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      #WrestlingWednesday Feature: Hudkins Overcoming Injuries to Succeed

      Brought to you by EI Sports

      Brock Hudkins is hoping his bad luck is finally behind him.
      The Danville junior 120-pounder has had untimely illnesses and injuries throughout his career. He broke his hand as a freshman, suffered from a severe case of dehydration at the state tournament as a sophomore and just recently recovered from a fractured finger.
      “Brock really has had a lot of bad luck,” Danville coach Steve Pugliese said. “He broke his hand his freshman year, and then he was sick at weigh-ins at state and couldn’t wrestle as a sophomore. This year he was working out on a Friday and ended up smashing his finger severely and had to lose a month of the season.
      “But he doesn’t let it affect him. “He understands that as long as he’s OK for the state tournament series, he can be a force.”
      When he has been on the wrestling mats, he’s been dominate. He missed a month of this season, but has advanced to Saturday’s Evansville semistate with a perfect record. Hudkins is currently 25-0 on the year.
      Hudkins started the season out as the No. 1 ranked 120-pounder in the state. Currently he is ranked fifth.
      As a freshman Hudkins finished fifth at 106 pounds.
      “I went into my high school career with the goal of winning four championships,” Hudkins said. “I finished fifth as a freshman. Everyone was telling me that fifth was a big deal. They would congratulate me on winning regional and semistate. But that wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted a state title.
      “I felt like I let myself down. I set my sights on winning the next year, but the cards didn’t play in my favor at all when I got sick at weigh-ins. But now, it’s all I think about. I want more than anything to get under those lights.”
      While most high school juniors enjoy video games, movies and having fun – Hudkins said his fun is wrestling. There is nothing else.
      “I completely believe that,” Pugliese said. “He has earned his success. He is always training. When he says he doesn’t do anything else, it’s true. He’s not just saying that. I think in the summer he probably wrestled 50 matches across the country and I don’t think he got beat.”
      Hudkins has a total of three losses in high school, yet he knew there were plenty of things to improve upon. According to Pugliese, he’s done that.
      “He has gotten a lot better on his feet,” Pugliese said. “We work on that 90 percent of our practice time, and it’s really showing now.”
      Pugliese feels that wrestlers at the elite level that Hudkins is at, have a certain quality that most wrestlers don’t exhibit.
      “When I took this job, Hudkins was in fourth grade,” Pugliese said. “Everyone talked about him and talked about him. Finally, when I saw him compete I found out why they were hyping him so much.
      “For him, like a lot of elite wrestlers, attitude is everything. He gets out in front of a bunch of people, and he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care who’s watching him. He knows what he can do. He knows he’s earned his success. He knows he deserves to win the match.”
      Pugliese also said that Hudkins is never arrogant or cocky about his abilities.
      Hudkins truly loves wrestling.
      “I love everything about it,” he said. “It’s fun. It’s the main reason why I wrestle. But I also love competing against other people. You don’t have to rely on teammates. It’s you and one guy in the middle of the mat going at it. Best man wins.”
      After high school Hudkins hopes to wrestle for a Division 1 school. He is still contemplating his educational goals, but he’s narrowed it down to either a lawyer, a physical trainer or an engineer.
      Hudkins will face Evansville Memorial sophomore Nolan Schaefer (27-18) in the first round of the Evansville semistate on Saturday.
      If you have a #WrestlingWednesday feature idea, please contact Jeremy Hines at jerhines@cinergymetro.net.


