BY PEDRO VELAZCO KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — They dream about this day as soon as they’re old enough to understand it.
They think about today when they’re first starting wrestling as little kids and when they’re in grade school. And they think about it when they’re teenagers near the end of their high school careers. Especially then.
Today is the opening day of the IHSAA Wrestling State Finals, beginning at 6 p.m. in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Today’s winners advance to Saturday’s final day of competition.
Kokomo’s Fletcher Miller has been dialed in for a year, ever since losing the championship match at 220 pounds last year to Lake Central’s Gelen Robinson in a showdown of unbeatens. Both were juniors. Both are back at 220 pounds this season.
“Obviously the plan is to go out and win this year,” Miller said. “It was fun last year getting to go down and making it the first time and everything, but getting runner-up kind of left a little sick taste in my mouth.”
Robinson is unbeaten this season. Miller’s lone loss was to the top-ranked heavyweight. He could wrestle either weight, but with Robinson back at 220, Miller’s decision was made.
“We thought he had as good a shot to win state at heavyweight as we did 220,” Kokomo coach Ryan Wells said. “It was his decision. We let him make the decision on his own and he wanted to go 220 for the simple fact he wanted to wrestle Robinson. He wants another piece of him.”
“That’s the ideal plan, to get my second chance wrestling the same guy,” Miller said. “I wasn’t frustrated when he was wrestling 220, I was pretty excited about it.”
The excitement is running high in the Hinkle household as well as Western’s brother set of senior Dustin and junior Corey are making their first appearances at state. When the Hinkles qualified for state from last Saturday’s Fort Wayne Semistate, It made for an emotional day for the brothers and parents Dan and Bridget.
“My dad was over there in the back crying because he was so happy,” Corey Hinkle said. “Mom said she thought she was going to throw up the whole time. She said she didn’t care after the first two matches [winning those qualified the brothers for state]. She was all good after that.”
“My mom and dad and all my family were really happy,” Dustin Hinkle said. “It was basically like we were celebrating, like our favorite team won the Super Bowl.”
The thrill went beyond just the Hinkle family and Western community.
“If I could pick anybody that wasn’t a Kokomo kid to make it, it was those kids,” Kat coach Wells said of the Hinkle brothers. “They do a lot of offseason stuff with us. Both those guys have earned their way there.”
That work has yielded happy memories that will last a lifetime.
“We talked about it [Tuesday], when we walk in, the parade of champions is impressive, just take it all in, enjoy it,” Western coach Chad Shepherd said of today’s opening ceremony at state. “It’s a spectacle. Once you go through it, you never forget it. I told them it’s very important they enjoy it. Then they’re going to play the national anthem, when they’re done and when we walk off the floor, it’s time for business. It’s time to go to work.”
Here are looks at the eight local wrestlers who have qualified for tonight’s opening round.
132: Kegan Kern, Peru
Grade/record: Senior, 39-6
Tournament trail: 2nd at Peru Sectional; Peru Regional champion; Fort Wayne Semistate 4th place.
Career highlights: 4-time MIC champion; 2-time sectional champion (2012, 2013); 3-time regional champion (2012, 2013, 2014).
Kern finally broke through to state as a senior with a last-second takedown in the second round of last Saturday’s semistate.
“I’ve been to semistate four times, and that was my last time, my final attempt at it and I knew I had to get it done or it was pretty much worthless to make it four times and never make it out,” Kern said. “I watched film on it [the second-round match] and I got the last takedown with one second left on the clock.”
He understands the urgency required to wrestle at the state level.
“You have to be the aggressor, you can’t sit back and wait and counterattack them,” Kern said. “The caliber of kids I’m wrestling now, they’re all strong and tough and there are no weak links left.”
138: Dustin Hinkle, Western
Grade/record: Senior, 39-4
Tournament trail: Oak Hill Sectional champion; Peru Regional champion; Fort Wayne Semistate third place.
Career highlights: 3-time MIC champion (2011, 2012, 2014); 2-time sectional champion (2011, 2014); 2014 regional champion.
The elder Hinkle brother said he took a mentality into the semistate that it could be the “last time I’m ever going to get on the mat. You’ve got to do your best and don’t leave any doubt.”
He’d had a goal of making it to state since he started wrestling when he was five years old, and put himself in the big show with a pair of first-period pins at the semistate before dropping a semifinal and rebounding for a third-place finish. It gave him a taste of what’s needed this weekend.
“Just going to have to be more crisp on your moves, set up a little quicker and shoot faster,” Dustin Hinkle said.
145: Evan Loe, Peru
Grade/record: Senior, 46-2
Tournament trail: Peru Sectional champion; Peru Regional champion; Fort Wayne Semistate champion.
