPlace decided not to cut as much weight.
“I wanted to wrestle what I weigh (as a junior),” says LaPlace. “The same thing this year. I’m walking around at about 188.”
“I feel comfortable wrestling 195 at about 188 or 189. I might not look it, but I’m pretty strong in wrestling positions. I’m confident in my strength.”
Sandefer, who won state titles for Mishawaka at 140 in 2008 and 2009, has become a believer in wrestling at a comfortable weight rather than cutting all the time.
“That’s a mistake a lot of kids make,” says Sandefer. “They come into the wrestling room and think about how much weight do I have to lose rather than getting better”
“We’ve gotten away from pushing kids to cut too much weight.”
Sandefer looks at LaPlace and sees wider shoulders and thicker legs.
“That’s exactly what he needed — not just for our season but going forward in life,” says Sandefer. “It’s really given him an opportunity to focus more on his wrestling more than cutting weight.”
LaPlace, Walker and the rest of the Cavemen are gearing up for the 32-team Al Smith Classic, which is Friday and Saturday, Dec. 27-28.
“The Al Smith is a real eye opener and we train really hard for it,” says LaPlace. “We’re excited for it. We’re going to have a really good run this year as a team.”
Many coaches over the years have described the Mishawaka event as a “meat grinder.”
“That’s exactly what it is,” says LaPlace. “It shows you just what State’s like. You’ve got to make weight two days in a row. There’s really tough competition.
“It’s a tough tournament. It’s fun.”
Mishawaka is coming off of the Henry Wilk Classic at Penn Dec. 21.
After the Al Smith Classic, the Cavemen will take part in the Indiana High School Wrestling Coaches Association Class 3A State Duals in Fort Wayne Jan. 4.
Other meets on the horizon are the Northern Indiana Conference Championships at Mishawaka Jan. 18, Mishawaka Sectional Feb. 1, Penn Regional Feb. 8, East Chicago Semistate Feb. 15 and IHSAA State Finals in Indianapolis Feb. 21-22.
It will take mental toughness for the Cavemen to get through the season and Sandefer emphasizes that on a daily basis.
“Today in our society there’s a lot of people who find excuses for their failures and easy ways out with no responsibility or accountability,” says Sandefer. “Be responsible for yourself. If you’re losing matches what are you not doing in the wrestling room? Are you playing around too much? Hold yourself accountable.”
“(It’s about) being mentally tough to push through these tough times. If we’re in a tough practice, everybody else is going through it. It’s not just you. Lift your teammates up. It’s much easier to get through it together.”
As a wrestler, Sandefer put in plenty of time away from practice, putting in miles on the treadmill and stationary bike. That extra work had a carry-over effect.
“It makes it that much tougher to give up,” says Sandefer. “When you’re putting in that kind of quality time and work in the wrestling room, when you step on the mat, you say, ‘I did not put in all this time and all this effort to come out here and lose or just give up in the middle of a match.’”
Sandefer has watched Mishawaka numbers grow from less than 30 to about 45 in his three seasons in charge. The Mishawaka Wrestling Club has more than 60 members.
“We have all the right people in the right places,” says Sandefer. “I couldn’t be doing this without my club coaches, assistant coaches, my family and the group of parents we have who are supportive of Mishawaka wrestling.
“They help us get a lot accomplished. They get everybody pumped up and fired up.”
That includes Jacob LaPlace and Joseph Walker.