      #WrestlingWednesday Feature: From Rivals to Training Partners

      Brought to you by EI Sports

      East Noble seniors Connor Knapp and Garrett Pepple weren’t exactly friends their freshman year. In fact, they didn’t even like each other much.
      The two were competing for the same varsity spot at 106 pounds. It was a position they both wanted badly. Ultimately, Knapp won the weight class and Pepple spent most of the season on the junior varsity squad. Knapp went on to qualify for state as a freshman.
      “My goal going into my freshman year was to qualify for state,” Pepple said. “I wanted to have a good record, too. But we had a solid team and I only weighed about 100 pounds. I had multiple chances to earn a spot. Connor and I wrestled off once, and he beat me. Then I went up to 113 pounds and I won the spot, until our 120 pounder dropped down and took it from me.
      “When you compete for a spot with someone it’s hard to be close friends. There was a little hate between us.”
      The next year, things changed. Knapp moved up to 113 pounds and Pepple stayed at 106. The two were no longer competing for the same spot, and they started to become friends.
      That season Pepple made a huge stride. He went from a JV wrestler the year before, to finishing second in the state as a sophomore. Knapp placed 4th.
      “At first we didn’t really talk much at all,” Knapp said. “But the next year we started to become friends. We started training together. Now he’s like my brother.”
      The two seniors began pushing each other to get better. Pepple is considered a very good top wrestler, and Knapp needed work on bottom. Pepple’s top work helped.
      “Garrett is really good on top,” Knapp said. “A lot of the stuff he does is what some of the top guys I go up against are going to do. He gives me a good idea of how to counter things. Pretty much in every position there are certain things he can do that normal wrestlers wouldn’t have the confidence to do. We both have our advantages and that helps push both of us.”
      As juniors Pepple placed second at 113 pounds. Knapp finished third at 120.
      “After finishing second my sophomore year I was happy with that,” Pepple said. “Maybe I was even a little complacent. But my junior year, my goal was a state championship and nothing else. Placing second still haunts me. I don’t want it to happen again.”
      Pepple says he has been much more focused this season. He is the No. 1 ranked 113 pounder in the state.
      “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of what it could be like to win a state championship,” Pepple said. “My dream, my goal is to be a state champ. That’s all I can think about. I’ve visualized myself winning so many times. I walk around my room just thinking about it for hours. I have even planned my celebration if I win. It won’t be anything cocky, but I’ll definitely celebrate if I can win it.”
      Both wrestlers are pushing each other to get better in the room. East Noble has had only one state champion before. Pepple and Knapp wants to change that.
      “Iron sharpens iron,” Pepple said. “It’s great to have such a tough drill partner who is going to push you to be your best.”
      Outside of school Knapp loves to draw action pictures. It’s a talent not many know about. He is also an elementary school teaching assistant. He works one-on-one with children, and he said it’s something he absolutely loves doing. As far as the future, he is still trying to decide what he wants to do.
      “I’m trying to decide on whether I want to wrestle in college or not,” Knapp said. “I’d like to be a Force Recon Marine. I’ve dreamed about that my whole life. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Now I think, why not – I have the tools.”
      Pepple plans to attend Indiana University where he wants to wrestle. He is either going into the medical field, business or education.
      Pepple says the biggest turning point so far in his career was when he shattered his lower leg playing sharks and minnows in practice before his freshman season. He broke two bones, and had to have multiple screws put in along with a metal plate to stabilize it.
      “I didn’t know if I’d ever wrestle again,” he said. “But I worked hard and came back. That showed me I can overcome anything.”
      Both wrestlers are hoping they can overcome all of the obstacles the state tournament presents, and stand together as state champions.
      If you have a #WrestlingWednesday idea, please contact Jeremy Hines at jerhines@cinergymetro.net.

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      #WrestlingWednesday Feature: Portage is Back on the Map

      Brought to you by EI Sports

      If anyone can teach a team to believe in itself, it’s Leroy Vega.
      Vega, who was told he was too small to wrestle collegiately, even after winning two Indiana state championships, went on to become a three time All-American at the University of Minnesota.
      Now Vega is instilling that confidence in the Portage High School team he coaches.
      “There are always going to be doubters that will tell you that you can’t do things,” Vega said. “Nobody knows the hard work you put in. Actions speak louder than words. If you do all the right things, things that matter, you’ll start to see the payoff. That’s what we are trying to do and all of the guys are buying into it.”
      Vega says that Portage put themselves on the state map this season after winning the prestigious Lake Central Harvest tournament.
      “We started the season out a little off the radar,” Vega said. “Then we won the Lake Central Harvest tournament, beating Penn who was ranked No. 1 at the time. All 14 of our guys placed. People started to take notice. From there we have kept improving.”
      Portage lost just one dual this season, falling to Penn in a rematch.
      “We have a really solid 14,” Vega said. “We don’t have any holes in our lineup. Heading into the post season everyone is healthy. If things work out we can get some guys to state and a couple of guys into the finals.”
      One of Portage’s top wrestlers this season has been junior 145-pounder Steven Lawrence. Lawrence is currently ranked No. 3 in the weight class. One of Lawrence’s few losses came at the hands of No. 1-ranked Jacob Covaciu in a 2-1 decision.
      “We all push each other in the wrestling room,” Lawrence said. “And one of the team’s big focuses is to make sure we do something every day to get better. We don’t want to go a day without improving.”
      Vega is the first to admit that it takes a more than just one coach to make a successful team.
      “My assistant coaches have all really helped make us successful,” Vega said. “Each one of them has a different role. They have been outstanding.”
      Portage has seven different wrestlers ranked in the top 20 of their weight classes this season. Lawrence (145) and junior Gaige Torres (126) are both ranked No. 3. Senior Matt Hedrick (195) is ranked 10th in the state with freshman (106) Collin Poynter joining in the rankings at No. 13.
      Senior Davin Gonzalez (152), sophomore Ismeal Cornejo (170) and junior Braden Majewski (220( are all ranked No. 16 in their respective weight classes.
      “I’d probably say Ismeal Cornejo is the guy that leads by example on this team,” Vega said. “He’s always staying after practice and putting in extra work to get better. But really all the guys do that.”
      Vega said that there is hardly a day that has went by in the last 33 years that he hasn’t laced up his wrestling shoes and went on the mat. He loves coaching and the competitive rivalry he is building with the other coaches across the state. He said it still doesn’t replace that feeling of going out there and wrestling himself, but it’s a way to still be competitive.
      “Wrestling has taught me a lot about discipline, hard work and dedication,” Vega said. “Now I’m competing as a coach and I’m getting the team ready. We want to someday win a state title and we’d love to have an individual win a title.”
      Vega started wrestling when he was four years old. Now his four-year-old son Lydon Jay (named after Jay Robinson), is in love with the sport as well. He wants to be at every Portage practice. He watches film and he looks up to the guys on the team.
      “I’m so glad he has fallen in love with this sport,” Vega said.
      Portage will wrestle in the Calumet sectional on Saturday.