Career highlights: 4-time MIC champion; 4-time sectional champion; 4-time regional champion; 2014 semistate champion; 3-time state participant (8th in 2013).
Two years of experience wrestling at state has given Loe a good grasp of what he needs to do to get through today and on to Saturday’s final day of action.
“The kids there are on a different level than the kids in the semistate, regional, sectional,” Loe said. “They all know what they’re doing. They know how to position themselves.
“[I’m] just going to have to put everything on the line and wrestle my hardest. Don’t overlook anyone. I have to wrestle everyone like they’re the state champion and beat them up.”
Loe has signed to wrestle at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Ky. But the state veteran has unfinished business before he gets there.
“This is my last opportunity get the state championship,” he said. “I’ll have next year in college, but I’ll remember this the rest of my life.”
152: Chad Gaddis, Kokomo
Grade/record: Senior, 51-3
Tournament trail: Oak Hill Sectional champion; Peru Regional champion; Fort Wayne semistate third place.
Career highlights: 2014 NCC champion; 3-time sectional champion (2012, 2013, 2014), 2-time regional champion (2013, 2014).
Gaddis scored a takedown in overtime in the second round at the semistate to qualify for state.
“It’s really been my only goal,” Gaddis said of making it to state. “My goal is to place at state, but you have to reach state to place there. I fell short of it last year and really wanted to make it this year.”
The semistate taught Gaddis he needs to be on the offensive all the time.
“I have to be the first person to score, and not going to let up, score, score, score as much as I can,” he said. “It’s really key to get the first takedown. Once you get the first takedown it puts something in the other guy’s head and lets him know you’re not there to lay down, you’re there to win the match. It’s the key to breaking somebody.”
170: Keair Ross, Kokomo
Grade/record: Senior, 33-6
Tournament trail: Oak Hill Sectional champion; Peru Regional champion; Fort Wayne Semistate fourth place.
Career highlights: 2-time NCC champion (2013, 2014); 3-time sectional champion (2012, 2013, 2014); 3-time regional champion (2012, 2013, 2014).
After knocking on the door of state for several years, it was good to finally break it down.
“The moment I got to state was probably the happiest moment of my life, because I’ve been working at it for five years now,” Ross said. “I was ecstatic. I immediately ran off the mat and hugged my coaches and hugged my mom.”
After the euphoria subsided, it was time to get down to the business of figuring out how to win matches at state. Ross said he needs “to work a lot more on my conditioning. I realized wrestling a bunch of ranked kids it’s good that you have technique, but you need conditioning. Technique won’t work well when you’re gassed.”
182: Corey Hinkle, Western
Grade/grecord: Junior, 43-3
Tournament trail: Oak Hill Sectional champion; Peru Regional champion; Fort Wayne Semistate champion.
Career highlights: 3-time MIC champion; 3-time sectional champion; 2-time regional champion (2013, 2014); 2014 semistate champion.
Corey Hinkle’s point of emphasis this week is “working on being able to wrestle a six-minute match.” Only two of his matches over the last three weeks have gone the distance.
He’s making his first trip to state, along with older brother Dustin.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Corey Hinkle said of qualifying. “I had a good chance of making it this year and I took my opportunity.”
195: Nick Cress, Peru
Grade/record: Senior, 40-10
Tournament trail: 3rd at Peru Sectional; Peru Regional champion; Fort Wayne Semistate fourth place.
Career highlights: Sectional champion in 2012; regional champion in 2014.
Cress’ great uncle Jim Cress won a state championship while wrestling for the Bengal Tigers in 1956, now a new generation will represent the family at state.
“It felt pretty good. I was excited,” Cress said of qualifying for state. “I didn’t want to show too much emotion when I was on the mat or anything, but I was really excited.”
The Bengal senior said he could tell he’d turned a corner in his ability on the mat this summer during offseason training, and the results showed once the high school season began.
Now to extend his season to Saturday, “I’ve got to wrestle hard, and smart, and just have a good gas tank and not gas out.”
220: Fletcher Miller, Kokomo
Grade/Record: Senior, 53-1
Tournament trail: Oak Hill Sectional champion; Peru Regional champion; Fort Wayne Semistate champion
Career highlights: 3-time NCC champion (2012, 2013, 2014); 3-time regional champion (2012, 2013, 2014); 2-time semistate champion (2013, 2014); 2-time state participant (2013 runner-up).
Miller has learned to take in the moment at first when wrestlers arrive at state, but not to get too worked up and sap energy needed to face the most difficult obstacles in the tournament path.
“it’s definitely a big step up,” he said. “Everybody you’re wreslting is obviously the best in the state. You have to stay on them the whole time and work your stuff and never let the pressure off them,” he said. “That’s how you win matches there.”