By STEVE KRAH
Landon Bertsch did not start wrestling in elementary as some top performers do. He was a swimmer in elementary school.
Then as a sixth grader, he met up with Ben Sprunger.
The winningest grappler in Bluffton High School history, Sprunger came back to his hometown to teach middle school Physical Education after college and began introducing youngsters to wrestling.
“For me it’s about numbers,” says Sprunger. “It’s about getting as many kids out, motivating them, getting them in love with the sport and continuing to develop them.”
That strategy worked with Bertsch.
“I fell in love with it,” says Bertsch. “It took me awhile to get good at it.”
By the time he reached high school, Bertsch was getting pretty good on the mat. A 132-pound Bluffton Tigers senior in 2021-22, he is a three-time IHSAA State Finals performer (qualifier in 2019 at 113 with a 39-3 record, qualifer in 2020 at 126 with 42-2 mark and sixth-place finisher in 2021 at 126 with a 24-2 ledger). His career mark 10 bouts into his final prep season was 115-7.
“He lives for wrestling,” says Sprunger of Bertsch. “That’s his thing. He puts a lot of effort into it.
“He has the grit and the toughness you can’t always coach, It’s that X Factor. Either you have it or you don’t.”
Sprunger, who is in his sixth season as Bluffton head coach, finished his high school career at 139-10 and placed three times at the State Finals — seventh at 125 as a sophomore in 1998, second at 125 as a junior in 1999 and first at 130 as a senior in 2000.
Bertsch, who also trains with the club at Bellmont and at Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne, has the chance to catch and pass Sprunger on the victory list and become Bluffton’s first four-time state qualifier.
For Bluffton, the IHSAA tournament series goes through the Jay County Sectional and Jay County Regional and Fort Wayne Semistate.
“I don’t plan on losing this year,” says Bartsch, who went 6-0 in the Allen County Athletic Conference Duals Saturday, Dec. 11 at Jay County and is 10-0 on the season. “I just want to be the best.
“My coach helps me and encourages me.”
It’s confidence that Bertsch has taken with him in each of his previous State Finals appearances.
“What goes through my mind is that these guys are not better than me,” says Bertsch. “They are the same level. I can beat every single guy here.”
As a freshmen, he was pinned by eventual fifth-placer David Pierson of Warren Central in the first round.
As a sophomore, Monrovia’s Ben Dalton edged him 6-4 in the Friday match on the way to seventh place.
“That still haunts us a little bit,” says Sprunger of the late takedown that eliminated Bertsch in 2020.
In 2021, he beat Wawasee’s Branden Dilley by technical fall in the first round and lost 5-3 to eventual runner-up Cheaney Schoeff of Avon in the second round on the way to sixth.
What about the down time between matches at a big meet?
“I mess around with my friends and let my body relax,” says Bartsch. “It helps me stay calm and not get too anxious or too excited.
“When it’s time to wrestle. it’s ‘go time’ again and I’m get ready to go.”
As his high school days have progressed, Bertsch has gotten bigger and become a tough defender and attacker.
“He’s growing up a little bit and filling out,” says Sprunger. “He’s stubborn on his feet. He won’t give up takedowns. If he’s on top, he’s a beast. He’s tough on his feet, too.
“He’s not scared of any opponent or any situation.”
Bertsch counts junior Austin Lewis — a returning state qualifer at 120 now at 145 — as a regular workout partner.
“They make each other better,” says Sprunger. “They both have a hunger to wrestle.”
The coach also rolls with the Tigers in practice, including Bertsch.
“He’s crazy,” says Bertsch of Sprunger. “He beats up on all of us.”
Bertsch notes that Sprunger keeps him honest and he makes it a point to stay in position.
“It allows you to set up and make shots and it allows you to have a good defense,” says Bertsch. “You’ve got to have good balance to be in good position. You’ve got to keep moving.”
When Bertsch moves on from Bluffton, he plans to go to college as an engineering major and wrestler. He has not yet decided on which school. His favorite high school subject is math and he’s looking forward to Calculus next semester.
Landon’s father — former middle school wrestler Matt Bertsch — is a civil engineer and owner at Bertsch-Frank & Associates LLC, a land surveying and construction engineering company located in Fort Wayne where his oldest son did an internship last summer.
Adams Central High School graduates Matt and Elizabeth Bertsch have three children — Landon, sophomore Alydia, eighth grader Eli and fifth grader Addie.