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      #WrestlingWednesday Feature: Red's Quest for Perfection

      Brought to you by EI Sports

      Chad Red, Jr., or C.J as he is known, is one of Indiana’s most dominating high school wrestlers this season. He is the top 126-pounder in the state, and the No. 1 wrestler at that weight in the nation according to FloWrestling. Still, Red is always afraid that the next match might be the one he messes up in and loses. That’s what fuels him.
      “My goal is to be first in everything I do,” Red said. “I don’t like being ranked. I like to try and beat the odds. Now I have that number sign in front of my name. It doesn’t mean anything to me except that people are going to come at me harder, and want to beat me that much worse. I know I have to go out each time and work as hard as I can and wrestle the best I can, or I’ll lose.”
      Red, who wrestles for his dad Chad, Sr., at New Palestine High School, has been beaten before. He hasn’t lost in the Indiana high school seasons. He is a two time state champion and is undefeated in his high school career. But in the national tournaments, he has tasted defeat. He hated it.
      “I remember I was up 2-0 in a tournament and got caught in a headlock,” C.J. said. “I immediately called my dad and told him what happened. We talked for a few minutes then I turned off the phone and went back to training.”
      Coach Red says that is one of his son’s strengths. He can take a defeat and learn much more from that than he ever could from a win.
      But those defeats are very rare. So coach Red makes sure to keep his son grounded after each match. If C.J. takes a sloppy shot, or doesn’t have good foot movement, coach Red will point that out – even in victory. Coach Red does not want his son being satisfied with a mediocre win.
      “Wrestling for my dad has its ups and downs,” C.J. said. “He’s always on me. He tells me how I didn’t do this right, or that. I know it’s all constructive criticism, and I like it. It’s good. It makes me want to work harder.
      “I’ll go out there and feel like I wrestled a very good match. But when my dad tells me I did a good job, that’s when I really know I accomplished something. “
      Inside, C.J. feels vulnerability. He knows he has weaknesses. But on the outside, he has always been a pillar of confidence.
      “We do not allow him to be cocky at all,” coach Red said. “We do not tolerate that. With Chad though, he has a swag of some sort. He has a confidence. That’s Chad. He’s been that way since he was born. He’s always been confident in himself. There is nothing wrong with that. He has to believe in what he’s doing. We, as coaches, can’t call plays or audibles from the sidelines in wrestling. He has to have his best every time he steps out on the mat.”
      That’s one of the reason C.J. loves wrestling.
      “It’s only you out there,” he said. “If you lose, you can only blame it on yourself. There are no excuses in wrestling.”
      C.J. wrestles a lot of Greco during the summers, despite his dad wishing he wouldn’t. But the 126-pound junior feels that is a way to get better. He wants to push himself, even when it means working on things he is not quite as good at.
      Coach Red sees a bright future in the sport of wrestling for his son. That’s why they work as hard as they do.
      “A lot of people tell Chad that he is good,” coach Red said. “I think he’s pretty good. I’m his biggest fan, but also his biggest critic. We have very high expectations for how he can perform. There is a big prize down the road for him if he continues to work. Whether it’s a college scholarship or whatever, there is something out there waiting on him. And there is always someone out there working to beat him.”
      New Palestine’s 120-pounder, Eugene Starks, is one of C.J.’s main practice partners in the Dragon wrestling room.
      “Chad is very aggressive and quick on his feet,” Starks said. “In practice I try to put up a fight with him. It has helped me tremendously. His shots are so good, it helps me learn to defend the shot better. He’s a great partner and a great teammate.”
      Red won state as a freshman at 106 pounds. Last year he was crowned the 120-pound champ. He has a goal to go undefeated in high school and win four state championships in the process.
      “It’s been a real blessing having a kid like Chad,” coach Red said. “He’s a great son, and a friend. I think the sky is the limit for him. He’s very solid and has a chance to really do something special. But like I always tell him, he has to keep a level head, stay focused on the prize and work to achieve it.”
      If you have a #WrestlingWednesday feature idea, email it to jerhines@cinergymetro.net

