Times Sports Editor
The Northview wrestling program has hopes of returning to the IHSAA State Finals for the first time since the 2008 season when both Luke Pingleton and Zach Stultz were qualifiers. They'll have five chances to do so on Saturday as the Knights send Austin Bell, Larry Shaffer, Brandon Pleake, Aaron See and Beau Judd to the Evansville Reitz Semi-state at Roberts Stadium.
Pingleton reached the semi-state level in both 2009 and 2010, but wasn't able to reach Conseco Fieldhouse for the finals so a return trip by one of the Knights' five competitors would be even more special for the program.
Though just five wrestlers were preparing for action on Saturday, during Wednesday's practice at the high school, there was no shortage of training partners in the wrestling room as approximately a dozen Knights were working together to push their semi-state teammates.
"Despite what many people think, wrestling really does have a strong team aspect," Northview coach Dan Mikesell said. "It takes good workout partners and people who are willing to go through the training process together. Seeing your teammate win gives great satisfaction and some validity to the hard work that is put in. This team has had pretty good chemistry most of the year and that is an important ingredient for success for any athletic team."
When discussing what it means to be a semi-state qualifier, Mikesell quickly pointed out that the level of competition in the state is very high when compared to many states around the country.
"Indiana wrestling has really improved over the past few decades and many of our semi-state qualifiers would be state qualifiers or place winners in other states," Mikesell said.
For those who have reached one of the four semi-states, it means that the competitor is one of the top-64 remaining in the state in that weight class. Mikesell hopes that seeing the success that his team has had in the tourney is a good motivator for the area's younger competitors in the sport.
"Having five wrestlers make it is a nice step for the program, but we have bigger aspirations, so hopefully we can build on this and have more in the future and have kids take that step to Conseco Fieldhous (site of the state finals)," Mikesell said.
Two of the Knights competing on Saturday are seniors as both Pleake and Judd look to take the next step to the bright lights of the state finals.
Pleake has a first round match-up at 189 pounds with Evansville Memorial's Ryan Sandwith, who placed second in the regional and brings a 35-5 mark into Saturday. Pleake is 22-6 this season.
"Pleake has really improved on his confidence this year. He has some unique techniques that really work for him," Mikesell said of the senior. "He has beaten some really good kids. It really helped him this year to have Jesse Miller pushing him in practice. His work ethic is superb and it has paid off this year. I am very proud of his progress."
Judd (31-11) is especially motivated after losing a heartbreaker in the first round of the regional, 3-2, to Madison's Jordan Blakemore. However, last weekend, Judd came back to pin a Madison wrestler on his way to a third-place finish and a semi-state ticket. He'll face-off with Mt. Vernon's Edward O'Connell (34-7) in the opening round on Saturday.
"Mt. Vernon has a great tradition of heavy weight wrestlers. I know Beau has faced O' Connell in some Greco matches, so we have some familiarity with him," Mikesell said. "Beau is going to have to keep him off balance with some leg attacks as well as some upper body control ties. He has had a nice season and I have enjoyed working with him. He has become a real student of the sport and we will miss his personality next year in the room."
Bell (22-7) will take on Max Mangold (24-6) from traditional power Evansville Mater Dei in his Saturday opener at 130 pounds and is looking to make a splash on the bigger stage after placing fourth at the regional.
"He is a typical Mater Dei kid, he's very savvy on his feet and tough on top," Mikesell said of the Wildcat. "It is a nice steppingstone for Bell to be at the semi-state. Our preparation hasn't been that much different, with the exception that he has got to improve in his mat wrestling. He has to be willing to leave everything on the mat and wrestle his best match of the year."
Sophomore Larry Shaffer has had a great season thus far and brings a 35-10 mark into the 160-pound semi-state and takes on Charlestown's Jacob Hall (33-8). Five of Shaffer's losses have come to classmate Clayton Fiddler of Bloomington South and Mikesell believes that Shaffer's work ethic has made him one of the team's leaders this season.
"Larry has great intensity. He is very consistent in his training and a real workhorse. He has really improved on his technique this year and I am very happy with his progress," Mikesell said. "He is the guy we can build the team around in the future. He spent a lot of time wrestling in Freestyle and Greco last spring and I am confident he will again this year. I expect him to be a state qualifier next year."
At 215 pounds, See (35-6) has become a measuring stick for a lot of the wrestlers he has faced this season and he'll get a very true test of his own abilities as he takes on Trey Reese (24-0), who placed sixth in the state at 160 pounds last year.
"One thing Aaron doesn't lack is confidence. He doesn't back down from a challenge and getting that draw has motivated him this week to work even harder," Mikesell said. "We know it would be a huge upset, but we have a game plan and we will do our best to execute it. My hope is it really motivates him for the offseason training this year. He is right on the brink of being an elite wrestler in our state.
"All five of these guys have had a great run this year," Mikesell added. "But right now we would trade all their wins for two more. It's about wrestling well at the right time to get to the big dance."