FORTVILLE — Inside the Mt. Vernon wrestling room, Peyton Wuerch finds serenity. It’s there, in his comfort zone, the state-ranked heavyweight blocks out distraction and replaces it with narrowed focus.

His mind at ease, his purpose clear, few places compare for the Marauders’ junior.

“I love wrestling. I really do. I come in here everyday for practice, and it’s not a burden or a downer,” Wuerch says with a broad smile. “I like working hard. I like pushing through. It gives me an extra boost of confidence, knowing if I work hard enough, I can keep up with anybody.”

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A self-described 6-foot, 275-pound teddy bear off the mat, once he steps into the circle, cuddly turns grizzly at the sound of the whistle.

He can be fierce and at times pummels his opponents with brute strength, said Mt. Vernon head coach Chad Masters, who drills with Wuerch daily.

More than anything, however, he’s determined in his pursuit to succeed, which is part of the reason Wuerch stands just two wins at Saturday’s New Castle Semistate away from his primary objective.

“It was my goal coming into the year to get to semistate. My ultimate goal is to get to state,” he said. “If I keep going, then it’s Shawn Streck (of Merrillville), the state champ, in the finals. But first I have to win at semistate.”

At 32-5 on the season, Wuerch is ranked 20th in his weight class by indianamat.com with 20 pins and a near team-leading 33 takedowns.

In only his second high school season, he placed second at the Shelbyville Sectional and took fourth at last weekend’s Perry Meridian Regional to become the Marauders’ lone semistate qualifier.

A year ago, he finished 25-11, placed third at the Warren Central Sectional and earned a regional berth but was unexpectedly derailed.

“I had impetigo on my head,” Wuerch said. “We had a doctor’s note, but it was expired. We had to have that within the week, and we didn’t know. I got disqualified and couldn’t compete. We couldn’t do anything about it.”

Though the skin infection was a frustrating setback, which required him to wear a cap under his headgear at sectional, it proved minor in comparison to the inner struggle Wuerch faced alone.

A multisport athlete, the offensive lineman has played football since grade school but didn’t start wrestling until the seventh grade.

On the mat, he excelled rapidly, winning 20 matches in the eighth grade and placing second at the Hoosier Heritage Conference meet while capturing the Hancock County heavyweight title.

Despite the strides he made, Wuerch decided to commit to football his freshman year, but his hiatus from wrestling was short lived as he returned the following season.

He came into his junior year with the intentions of continuing his two-sport track until things began to come undone from within.

“I started getting sick, and I was out for a week from school. I started to feel better, then when I was ready to go back, I got sick again,” Wuerch recalled. “My parents didn’t know what was going on because I was fine the day before. Then, I figured it out.

“I wasn’t actually sick. I didn’t realize it was anxiety.”

Debilitated by an internal battle, Wuerch suffered from profound depression, which sidelined him from playing football this fall and put his wrestling career in jeopardy.

“It was tough. It was pretty bad,” he said. “When I had it, I actually hid it for a year or two from everyone and my parents. No one knew. I finally told them, and it brought me back down to earth.”

Wuerch’s recovery hinged on re-evaluating his perspective, which began by accepting the situation and talking through his issues with a therapist. “I’m a people person, but sometimes you have to come back down to figure out what to do.”

His faith helped him persevere as he rediscovered his balance.

“I went to a (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) camp this year, and I devoted my life to Christ. I go to church every Sunday (at Park Chapel Christian Church), and I’m doing well,” said Wuerch, who has built a strong network of mentors through the FCA. “Where I am now, it just shows how much I’ve worked to get back.

“It’s gratifying to know I can get through anything with God and praying with my family.”

With the support of his mother, Jean, and father, Brad, Wuerch slowly regained his footing. The biggest steps, however, were taken as he walked back into the Mt. Vernon wrestling room, changed for the better.

“I think what sets him a part, is he’s had struggles and he’s come to terms with them. He’s does a lot for this team, more than I think he even realizes,” Masters said. “This year, he’s stepped up and become a leader. He’s more focused now on what he wants to do. He has set goals and is achieving them, and it’s helped change the culture here.”

Not known for being a wrestling power, the Marauders went from 10 dual meet wins to 17 throughout the course of the past two seasons.

Wuerch’s example and relentless work ethic inspired the team, said Masters, which showed as the Marauders won the Neil Muse Invitational in Lapel this year and beat Ben Davis 40-39 during the Shamrock Duals in Westfield.

Fittingly, Wuerch’s second-period pin in the dual’s final match secured the victory.

“He’s very dedicated and a great athlete,” said Masters, who first noticed Wuerch’s natural ability in football as the team’s defensive lineman coach. “He moves really well, and he’s strong. … He’s already at semistate, and for a kids that’s only wrestled four years, that’s impressive.

“Last year, he showed us he can really be good,” Masters added. “He worked hard in the offseason, and I truly think the sky’s the limit.”

Wuerch continues to reveal his potential with every opportunity. At the HHC Meet last month, he improved on his third-place finish last year with a runner-up finale.

His pin count increased from 17 as a sophomore, and he carried a 25-1 record into conference.

He was 31-2 before the sectional finals, posting two pins and powering his way to a 3-2 decision against Cardinal Ritter’s Brian Dade in the regional quarterfinals to punch is semistate ticket.

Now, Wuerch has his sights on becoming the program’s first state qualifier since Jacob McCarthy at 103 pounds in 2007-08. The last heavyweight state place winner for Mt. Vernon was Andrew Quintana, who finished third in 2005-06.

“I believed I could be one of the top 20 wrestlers in the state,” Wuerch remarked on his breakthrough season. “I knew I could compete with anybody. I’m just going to go out there and wrestle my butt off at semistate.

“My goal is making it to state.”

By the numbers

Hancock County’s semistate qualifiers

106 pounds: Gavin Rose, Greenfield-Central (18-7)

113: Alec White, New Palestine (38-1)

126: Carter Noehre, Greenfield-Central (33-11)

132: Chad Red, New Palestine (36-0)

145: Jared Timberman, New Palestine (37-3)

152: Eugene Starks, New Palestine (30-7)

152: Jarod Waterman, Eastern Hancock (39-3)

170: Brad Lowe, Greenfield-Central (32-8)

195: Lee Dullaghan, Greenfield-Central (21-16)

220: Mitch Quinn, Eastern Hancock (18-12)

220: Cameron Wetli, Greenfield-Central (27-11)

285: Peyton Wuerch, Mt. Vernon (32-5)

285: Josh Robinson, Eastern Hancock (28-10)

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Rich Torres is sports editor at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at rtorres@greenfieldreporter.com or 317-477-3227.