By JEREMY HINES
Brandon Johnson is proof that it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish that counts.
As a freshman 220-pounder, Johnson’s start certainly wasn’t pretty. The Lawrence North grappler entered sectionals with a 4-9 record, with three of his wins coming via forfeits. There were only five wrestlers total in his weight class that year in the Arsenal Tech sectional. Johnson was the only one not to advance to regional. In the two matches he wrestled, he was pinned twice.
Johnson’s miserable first high school season could have broken most athletes. To go on the mat time and time again and to lose almost every match starts to mess with one’s psyche.
Johnson isn’t like some athletes, however. He didn’t put his head down and throw in the towel. He became obsessed with getting better.
“After his freshman year Brandon absolutely worked his tail off,” Lawrence North coach Jacob Aven said. “He went to every tournament possible. He went to CIA. He did ever extra club practice he could.”
That work led to some improvement by his sophomore season. Johnson finished the year with a 17-18 record. He lost in the first round of regional.
As a junior, Johnson has had more success than failure. It’s his first year with a winning record. He placed third in sectional, then followed that up with a third-place finish in the Pendleton Heights regional. For the first time in his career, Johnson qualified for semistate. Going into semistate Johnson was 36-4 on the year and actually climbed his way up to a No. 10 ranking spot.
Then came the greatest weekend of wrestling in Johnson’s career. He shocked many in attendance Saturday by not only qualifying for state, but by winning the New Castle semistate.
“He was just locked in all day,” Aven said. “It’s hard to imagine, thinking back to that freshman year that he would be going into the state tournament as a semistate champion. But he has things you can’t coach. He has heart and he clearly wanted to get better.”
Johnson is proof that in wrestling, hard work can pay off. He dedicated himself to the sport. When he lost, he learned. When he won, he studied what made him successful.
“I’ve practiced a whole lot,” Johnson said. “I’ve went to camps and tournaments. I’ve trained as hard as I can. I’ve always made sure I’ve wrestled kids that are better than me. I’ve wrestled my coaches. It’s been a very difficult journey. The only thing I do is wrestle.”
Johnson’s semistate performance started with a 16-1 technical fall victory over North Vermillion junior Aidan Hinchee. In the ticket round Johnson beat Franklin Central’s Talan Humphrey 17-7.
That set up a semifinal match against No. 4-ranked Austin Hastings of Noblesville. Hastings had already beaten Johnson twice this season – and in convincing fashion. The first meeting Hastings pinned the Wildcat in just 28 seconds. The second time the two wrestled Hastings won by major decision, 14-6.
This time, however, Johnson was different. He was having the tournament of his life and he would not be denied a trip to the championship. Johnson won the match 9-2.
That set up a finals showdown against Mt. Vernon’s Devin Kendrex. Like Hastings, the No. 7-ranked Kendrex had beaten Johnson twice already this season.
“After Brandon qualified for state I told him the job wasn’t over,” Aven said. “I told him that my junior year I qualified for state and then after that I was just happy to be there and I ended up placing fourth. I pulled him aside and said hey, the job’s not finished. If you want to do something at state it’s going to be a lot easier if you go in as a semistate champion. We said to wrestle hard, and to keep moving forward.”
Johnson was ready to finish the job. He did just that. He defeated Kendrex 5-3 to claim the semistate title.
“I think this weekend was a real eye opener to where he can be,” Aven said. “I’m hoping he has a deep run in the tournament and then puts the same work back in next year. We will get to see how great he can really be.”
Johnson’s journey hasn’t been easy. There have been a lot of road blocks in the way. But he didn’t give up and now he has a semistate championship to show for it.
“During practice you have those little moments where you don’t know if you want to go on,” Johnson said. “But you do. You power through. You feel like you want to give up but you just keep going. That’s wrestling. Wrestling has given me that mentality. You truly can accomplish something if you put in the work.”