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      #WrestlingWednesday Feature: Mater Dei Returns to the Top

      Brought to you by EI Sports

      Evansville Mater Dei got a late start to the wrestling season, like many teams with a successful football team. The school of just over 500 students reached the state championship game on the gridiron. That left little time to prepare for wrestling.
      But Mater Dei quickly adjusted, and is now a dominating force on the mats.
      “We got off to a late start because of football,” Wildcats coach Greg Schaefer said. “Over half of our lineup plays football. It’s not just our big guys either.”
      Schaefer wasn’t entirely pleased with the team’s early dual meets. It wasn’t that Mater Dei had done poorly, it was just that Schaefer puts high expectations on the team with one of the richest wrestling traditions in the state.
      Soon, things started to click for the Wildcats. The turning point of the season, according to Schaefer, was the team state meet.
      “The guys really turned the corner at team state,” Schaefer said. “The New Palestine match, we had guys step up and get some big wins. Then we just seem to have a progression the rest of the day. “
      Mater Dei defeated Westfield 73-3, New Palestine 56-9, Warren Central 42-23 and Perry Meridian 31-27 to claim the IHSWCA Team State title for class 3A.
      Statistically speaking, the Mater Dei lineup is absolutely stacked. Seven weight classes have wrestlers ranked in the top 12.
      Sophomore Will Egli is currently ranked No. 7 at 120 pounds. Senior Alex Johnson is No. 4 at 126. The Lee brothers, sophomore Nick and freshman Joe, are both highly ranked. Nick is No. 1 at 132 while Joe is No. 3 at 138.
      “The Lee brothers are hard working kids that maintain good attitudes,” Schaefer said. “They are good teammates. As a coach you really appreciate those type of athletes. It’s not always about them, they are team-first wrestlers. They are good young men as well as good wrestlers.”
      Junior Blake Jourdan is ranked No. 5 at 145 pounds with senior Ashton Forzley ranked No. 9 at 160. Senior Sam Bassemier is the No. 12-ranked 182 pounder in the state.
      “It’s hard to say where we are at in the history of Mater Dei wrestling,” Schaefer said. “I will say that from top to bottom this is one of the stronger teams we have had since I’ve been coaching.”
      Mater Dei has roughly 35 kids on its team this season. That depth has helped lead to success on the mat.
      “Tradition sums up a lot of what Mater Dei wrestling is about,” Schaefer said. “We have strong families with a strong sense of community. They take ownership and responsibility to represent the school to the best of their ability. That has led to a lot of our success.
      “We have great feeder league coaches that have been around for a long time. They take a lot of pride in what they do.
      “And we also have guys that people don’t know about that are really the backbone of our program. It’s not the ones that get their names in the paper. It’s the guys who go to practice and do their jobs every day. You can’t have a good team without good people to practice with. Those guys push the guys in the lineup because there is always competition for those spots.”
      Schaefer does not appoint team captains. He feels the true leaders of the team will step up when the time comes and become the unofficial captains. Everyone on the team is responsible for holding each other accountable in the classroom, after school and on the mats.
      Mater Dei’s team goals this season were to win every dual meet. They have just one more dual this season, tomorrow night against rival Evansville Reitz. The team also placed a goal of winning the team state tournament.
      Individually Schaefer is hoping to have several state placers this season. Mater Dei has not had a state champ in 10 years. The last Wildcat champion was Matt Coughlin at 152 pounds in 2005.
      “We’ve had a few runners up and a few place winners since then,” Schaefer said. “But to win a state title it takes more than just being a good wrestler. Things have to go your way. In many cases you have to overcome circumstances or calls. You can’t just be good. You also have to put yourself in the right circumstances.”
      Schaefer would know. He is a two-time state champion.
      Schaefer is a theology teacher at Mater Dei as well as the wrestling coach. It’s a job he loves and plans to stay at for a very long time.

