By Pedro Velazco
— Kokomo wrestlers Andrew Ledford and Fletcher Miller are focused and distracted all at the same time. The week between the semistate and the state finals is difficult to endure for the two Wildkats who qualified for state.
“It’s hard sleeping knowing that you’ve got the biggest match of your life in a couple days,” Ledford said Tuesday. “Definitely ready, that’s for sure.”
Each wrestler around the state who is preparing to compete at Bankers Life Fieldhouse this weekend is in the same boat. That doesn’t make it any easier.
“There’s not a second I’m not thinking about it,” Miller said. “It’s such a long week when you’re thinking about stuff like that. The school day takes so long. It seems like it’s forever getting to Friday this week.”
Ledford, a senior, will take a 45-4 record against Merrillville senior Adam Garcia (34-2) to open the state meet. Miller, a junior, carries a perfect 47-0 mark and will face Bloomington South senior Boyd Haley (38-9). The opening round of state is Friday. Each weight class has 16 participants. Friday’s winners move on to a full day of competition on Saturday. Saturday’s competitors all medal, and get a spot somewhere on the podium.
Both Ledford and Miller are making their first trip to state after qualifying from the Fort Wayne Semistate last Saturday. Each saw his path end in Fort Wayne last year. Ledford finished second in the 120-pound weight class on Saturday, while Miller won the 220-pound title.
“It was overwhelming, just finally having a purpose for all the hard work that we put in in the [practice] room, just pulling off something that people didn’t expect me to do,” Ledford said of qualifying for state.
He started wrestling in sixth grade and said that at the time “I was terrible. I’d go out there and just flop around, hoping that I wouldn’t get pinned.” All that time, he said what sustained him was “that one goal” of getting to state. “I’m not going to quit until I meet that one goal, and then now that I’ve met it, I’m ready to surpass it and get a medal in the state of Indiana.”
Wrestlers have to win their first two matches at the semistate to qualify for state. After that, they wrestle for places in the top four.
“The moment when I saw the time hit zero, that’s when it really hit me,” Miller said of his ticket-round match last Saturday. “I kind of looked up at the clock and it saw it go 3, 2, 1, I kind of thought to myself, ‘You’re a state qualifier. You’re where you need to be now.’ The rest of the day was, go see what happens, go try to get a good spot for the next weekend.”
Miller was able to feed off the emotion of Ledford winning his way to state, and winning his 120-pound semifinal match against previously unbeaten A.J. Mosier of South Adams. Ledford scored a second-period pin in that match. Several weights later, Miller scored a first-period pin in his semifinal.
“Watching his matches all day really had me pumped up for my matches,” Miller said. “The semifinals match where he wrestled Mosier, that had us all jacked up pretty good and I went out pretty pumped up for my match. That was probably the best match I wrestled all day.”
Miller has had plenty of good days this season — he is unbeaten on the mat, and an academic all-state performer in the classroom.
Miller was a standout at 182 pounds last year. This season, added strength and size has given him even more of an advantage against wrestlers at 220 pounds.
“He’s always been, I feel, higher than everybody else skill-set-wise,” Ledford said of Miller. He said the Kat junior has gotten “better in everything. There’s not a specific thing he’s gotten better at, just as a whole wrestler he’s definitely surpassed other people.”
Kokomo coach Ryan Wells has seen Miller add to his arsenal.
“Fletcher, my gosh, he’s been a technical wrestler for a long time,” Wells said. “I think him getting so much bigger and stronger has helped him more than anything. He’s always been a solid technician but he’s just so much more physical and bigger and stronger now. At 220, guys just don’t know how to handle him at that weight class. The way he moves and creates angles and gets in on legs, these guys don’t know how to react to some of the things he’s doing because he wrestles like a 135-pounder.”
On Tuesday, Miller finished practice with intense sessions against three former Wildkat wrestlers who took turns working against him in short bursts of 30 seconds. Miller got more and more exhausted, and fresh 200-pound bodies kept rotating in. They’ve only practiced that way a few times this season, but it’s paid off.
“The point of that is to break you a little bit mentally, get you ready because in a match, if it goes long, you’re going to get tired at the end and you need to keep a good state of mind the whole time,” Miller said. “When you feel that in practice, that prepares you for when it’s going to happen in a match and you know how to deal with it. A lot of guys will break and shut down, but you have to deal with it and keep going.
“With all these guys in here helping me out, that really helps you fight through it in a match.”
Ledford, who moved to Kokomo as a junior after starting high school at North Judson, has had to develop that same kind of emotional courage to make the leap to state.
“A lot of it is mental toughness,” Ledford said. “Your mind will tell you you’re done before your body is actually ready to be done. Just being able to go through practice very day and have Coach yell at us and push us to where we won’t normally be, it’s completely made the difference. If he didn’t do what [he] did, then I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at now, toughness-wise. How he’s made our mindset will change your total outcome in a match.”
Wells said that last season, Ledford was a “tough, scrappy kid” but not very technical when Ledford joined the Kats last season. Little refinements have helped.
“He’s been like a sponge,” Wells said. “He just absorbed stuff and listened and wanted to learn. He’s such a better technician now than he was. He has learned how to push himself through walls, that physical wall, that mental wall where your body tells you to stop but you have to train your mind to let your body know it can keep going. He’s trained his mind to be able to do that and a lot of people are incapable of doing that. It shows out on the mat. He just never stops. He just goes, goes, goes. That’s taken him a long way.”
A tough season, and a tough final week will be worth it if it leads to glory this weekend.
“If anything, I feel it’s an easier week because I have more motivation to keep myself going,” Ledford said. “I’ve definitely pushed myself harder and further than what I have the entire year, but it’s all for a purpose, and we’re about to show it on Friday.”