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By JEREMY HINES
If anyone can teach a team to believe in itself, itâ€™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.
â€œThere are always going to be doubters that will tell you that you canâ€™t do things,â€ Vega said. â€œNobody knows the hard work you put in. Actions speak louder than words. If you do all the right things, things that matter, youâ€™ll start to see the payoff. Thatâ€™s what we are trying to do and all of the guys are buying into it.â€
Vega says that Portage put themselves on the state map this season after winning the prestigious Lake Central Harvest tournament.
â€œWe started the season out a little off the radar,â€ Vega said. â€œThen 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.â€
Portage lost just one dual this season, falling to Penn in a rematch.
â€œWe have a really solid 14,â€ Vega said. â€œWe donâ€™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.â€
One of Portageâ€™s top wrestlers this season has been junior 145-pounder Steven Lawrence. Lawrence is currently ranked No. 3 in the weight class. One of Lawrenceâ€™s few losses came at the hands of No. 1-ranked Jacob Covaciu in a 2-1 decision.
â€œWe all push each other in the wrestling room,â€ Lawrence said. â€œAnd one of the teamâ€™s big focuses is to make sure we do something every day to get better. We donâ€™t want to go a day without improving.â€
Vega is the first to admit that it takes a more than just one coach to make a successful team.
â€œMy assistant coaches have all really helped make us successful,â€ Vega said. â€œEach one of them has a different role. They have been outstanding.â€
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.
â€œIâ€™d probably say Ismeal Cornejo is the guy that leads by example on this team,â€ Vega said. â€œHeâ€™s always staying after practice and putting in extra work to get better. But really all the guys do that.â€
Vega said that there is hardly a day that has went by in the last 33 years that he hasnâ€™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 doesnâ€™t replace that feeling of going out there and wrestling himself, but itâ€™s a way to still be competitive.
â€œWrestling has taught me a lot about discipline, hard work and dedication,â€ Vega said. â€œNow Iâ€™m competing as a coach and Iâ€™m getting the team ready. We want to someday win a state title and weâ€™d love to have an individual win a title.â€
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.
â€œIâ€™m so glad he has fallen in love with this sport,â€ Vega said.
Portage will wrestle in the Calumet sectional on Saturday.