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      #WrestlingWednesday Feature: 900 Wins and Counting

      Brought to you by EI Sports

      NEW CASTLE — A lot has changed in the world since Rex Peckinpaugh began coaching wrestling at New Castle High School.
      Michael Jackson was the big hit on the radio when Peckinpaugh started out. Ronald Reagan was President. Microsoft introduced the world to MS-DOS, the 3M company started mass producing Post-it notes and MTV first went on the air.
      One thing that hasn’t changed for Peckinpaugh, now in his 34th season at the helm of the Trojan team, is his ability to win.
      Peckinpaugh reached his 900th dual victory of his career (all with New Castle) last week at the Broncho Duals in Lafayette. New Castle went 8-1 in the meet to push its season record to 27-4.
      “When I got that 900th win, it was a special moment,” Peckinpaugh said. “I couldn’t help but sit back and think of my mom and dad who didn’t miss a match for about 500 of those wins. But when it was over, I was ready to go for 901 wins.”
      Peckinpaugh has been Indiana’s winningest coach for years. He is No. 2 nationally in high school wins.
      “Rex is obviously a good coach,” former Trojan standout turned Shenandoah head coach Gary Black said. “You don’t get anywhere near 900 wins without knowing what you’re doing. But I think he’s an even better motivator in life. For Rex, it isn’t so much about the wins and losses as it is about having the chance to instill great values and teach kids to be good individuals off the mat.”
      Peckinpaugh can still tell specific details about every wrestler that has put on a Trojan uniform for him.
      “They are all still pretty fresh in my mind,” Peckinpaugh said. “I can tell stories on any of them if I’m asked to do so.”
      Peckinpaugh continues to coach because he loves watching kids improve.
      “It’s not so much about the winning and losing,” Peckinpaugh said. “My favorite part of coaching is seeing kids get better in the sport. I love that moment when the lights go on so to speak. Also, I enjoy building the team each year. It’s like a construction project. Every year something changes and you have to figure out how to build the team to be successful.”
      This year the Trojans do not have any seniors in the lineup. They are led by seven freshmen, four juniors and three sophomores.
      “He’s taken a very young team and has worked to get the most out of his lineup,” Black said. “It’s easy to see why he’s so successful.”
      One stat that Peckinpaugh is proud of is that all of his teams have either won a sectional, a conference title or a regional. The Trojans had a winning streak of 106 matches from 1992-95. The team won 29 consecutive sectional titles from 1976 until 2003 (a streak that started before coach Peckinpaugh took over at New Castle).
      The 2004-05 Trojans lost the sectional to Centerville. It was the only time a Peckinpaugh coach team did not win the sectional tournament. But instead of focusing on the loss, Peckinpaugh geared the team up for the upcoming regional. New Castle would later win the team regional and become the first team in the state to not win a sectional, but turn around and claim a regional title.
      “That’s an important thing as a coach and as a wrestler,” Peckinpaugh said. “You have to have a short memory. If you get beat, you have to look at what’s next. If you don’t, you’ll get caught up in celebrating the moment and lose the next one. Or you’ll be so depressed you’ll lose the next one.”
      Peckinpaugh is the first to point out that his success also has a lot to do with those who are helping him. Mark “Sparky” Griffith has been an assistant coach for Peckinpaugh for almost the entire time he’s been at New Castle. Frank Ryan, Ted Fitzgerald and Larry Sutton were also instrumental in building the New Castle program. He also points out that his wife Bonnie has been a huge supporter of the team for the last 20 years.
      Peckinpaugh has coached three four-time state finalists in Mac Taylor, Matt Jaggers and Connor Mullins. He has had one state champion — James “Bubba” Dickerson won heavyweight in 1995 as a junior. He passed away before his senior season. He has had a plethora of state placers, including Brenden Campbell who was a state runner-up two seasons in a row. Campbell is currently wrestling for the United States Naval Academy.
      In 1995 and 1996 New Castle was the team runner-up in the state. The Trojans took eight to state in 1996.
      Peckinpaugh is a health teacher at New Castle. He is also on the New Castle City Council. He was an assistant football coach for the Trojans in the 80s. He also was the girls golf coach for a short time.
      “Coaching girls golf was an interesting experience,” Peckinpaugh said. “They needed someone and I said I’d do it.”
      Peckinpaugh is not sure when he will retire from coaching. He feels he has a good assistant in Jason Martin who can take over the team and keep it in good hands.
      “Jason has been trying to get me to stay on to maybe go for 1,000 wins,” Peckinpaugh said. “I don’t know if I’ll hold on that long. But I do love coaching the kids, and that will never change.”
      If you have an interesting feature idea, please contact Jeremy Hines at jerhines@cinergymetro.net.


