FORTVILLE — Chad Masters remembers the lean seasons. Three years ago, when the Mt. Vernon head coach took over the high school wrestling program, depth wasn’t a luxury. It was the goal.
Even as an assistant coach in 2013, the numbers inside the Marauders’ wrestling room routinely fell short, he recalled, leading to countless forfeits and sometimes drastic weight disparity between drill partners.
Times sure have changed.
“As opposed to my first year, I think we had around 15 kids in the room. It wasn’t many; I know that. Now with 30, we actually have a JV team. We have JV events scheduled. It’s weird in a good way,” Masters said with a laugh. “I’m amazed.”
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The steady increase in participation has been a process, one that required commitment and a lot of ground work, stemming from the middle school wrestling program and the Marauder Wrestling Club.
Other key components, Masters said, has been retaining wrestlers, a traditional pitfall in the past, and the success stories at the top, especially with his 2016-17 seniors, who could lead the team to new heights this winter.
“Honestly, I’ve never had a senior since I’ve coached, and this year we have seven,” Masters said. “We’re going to have senior banners and everything. We’ve never had that. It’s exciting.”
Of those seven, three return as regional qualifiers and one, heavyweight Peyton Wuerch (32-6), nearly earned a state finals berth in 2015-16.
With experiences comes elevated expectation, however, and Masters said he believes last season’s five regional qualifiers — who are all back — could represent the low end of the total figure.
“I told the kids if we take nine of the 14 to regional, that’s a good showing. I’m not throwing some number out there that’s unattainable. It’s possible,” Masters said. “Sure, it won’t be easy, but if it was easy, I don’t think we’d have 30 kids. These kids that come out want a challenge. They want to work.”
Few punch the clock as hard as seniors Noah Hanson (138 pounds), Gavin Hanson (145), Drake Tackett (160), and Wuerch.
Noah Hanson (25-15) along with Tackett (25-16) both finished as regional qualifiers at 126 and 152, respectively, along with sophomore Chase Wilkerson (31-11) at 106 and junior Cole Van Slyke, who was 15-24 at 170 pounds in his first year wrestling.
Wilkerson has moved up to 120 this year while Van Slyke has bumped up to 182, which adds to the lineup’s strength.
“I think Cole Van Slyke could be even better because last year was his first year wrestling,” Wuerch remarked on his teammate’s potential. “He did it on pure strength before, and Chase Wilkerson looks like he’s at the top of his game this year.”
Wuerch doesn’t mince words when detailing his own ambition. “State,” he says, “That’s what I want.”
Last year, Wuerch was ranked in the state’s top 20 in his weight class by indianamat.com with 20 pins.
In only his second high school season, he placed second at the Shelbyville Sectional and took fourth at the Perry Meridian Regional to become the Marauders’ lone semistate qualifier.
As a sophomore, he finished 25-11, placed third at the Warren Central Sectional and earned a regional berth.
At semistate last season, Wuerch lost to Westfield’s Austin Dollens by decision 3-0 in the first round as the Shamrock placed third overall to reach the state finals.
“People don’t realize (Peyton) had a sprained ankle right before sectional, so he wasn’t really in wrestling shape the week of sectional. Usually that’s when we push harder for the state tournament, and he couldn’t,” Masters said. “I truly think that cost him a shot at state last year. I think he probably finishes two spots higher at regional and at semistate he gets out. He’s motivated this year.”
Along with fellow seniors Jeremiah Kolter (113), Luke Stanley (170) and Jackson Bond (220), he’s pushing himself and a team loaded with a mix of youth and potential.
“I want to be much more of a leader this year than I was before. I feel I could have picked that up more than I did,” Wuerch said. “We have a lot of young freshman that can be pretty good by their senior year, so I want to help them out with that.”
Among the up-and-comers for the Marauders are freshman Max Hayes (126), sophomore James Corbin (195) and freshman Chris Wilkerson (132).
“In between 145 to 170, and at heavyweight, we should be really strong,” Masters said. “Then we have guys like Max Hayes, who was undefeated at the middle school level, and he’s coming in with his goals set.”
After winning 17 dual meets compared to 10 the year prior, the team’s new target is 20 wins in addition to the upper percentile in a highly-competitive Hoosier Heritage Conference.
Mt. Vernon placed seventh out of eight teams in last year’s HHC tournament with Wuerch earning runner-up honors.
“I’ve always told the kids, even when I was an assistant, the goal is to be top five in the conference. If you do that, then you’re on the cusp of being a top 30 team in the state,” Masters said. “I started looking at it, and I’ve challenged the guys to go for top three this year. Let’s see what we can do. That’s our new goal.”
2016-17 Projected Lineup
106: Martin McConnell (10)
113: Jeremiah Kolter (12)
120: Chase Wilkerson (10)
126: Max Hayes (9)
132: Matt Wheeler (11)/Chris Wilkerson (9)
138: Noah Hanson (12)
145: Gavin Hanson (12)
152: Korey Alka (11)
160: Drake Tackett (12)
170: Luke Stanley (12)/Drake Kendrex (10)
182: Cole Van Slyke (11)/PJ Sterrett (10)
195: James Corbin (10)
220: Jackson Bond (12)
285: Peyton Wuerch (12)