FORTVILLE — Chad Masters sat with his Mt. Vernon wrestling team inside the New Castle Chrysler Fieldhouse a month ago and joked about how he was tired of paying for admission to the IHSAA state meet every year.
It was a tongue-in-cheek challenge issued by Masters during the Hoosier Heritage Conference wrestling meet, but one Marauders’ sophomore Chris Wilkerson took seriously.
At the New Castle Semistate last weekend on the same floor, Wilkerson not only punched his ticket to this Friday’s state finals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, but he locked down his coach’s, too, as he placed third at 132 pounds.
“It’s what I’ve thought about every time I worked out. I just thought about trying to make it to state,” Wilkerson remarked. “That’s what motivated me to do everything. It means the world to mean.”
Story continues below gallery
The first state qualifier in Mt. Vernon history since 103-pound Jake McCarthy in 2007-08, Wilkerson ended a 10-year drought for the program and he’s determined to do more.
Methodical, patient and purposeful on the mat, Wilkerson is a steady competitor, and his approach helped fuel his run.
A runner-up at the HHC tournament on Jan. 13, the team leader never claimed a postseason title at any stage, but he didn’t let it faze him. He had one goal — advance.
“He’s probably one of the most composed kids I’d ever seen. He’s just calm. He’s always in the match. The moment’s never too big, even when he’s getting beat,” Masters said. “He just takes it all in stride. He learns from everything he does.”
At the Lawrence Central Sectional, he finish second, which he followed up with a runner-up placement at the Pendleton Heights Regional to qualify for his first career semistate appearance.
Wilkerson (37-8) reached the semistate semifinals, losing to Greenfield-Central’s seventh-ranked Carter Noehre by major decision 13-3, but as is his MO, he bounced back quickly to defeat Warren Central’s No. 11 Jared Rowlett (30-8) by decision 3-1 in the consolation finals.
The key victory, however, unfolded in the ticket round at semistate. Opening the tournament with a 16-4 major decision against Cambridge City Lincoln’s Hunter Brown (35-9), Wilkerson secured his state berth with a 3-2 decision in the quarterfinals against top-seeded Chase Poynter (24-15) of Zionsville.
“I acted like it was a normal day, just another wrestling tournament,” Wilkerson said. “I knew to win the match, I had to wrestle my style and not let him get in my head. I took my time and was conservative with it, and it ended up working out for me like it always does.”
At state, beginning Friday night at 6 p.m., unranked Wilkerson intends to stick to the formula with Jimtown junior No. 9 Matt Gimson (45-2) representing his next hurdle. Gimson is a two-time state qualifier.
Masters said he believes Wilkerson has the ability to not only beat Gimson, but maybe reach another program milestone as the first state place-winner since heavyweight Andrew Quintana finished third as a senior in 2005-06.
“This year, he’s become the leader in the room,” Masters said. “He’s set himself up well for only being a sophomore. He wrestles smart. He doesn’t take bad shots. He doesn’t do stupid things. It’s uncanny for someone that young.”
Wise beyond his years, Wilkerson always takes every aspect into consideration when it comes to wrestling. At 132 pounds as a sixth-grader, he grew to 145 pounds in his final two junior high seasons, winning the HHC as an eighth-grader.
Wilkerson realized once he was in high school that he had to make a change if he wanted to compete at a higher level.
“I knew I had potential and some weight to lose. I knew it’s what I needed to do to be a great wrestler,” Wilkerson said.
Dropping down to 132 as a freshman, Wilkerson placed sixth at the Warren Central Sectional last year, failing to advance to the regional. After another season at the same weight, he became more comfortable and sharper in his attacks and on defense.
His older brother, Chase, a junior 120-pounder, also played a major part in his development and toughness.
Chase Wilkerson, a two-time semistate qualifier, followed a similar state tournament path as Chris this year, finishing runner-up at the HHC meet and at each postseason stop until semistate.
At 38-5 on the season, Chase, who was ranked 14th in the state, just missed out on joining Chris at state, losing in the semistate ticket round to second-ranked Sam Fair (43-1) of Perry Meridian by decision 7-0.
“It pushed me to really want to go for him because all the work he puts in is amazing. It was just a bad draw for him. I know he’s a placer at state,” Wilkerson said. “I know that for a fact.”
Chris Wilkerson is a trailblazer, Masters emphasized, who is setting a new standard the coach and his program have been building toward in his five seasons at the helm.
“Now, he’s completely focused to place, and then, wrestling all day on Saturday,” Masters said. “Just for him to be bringing that to Mt. Vernon, that experience, we haven’t had anybody. These kids don’t know that, so now he’s going to be able to convey that to them. It’s going to be invaluable.”