      #WrestlingWednesday Feature: Prairie Heights Resurgence Orchestrated by a Basketball Player

      Brought to you by EI Sports

      Four years ago Prairie Heights High School needed a wrestling coach. Applicants weren’t exactly lining up at the door to take over a program that had fallen on hard times.
      So the school’s athletic director approached an unlikely candidate — a former basketball player named Brett Smith.
      Smith, who teaches at the school district’s middle school, had no wrestling experience. He was related to the former wrestling coach, and had helped kids with lifting weights and staying in shape in the offseason. That was the extent of his wrestling knowledge.
      He didn’t shy away from the challenge. Smith told the athletic director he would take the job, but he needed to be able to hire the best assistant coaches he could find.
      Smith called brothers John and Mike Levitz, two of Prairie Heights greatest former wrestlers. John had set nearly all of the Panther’s wrestling records, until Mike came along and broke them. Smith remembers watching the Levitz brothers wrestle in high school. He knew they were the right people for the job.
      There was one more piece to the puzzle Smith was trying to assemble, and the Levitz brothers knew exactly what that was. They called their old high school coach Lee Fry and talked him out of retirement to join in their campaign.
      The first year together the Panthers finished the season with a miserable 12-17 record. The next year they had raised their mark to .500 at 16-16. Last year the team posted a winning record at 17-12.
      This year the Panthers are 21-2 and are the top-seeded Class A team going in to this weekend’s team state tournament.
      It hasn’t been an easy road, by any means, but the kids have bought into the coaches’ system.
      “I think one of the main things that has helped us is that we do everything the wrestlers do,” Smith said. “We do the same lifting and running. The kids see us busting our butts with them, and that pushes them to do the same. They work hard because they can see us working hard for them.”
      Mike and John started coaching kids in their basement several years ago. They had purchased old wrestling mats from a barn nearby. It took hours to clean the mats enough to get them in usable shape. They put them in John’s basement and started working with kids. At first it was just John’s sons Doug (junior, 145 lbs) and Jed (freshman, 160 lbs). But soon the workouts in their basement grew to over 20 kids.
      “Wrestling is just about life for our family,” John said. “My brothers and I, we lived wrestling. When Mike graduated, we were lost. Our parents were lost. We needed wrestling back in our lives.”
      Now wrestling is once again a large part of the Levitz’s daily routine. John’s sons both wrestle, as does Mike’s sons Isiah, Sam and Matt. Mike’s sons are not in high school yet, but they are all dedicated to the sport.
      “Wrestling has taught me so much for life,” Mike said. “It taught hard work and dedication. Wrestling is a family thing. Everyone in the sport is tight.”
      Prairie Heights is a small farming community. That’s a key to the wrestling success as well, according to Smith.
      “We’re just a small farm town,” Smith said. “But all the kids have grown up to be hard workers because of that. We know the kids work hard, and we know their parents work hard. And work ethic in the wrestling room has been what has led us to the success we’re having.”
      The Panthers have goals this year of winning the Northeast Corner Conference, winning team state, and sending at least one wrestler to Banker’s Life Fieldhouse for the wrestling state finals. In their four years of coaching together, they have not had a wrestler go to state yet.
      “We have the potential to change that this year,” John said. “I’d love to see us get more than one there this year.”
      A former basketball player, a retired coach and a couple of brothers who hadn’t coached high school wrestling before isn’t the typical recipe for success on the mats. But it works for Prairie Heights. The team wouldn’t want it any other way.


