By STEVE KRAH
A willingness to work toward constant improvement has helped raise Elkhart Central High School’s wrestling profile on the bigger stage.
The 2016-17 Blue Blazers forged an 11-5 dual-meet record, beat crosstown rival Elkhart Memorial in a dual meet for the first time in many years then raised an Elkhart Sectional team trophy for the first time in 28.
With Nick Conner (285 pounds), Tykease Baker (160) and Xander Stroud (145) winning their respective weight classes Blue Blazers edged Northridge by two points. It was the ECHS program’s first sectional team title since 1989.
The Blazers won the sectional with a come-from-behind pin victory in a consolation match.
“It takes a lot of team effort,” says Central head coach Zach Whickcar, now in his sixth season of leading the wrestling program at his alma mater. He grappled for four seasons, graduating in 2006. “Everybody needs to pull their weight.
“We won sectional with 14 guys, but it was the 14 behind them were every bit as important. They needed someone to practice with.”
“It’s been a total buy-in. We took 11 kids to the Jeff Jordan’s State Champ Camp (during the high school off-season). The kids genuinely like being around each other.
“It’s consistency and being present that gets you to where you want to be.”
While they want to win during the regular, everything the Blazers do is focused toward the postseason.
“I’m always telling them that we want to be peaking at sectionals,” says Whickcar. “We want to put out a product that’s competitive. But we want to do what is best for the kids. We want to win a sectional (team title) and we want to do well (as individuals) in the state tournament.”
Since Whickcar took over as head coach for the 2012-13 season (the Blazers were 2-16 in duals that year), Central has produced five IHSAA State Finals qualifiers — Johnny Tredway (eighth place at 160 pounds in 2013), Eliseo Guerra (sixth at 220 in both 2014 and 2015), Stroud (eighth at 145 in 2017) and Chaz Boyd (did not place at 138 in 2017).
Whickcar calls Stroud a “mat junkie.”
“He’s always wrestling,” says Whickcar of a grappler who regularly attends Indiana State Wrestling Association Regional Training Center sessions at Jimtown High School and Midwest Extreme Wrestling Club events at Penn High School besides going to places like Virginia Beach and the Iowa Nationals during the summer. “He takes advantage of those opportunities.”
Stroud said competing in big tournaments has one effect and practicing against good wrestlers has a another.
“The wrestling is done in the RTC’s,” says Stroud. “The tournaments help you with your mindset. It’s about not being worried about who you are facing and just working on your stuff. You wrestle like how you want to wrestle.
“It’s just you wrestling that other kid.”
Plenty of time in the circle has led to acute mat awareness for Stroud.
“He has a real feel for what he needs to do,” says Whickcar. “Like all of our wrestlers, he is able to find a couple of good things he is good at and uses them. He has pretty good leg attacks. But he definitely can get better.”
The wrestler talks about what mat awareness means to him.
“Where I’m at on the mat and the moves I chose to make depends on where I’m at,” says Stroud. “If I’m we’re the outer edge of the mat and I’m on the inside part of the mat and he’s closer to the line, I might shoot him out to get him out-of-bounds to re-set my position to the center.”
“Or maybe he has my leg, I’ll watch my position and step out so we can re-set and go back to the center.”
A rule change this season also allows wrestlers to get pins outside the circle. Before they could get “back” points but not falls.
“You still have to have a supporting part (of your body) inbounds,” says Stroud. “Now you can go for a pin instead of just getting points.
“You have to really watch your position more now since you can get pinned out-of-bounds.”
The current Central lineup features Sean Johnson (106), Eric Garcia (113), Brad Felder (120), Jacob Hess (126), Tony Lopez (132), Raul Martinez (138), Peyton Anderson or Austin Garcia (145), Nathan Dibley (152), Xander Stroud (160), Carlos Fortoso (170), Peterson Ngo (182), Alex Lucias (195), Omar Perez (220) and Nick Conner (285).
Stroud, Conner, Lucias, Martinez, Perez and Ngo (back after wrestling for Central as a sophomore) are seniors leading the 2017-18 Blazers.
“Those six seniors have busted their butt,” says Whickcar. “They love the sport.”
Stroud, who is planning to study biomedical engineering in college and may wrestle at the next level, says he prefers to lead by example.
“Omar Perez and Alex Lucias — They are pretty vocal,” says Stroud. “I only yell when I have to.
“Our team is pretty good about doing what they are supposed to (be doing). During the season, we do larger things. At the end of the season, we fine-tune things. That’s when you want to peak — at the end of the season.”
The Blazers opened the 2017-18 varsity season Saturday, Nov. 25 by placing second to Central Noble at the Elkhart Central Turkey Duals.
Before the New Year, the Blazers have home dual meets slated against Northridge Dec. 5 and Mishawaka Dec. 7.
Then comes the Jim Nicholson Charger Invitational at Elkhart Memorial Dec. 9 and dual meets at Elkhart Memorial Dec. 12 and South Bend Adams Dec. 14 followed by the 32-team Al Smith Classic at Mishawaka Dec. 29-30.
Coming down the stretch of the regular season, there’s a dual at Penn Jan. 4, East Noble Invitational Jan. 6, Northern Indiana Conference meet Jan. 13 and dual at Jimtown Jan. 18.
Besides Whickcar, ECHS wrestlers are pushed by a coaching staff with Central graduates Abe Que, Trevor Echartea and Zack Kurtz, Elkhart Memorial graduates Carson Sappington and Steven Vergonet and Concord graduate Brian Pfeil.