Some are introduced to wrestling as toddlers and go on to enjoy plenty of success. Others come to the mat for the first time as teenagers and shine in the circle.
The second scenario describes Damari Dancy, a 17-year-old senior heavyweight at Portage High School.
After winning the Portage Sectional title Feb. 1, Dancy goes to the Feb. 8 Hobart Regional at 27-2 in just his second full season as a wrestler.
A basketball player as an eighth grader, Dancy went out for that sport his freshmen and sophomore years of high school (2016-17 and 2017-18) and was cut each time.
The second cut ushered in his introduction to a new way of life.
“I went across the hall to the wrestling room,” says Dancy. “They accepted me.”
A few weeks later, he was competing in his first-ever wrestling event — the junior varsity Duneland Athletic Conference tournament — and suffering a season-ending broken wrist.
“My mom didn’t want me to wrestle after that,” says Damari, the son of Rachel Hawkins and the fourth of eight children (five boys, three girls).
But that was not the end of wrestling for Dancy. He spent that winter watching his friends compete and practice. He was there at Lake Central for the Harvest Classic taking in all the quality competition.
“That’s when I fell in love with it,” says Dancy.
When he was healed, Dancy began training. He went to the freestyle/Greco-Roman state tournament and went a combined 0-4. He told his coaches he was not going to stop and began working on wrestling year-round.
As a Portage junior, Dancy took part in the Harvest Classic. There he faced Hobart junior Mark Mummey.
“I took him down the first time,” says Dancy. “Then he took me straight to my back and pinned me.”
Dancy used the moment to fuel the rest of his season. He placed third at the Portage Sectional and third at the Hobart Regional, using a double-leg takedown to best Mummey 4-2 in overtime in the consolation match. He then finished fourth at the East Chicago Semistate and qualified for the IHSAA State Finals at 220. He was 21-13 for the 2018-19 season after being pinned on Friday night by North Montgomery junior Drew Webster, who went on to place fifth.
That experience taught Dancy something.
“I can actually do it,” says Dancy. “I can actually compete with the good guys. It helped me build my confidence.”
“I’m not just some random guy. Guys have to practice everyday to watch out for me.”
Portage head coach Andrew Bradbury saw the change in Dancy.
“He was starting to believe he’s pretty good and holding himself to a high standard,” says Bradbury. “His technique is improving in all areas. He’s pretty technical, especially in the neutral position.”
At 6-foot-2, Dancy has been carrying about 245 while competing in the 285 division as a senior.
“I wrestle like a little guy,” says Dancy. “I go for ankle picks a lot. I go for a low single (leg takedown) and drive through. Once I’ve got the ankle, I don’t feel endangered. I’m really comfortable in that position.”
While many heavyweight matches are of the 1-0 and 2-1 variety and full of underhooks, that’s not Dancy’s preference.
“I feel more comfortable in high-scoring matches,” says Dancy. “I like to get at least two takedowns in the first period. If not, two takedowns in the second period.”
Bradbury looks at Dancy and does not see a normal heavyweight. For one thing, he is among the team leaders in takedowns.
“He’s more than capable of wrestling in that heavyweight style by pummeling in,” says Bradbury. “But he mostly uses a technical, shot-oriented style of wrestling.”
“It’s a lot easier for him to lower his level and get in his shots. He does a good job of picking and choosing his shots. He does get into clinches or ties.”
“Some of his best wrestling comes off his motion.”
Dancy won a Greco-Roman state title in the summer.
“It was positioning for me,” says Dancy. “I was creating positions with arm drags. I didn’t throw anybody.”
He placed third in both the IndianaMat Hoosier Preseason Open and Preseason Nationals in Iowa and has used his quickness and agility to enjoy success in his last high school season. He has drawn some attention from college wrestling programs and has bumped up to heavyweight with that in mind.
Damari lives with brother Dimonya Dancy and the two enjoy working on computers. Dancy would like to study computer since in college. Dancy has joined a program proud of its tradition and has become one of the team’s leaders, especially since so many talented wrestlers graduated after the 2018-19 season.
“We needed somebody to step up,” says Bradbury, who tapped Dancy and Ty Haskins (who was a state qualifier at 120 in 2019 and a sectional champion at that weight in 2020) for the task. “We need them to help lead this team to where we need to be.”
“We let Damari know we have high expectations and he needs to lead that. He took on the challenge.”
“We lot of first-year varsity wrestlers at the beginning of the year. It was rough (Portage placed fourth in the Duneland Athletic Conference meet and it’s three dual losses came to powerhouses Crown Point, Chesterton and Merrillville). We feel like we can do some good things in the state series.”
Leadership styles are not the same for Haskins and Dancy.
“Ty, he’s the vocal guy,” says Dancy. “I try to do it by example. I’m not that vocal.”
“Practices at the beginning of the year were so hard. They helped us build physical and mental strength. We know we can be good. We work everyday to get to that point.”
Dancy often finds working out with sophomore Cory Hill (who placed third at sectional at 220) or assistant Montell Pace.
“He goes all out and scrambles with low singles,” says Dancy of Pace. Assistants Kyle Keith and Mark Devyak tend to work more with the upper weights while Eric Keith and Jose Torres are with the smaller wrestlers.
Pace is a Merrillville High School graduate. The rest of the staff went to Portage.
Bradbury, a 1999 graduate, placed seventh in the state as a junior and was state runner-up as a senior — both at 119. He and 112-pounder Eric Keith were both members of the Indians’ state runners-up at the 1998 Team State Finals.
“Tradition, it’s extremely important,” says Bradbury, who came back to Portage as an assistant in 2018-19 after serving as head wrestling coach at Seminole Ridge in Palm Beach County, Fla., a school built in 2006. “We’ve always expected to compete at a high level and be one of the best teams in the state.”