      #WrestlingWednesday Feature: Kieffers Overcome Opponents On and Off the Mat

      Brought to you by EI Sports

      Wrestlers live for the sensation of having their hands raised in victory. It’s the ultimate expression of success. It signifies that on that day, in that moment, they were better than the opponent standing across from them.
      Joe Kieffer raised his hand in victory a final time on October 29th. It wasn’t on the mat, it was in a hospital. Joe raised his hand high, clinched his fist and rang a bell on the wall at Riley Hospital that signified Joe had completed his fight against cancer. It was a moment that took three years to achieve. Ringing that bell gave Joe his life back.
      To understand how significant ringing the bell that October day was, you have to know what Joe went through to get to that point.
      Kieffer is the youngest son of parents Kevin and Jenny. His twin brothers, Josh and Justin are both collegiate wrestlers. Joe was following in their footsteps. All of the Kieffer brothers were exceptional wrestlers for Roncalli high school.
      “Joe, before leukemia, was a great wrestler with the same potential both of his brothers had,” Roncalli coach Lance Ellis said. “He lost his freshman year in semistate. He got caught with a headlock his sophomore year. In his junior season he was involved in the most controversial match I’ve ever seen in my life. He was winning and the clock went off and he stopped and a guy jumped on him. I’ve never seen anything like it. We were hoping for a possible state title that year.”
      But soon Joe’s wrestling career wouldn’t matter much anymore.
      After his junior year he was competing at freestyle state and he kept feeling winded and very tired. That was not typical for an athlete of Joe’s caliber. He didn’t think too much of it though, and went on to wrestle at central regionals.
      “I got beat up and I looked terrible out there,” Joe said. “I could hardly practice. I was very weak. We just thought I had mono.”
      Things got even worse at Disney Duals. Joe’s body simply would not allow him to compete at the level he was accustomed to.
      The Kieffer family took a small break from wrestling and went on a fishing trip to Minnesota. Joe’s condition continued to get worse.
      “I came home and went to the doctor,” Joe said. “The doctor wanted to put me on anti-stress relievers. Stress can sometimes cause some of the same symptoms. But when they checked my blood, a few hours later they told me I had leukemia.”
      At first Joe didn’t comprehend the severity of his diagnosis.
      “My first thought was that this wasn’t happening,” he said. “It was unreal. It didn’t even hit me that it was cancer at the moment. Then, the whole thought of dying started to set in. I didn’t realize how serious it really was.”
      The diagnosis immediately ended Joe’s wrestling dreams.
      Justin and Josh were told the news that day.
      “I had just left for college,” Justin said. “It was my first period of time away from the house in my life. I was close to home, but I had moved out. Wrestling and college had picked up, and when I learned it was so hard to wrap my head around everything that was going on in my life. I was trying to balance that horrible news as well as all these new challenges in my own life. It was almost impossible for me to think about anything but Joe.”
      After the initial shock of his diagnosis, Joe approached his battle with cancer just like he did with his opponents on the mat. He went on the attack and refused to be defeated.
      Joe started chemotherapy treatments almost immediately. But because of his extensive battle with leukemia, he was forced to drop out of school at Roncalli.
      “Physically the hardest part was the very beginning,” Joe said. “I pretty much lost all mobility from the waist down. I had no strength in my legs. I couldn’t stand up or walk. I felt crippled and I was in a wheelchair for about a month.
      “But by far the most difficult part was the mental aspect. I felt secluded from the whole world. My immune system was so weak, I could not go to school. I couldn’t have visitors. If I talked to my friends, it had to be over the phone or through texts. I was extremely lonely.”
      Although he was lonely, Joe was far from being alone. The entire wrestling community rallied around the Kieffer family. They participated in charity golf outings and other fund raising events to help pay for Joe’s treatments. Messages poured in from coaches and wrestlers from around the state.
      “The whole wrestling community really stepped up,” Ellis said. “So many people who had no real ties to Joe stepped in to help. I remember New Castle coach Rex Peckinpaugh bringing me a museum of stuff to raffle off to raise money for Joe. It was like a whole collection that would take someone 30 years to collect. He handed over stuff I didn’t want to give up. But he did it to help Joe. So many people stepped up like that.”
      After nine months of treatment Joe surprised everyone and returned to school, and to wrestling. He was still going to chemotherapy once a month, and his body was nowhere near at the strength level it once was, but he didn’t care.
      “I only wrestled four matches the whole year,” Joe said. “But that didn’t matter. My best moment in my wrestling career came on my first match back. For me it was an extremely tough match, and I ended up winning. All the emotion of where I had came from to get back to that point really overwhelmed me. Our team was cheering and even the other team knew what that win meant for me.”
      Justin was happy for the win, but it was hard for him to watch.
      “When he won, I had this weird feeling,” Justin said. “I was very happy for him. It was a long time coming. But it was weird seeing him out there looking the way he did. It was hard to see kids give Joe a good match when I knew Joe would dominate those same kids before cancer.”
      Joe would not win another match in his high school career. That didn’t matter — because he was still battling the one opponent he wanted to beat more than anyone. His fight with cancer was not done.
      Joe and cancer went toe-to-toe for three long, grueling years. There were periods of time when cancer seemed to have the advantage. But Joe never quit. He never gave in.
      “This has opened my eyes to so many things outside of wrestling,” Joe said. “Before leukemia, wrestling was my priority. Now I want to do things for others. My whole lifestyle is different now. My priorities are different.
      “But I know wrestling helped me in this journey. In wrestling you don’t quit. You have to be a fighter. Wrestling toughened me up and helped me be mentally tough enough to fight this disease.”
      As Joe battled cancer, he would see others ring the bell on the wall at Riley Hospital. He couldn’t wait until he got his turn.
      On October 29th, he did just that. Surrounded by friends, family and the doctors he had grown to love at Riley — Joe rang the bell. His treatments were officially over. Joe had won the most important battle of his young life.
      Joe is now 21 years old. He will go to the University of Indianapolis, where his brothers wrestle, and study supply chain management. He wants to get into a logistics firm. He also has applied to be on a fire department, because he knows he will always have a strong desire to help others.
      He is healthy now. He’s not as strong as he wants to be yet, but he’s getting there.
      Joe’s journey has changed many around him, including his brother and his high school coach.
      “Joe’s battle has taught me a lot,” Justin said. “I take every day as it comes and thank God I’m here on this world. It has helped me get closer to God and my family. I want to cherish every moment I have with them.”
      Ellis, who won four state championships in his Indiana high school career before taking the coaching helm at Roncalli, says watching Joe go through what he did was one of the toughest things he’s ever endured.
      “Honestly, this was the hardest thing I ever went through,” Ellis said. “But you learn you can’t take anything for granted. Love your family. Love your kids. Live your life the best you can.”
      If you have a feature story idea about Indiana wrestling, please email jerhines@cinergymetro.net.

