FOUR TO GO – FINAL CALL AT BANKER’S LIFE
Ink Free News / Sports on Thursday, February 18, 2021
By Mike Deak
INDIANAPOLIS – The grind of the high school wrestling season is now bottlenecked into one match. Then three more.
The IHSAA Wrestling State Finals is the final step of the season grind, and it’s finally here. A total of 224 wrestlers will converge in waves to Banker’s Life Fieldhouse this Friday to start the two-day championship gauntlet. Among those 200-plus competitors are four from Kosciusko County, all looking to write their names in the history books.
Jace Alexander, Wawasee – 138
Wawasee senior Jace Alexander (24-1) is looking to finally close the deal. After making three trips to the state finals in his first three tries, including a sixth-place finish in 2019, Alexander is looking to get over the hump. After claiming sectional and regional championships, Alexander finally took a loss at the East Chicago Semi-state running into two-time state champion Jesse Mendez of Crown Point. But Alexander rallied with a pin in his final match, setting him up for another weekend in the 138-pound bracket.
Alexander will take on Floyd Central senior Gavinn Alstott (25-3) on Friday. Alstott finished runner-up in the Jasper Semi-state, having lost just once thus far in the state tournament. Alexander will bring a résumé that has him as just the second Wawasee wrestler to ever compete at four state finals, Kevin Carr the other.
“It’s an incredible feat to be a four-time state qualifier; only the second athlete from Wawasee ever to do so,” said Wawasee head coach Frank Bumgardner. “Going into the semi-state we knew he was one of the two best there so his draw was not what we were focused on; our focus was solely on winning. He has wrestled extremely well all year, and his Friday morning match will be one of the highlights of the entire session as his semi-final match at semi-state was. He is not in awe of the stage, it’ll be another trip down to one of the best wrestling tournaments in the country and we are focused on performing well and putting on a show.”
Brendan Dilley, Wawasee – 126
Another senior in the Warrior program, Brendan Dilley, is set to experience his first state finals as a competitor. After scoring a 12-11 decision over Valpo’s Stefan Vitello in the ticket round at East Chicago, the 126-pounder will give Wawasee another multiple athlete trip to the show.
Dilley (16-11) will have his hands full with one of the state’s top 126-pound wrestlers in Bluffton junior Landon Bertsch. Coming into the finals undefeated at 22-0, Bertsch scored a tech fall domination of Goshen’s Nick Olson in the Fort Wayne Semi-state championship.
“Talk about incredible fortitude and mental toughness…Brenden was a regional qualifier last year as an alternate,” Bumgardner said. “Him and I had multiple conversations in the spring and he explicitly said “Bum, I will be a State Qualifier.” He dedicated himself fully to the process and you can see the pay-off. His mental fortitude was tested over and over this season; not only was COVID a huge obstacle but he faced adversity and losses. He had an extremely tough path to the state tournament with his regional being loaded with talent and he took fourth.”
Brandon Estepp, Warsaw – 182
Warsaw will send one Tiger to the show in 182-pound senior Brandon Estepp. A fall over Noah Stenberg of West Lafayette then a 4-3 decision over LaPorte’s Jaden Browder punched Estepp’s ticket to Indianapolis, the first trip for the Tiger.
Estepp (19-7) is likely happy to get the East Chicago wrestling over with, all seven of his defeats this season coming to wrestlers from the semi-state. In front of Estepp this Friday will be New Haven’s Jacob Saylor (28-2). The two could have met earlier this season, as New Haven was at Warsaw’s home invite, but Estepp was injured and Saylor was wrestling at 195. Saylor worked three falls and a decision to go 4-0 at the Fort Wayne Semi-state, one of those knockouts a first-round pin of NorthWood’s Trey Tobias.
“I thought that Brandon might have had one of his best days of wrestling on Saturday,” said Warsaw head coach Kris Hueber. “There’s not much for us to scout. Brandon just needs to focus on being the best version of himself this week – physically and mentally and we’ll have a great weekend. I’m really proud to see him starting to see the reward for the effort he’s invested for so long. He’s certainly improved his technical skills, but the biggest area of growth we’ve seen is in mindset.”
Bazle Owens, Tippecanoe Valley – 195
Bazle Owens has had his bumps and bruises along the way, but has done enough to win when he needs to. The Tippecanoe Valley 195-pound sophomore hasn’t won a title in the state tournament, finishing second at the sectional, fourth at the regional and fourth at the semi-state, but finds himself heading to Indy for the first time.
Owens (28-10) lost to fellow state finalist Eli Pack of Culver Academy in the Plymouth Sectional finals, and later in the semi-finals of the East Chicago Semi-state. But wins over Justin Sawyer of Hobart and Daeveon Cheeks of Lafayette Jeff punched Owens’ ticket, and that’s all that matters, becoming just the third Valley wrestler to make the IHSAA State Finals, joining Isaac Yoder and Devin Childers.
Business is going to pick up quickly for Owens, who drew Indianapolis Lutheran monster Hayden Filipovich (40-0), the senior one of the top 195-pounders going. Also an All-State linebacker, Filipovich placed eighth at 182 a season ago.
“As soon as we saw Bazle’s semi-state draw, we knew he had a pretty good chance of getting out,” said Valley head coach Kyler Kearby. “We told him all week he had to take advantage of this opportunity, and that he did. With it being his first time at semi-state, you worry about nerves getting to him. But he controlled them well and in his first two matches, he was never behind.
“I felt that really helped him mentally in both matches. He attacked well from his feet and earned key takedowns at crucial times. I know his placing matches didn’t go his way, but it reminded him he still needs to make improvements to compete with these guys at the highest level. Bazle is just the third state qualifier for Valley in wrestling, so we’re all extremely happy for him.”
New State Format
The IHSAA Wrestling State Championships will feature a slightly different format for 2021. Wrestling in the 106-145 pound weight classes will begin at 11 a.m. at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, with all first-round matches taking place and then the arena cleared. Wrestling for classes 152-285 will start at 7 p.m., again all first-round matches conducted. Quarterfinals and semi-finals will start at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, then consolations at 5 p.m., and finals beginning at 7:30 p.m.