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      #WrestlingWednesday Feature: Drew Hughes of Lowell on Task for Elusive State Title

      Brought to you by EI Sports

      Drew Hughes has already had the type of high school wrestling career many dream of. He finished second in the state his freshman season and fifth last year. But Hughes is far from satisfied.
      Hughes doesn’t aim for fifth place. His goal is a championship — nothing less.
      Hughes sets the bar high for himself. Anything less than a state championship will be a disappointment.
      Last state tournament might have been a turning point in Hughes’ career. He had beaten Lawrence North’s Tommy Cash and Merriville’s Jacob Covaciu during the season. He topped Cash 4-0 and Covaciu by technical fall. But after he was pinned in the first minute of the second round of state by Center Grove senior Tyler Fleener (via the spladle), he had to watch Cash claim the 138-pound title with a 5-3 decision over Covaciu.
      “That has motivated me,” Hughes said. “The fact that I was there just watching, and not being out there wrestling in the finals pushes me every day. I realized I had to get better on my feet. I needed to work harder on my all-around technique.”
      Hughes has done just that.
      Hughes is one of the best in the state from the top position. He can turn almost anyone he faces. But now he’s added a new dimension to his repertoire. He has greatly improved his attacks from the neutral position. He has become more confident on his feet.
      The improved performance on his feet has led to a 13-0 start to the season for the Lowell junior. He has not given up a point, and has pinned all 13 wrestlers who have stepped on the mat against him.
      “My goal is a state title,” Hughes said. “But I also want to go through the year without getting scored on, and by pinning everyone I face.”
      Hughes is currently the top-ranked 160 pounder in the state. The No. 2-ranked grappler at 160, Crown Point’s Darden Schurg, is one Hughes will likely see several times during the tourney. The two are in the same sectional, regional and semistate.
      “We have grown up wrestling each other,” Hughes said. “We have wrestled each other since we were 8-years old.”
      Inside the Lowell wrestling room, Hughes has been training with Eric McGill, a former two-time state champion for Munster High School. He won the 125-pound class as a junior and 140 as a senior. McGill went on to wrestle for Cornell University.
      “I wrestle with him quite a bit,” McGill said. “.He has good practice partners, but most of the live wrestling is done with me. When he was smaller I could beat him. Now he’s bigger and he’s getting the better of me. It’s fun, but he’s a beast now.”
      Hughes has great respect for McGill.
      “He has been a really good influence on me,” Hughes said. “He’s one of the best partners you could have.”
      Hughes’ older brother Kenny has also been a good influence. Kenny was ranked No. 2 last year at 160 pounds. He lost in the same round of state as Drew, and ended up finishing seventh.
      Hughes has jumped from the 120 pound class as a freshman, to 160 now. This year he isn’t having to cut weight, unlike past seasons. That decision has allowed this year to be his most fun so far.
      “I love wrestling because it’s a fun sport,” Hughes said. “And when you’re not cutting weight you’re not in that bad mood that cutting can some times lead to. I’m able to focus a lot more on wrestling now.”
      With weight no longer an issue, Hughes is concentrating on getting back under the lights. His freshman year he was defeated by Warren Central’s Deondre Wilson 6-2 in the championship match at 120 pounds.
      “I was hoping I was going to be wresting for a title last year,” Hughes said. “But I remember as a freshman that it was a great experience. Looking back I know I was a little shocked to be there wrestling under the lights. I really felt I could have won, but I froze up. If I get there again, I’m not going to get so caught up with the atmosphere. I’m going to go out and do what I do, and just wrestle.”

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