NEW CASTLE — Before the New Castle Semistate began on Saturday morning, Mt. Vernon senior Carson Johnson had a special visitor.
Two of them, actually.
A University of Indianapolis commit himself, Johnson was surprised by the appearances of two current Greyhounds wrestlers in Chris and Chase Wilkerson, who sat in the New Castle Chysler Fieldhouse stands to support their future collegiate and former Marauder teammate.
In 2018-19, when Johnson was a freshman, the Wilkerson brothers both punched their tickets to the IHSAA individual wrestling state finals as seniors.
Over the course of their junior and senior seasons, the Wilkersons both placed at the state finals with Chase being the program’s most recent in 2019.
After seeing both in attendance Saturday, Johnson’s motivation to breakthrough himself doubled, and he achieved the feat by placing fourth at 138 pounds to become the program’s first state qualifier in three years.
Joining Johnson at the state finals this weekend at Gainbridge Fieldhouse will be Mt. Vernon 220-pound freshman Devin Kendrex, who placed second at semistate, becoming the first Marauder semistate finalist since 2005-06.
“Today has been so surreal. I’m just soaking it up. It still doesn’t feel real, honestly,” Johnson said. “(Chris and Chase) came in today, and it was awesome seeing them. They amped me up. I was so excited to see them. Those are my best friends, my mentors.”
For Johnson, who is ranked eighth in the state by Indianamat, the semistate has been biggest obstacle in his four-year career at Mt. Vernon.
As a freshman in 2018-19, Johnson qualified for semistate at 120 pounds, winning 30 matches, but he wasn’t able to advance. An injury prevented him from attempting to reach state as a sophomore, and last year, he fell short in the ticket round as he lost in the quarterfinals.
This time, he made state a reality.
“I was really focused from the start. I know some people go out there and they overlook their first match, and they end up losing that match,” Johnson said. “So, I went out there and told myself, I’m going to wrestle one match at a time. That’s what I did. In some, I didn’t get the outcome I wanted, but I still stuck with the game plan.”
In his opening-round match, Johnson (34-4) faced a familiar foe in Greenfield-Central’s Matt Wickham (22-17), but the Marauder was locked in and won by pin in 1 minute, 59 seconds.
In the quarterfinal round, Johnson kept his forward progress going, building a 5-0 lead after the first period against East Central’s Dylan Lengerich (37-7) before winning by decision 8-4 to earn a spot as one of his weight-classes’ state-qualifying final four.
“In that match, the very first takedown I got, in that split second, it was a major confidence booster. I don’t want to say I thought I had this, but it was a confidence booster getting that first takedown, and I when I got him on his back and locked him up, that was huge,” Johnson said.
A third-period takedown by Lengerich cut Johnson’s lead 7-4, but an escape finalized the margin and avenged the past.
“Last year, I lost right here on his mat, ticket round. This is the same mat where I punched my ticket to state, so it overcoming those things. It was huge,” Johnson said.
A sectional and regional runner-up, Johnson aimed for a potential semistate title, but a technical fall by Westfield’s Ike O’Neill halted that hope during their semistate semifinal match in 5:28.
Johnson’s day ended with a 4-2 loss against Cathedral’s 12th-ranked Luke Gonzalez (32-7) in the consolation finals, marking the third straight weekend the two have met in the state tournament series.
At sectional, Johnson lost by decision 6-5. In the regional finals, Gonzalez won by decision 9-4. Gonzalez earned the win, again, but not even a bruised right cheek could spoil Johnson’s mood.
“It’s a bloodbath, honestly. I’ve had people walk up to me and asked me what happened (to my face)? We were just battling out there today, honestly. I won a couple battles and I lost some, but on the bright side, I’m going to state. That was my main goal,” Johnson said. “I’m so happy.”
Kendrex (31-6), who was second at the Arsenal Tech Sectional and Pendleton Heights Regional, made it three straight by reaching the semistate finals.
He opened the day with a 14-6 major decision against Connersville’s Levi DeGroat (25-10), then posted back-to-back decisions at 11-4 against Sheridan’s Peyton Cross (42-2) in the quarterfinals and 9-5 over Roncalli’s Justin Lewis (31-9) in the semifinals.
Kendrex’s run was the first time a Marauder wrestler placed in the semistate’s top-two since Andrew Quintana, a heavyweight, in 2005-06. Quintana went on to place third at that state finals in the former 275-pound weight class.
“I feel great. I felt I was in great condition, under control the entire time. I felt pretty good,” Kendrex said.
Kendrex, much like Johnson, ran into a familiar foe in the finals, wrestling Cathedral’s Jackson Weingart (28-11) for a third straight weekend. Weingart, a senior, defeated 22nd-ranked Kendrex, this time by decision, 7-2.
At sectional, Weingart won 2-1 in sudden-victory overtime. The next week, Kendrex lost by decision 6-3.
“I didn’t want it to end that way, but it was great seeing him again in the final because he gives me motivation to keep on working,” Kendrex said.
Kendrex and Johnson will have another week to work with the state finals opening on Friday in two sessions at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
Johnson will compete in the evening session at 7 p.m. which includes state-qualifiers in the 106 through 145 divisions.
Kendrex will get his shot at advancing to Saturday’s medal rounds at 11 a.m. when competitors from 152 through 285 take the mats.
Johnson will face Jay County’s 16th-ranked Cameron Clark (22-3) in the opening round at state with Friday’s winners moving into Saturday when the top-eight wrestlers in each weight class will compete for state placements.
Kendrex drew Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran’s 17th-ranked Chance Harris (33-6) in the opening round at state.
“Devin just wants to win. He had a great tournament. He wrestled well, and he’s not happy,” Mt. Vernon head coach Randal Hayes said. “That’s the right thing. He did it at 220. We counted it up, in the first three rounds, he had 15 takedowns at 220. That’s like a 126-pound day.
“Carson’s journey has been an interesting one. He’s been here so many times, and he finally got over that hump,” Hayes added. “He finally got there. It’s a new week. Brand new again. It doesn’t really matter what happened here. Whoever is in front of you on Friday night, let’s go beat’em.”
Mt. Vernon had five semistate qualifiers on Saturday. Freshman Connor Bayliss reached the 106 quarterfinals before his season ended with a record of 26-11. Zach Haughton (26-9) at 132 and Aiden Kiner (30-10) at 145 both lost their opening-round matches.
New Palestine sent six wrestlers to New Castle and five reached the quarterfinal round. Cole Vandygriff (20-6) at 106, Bryce Doss (28-8) at 113, Porter Keevers (21-3) at 182, Jacob Tweedy (24-10) at 195 and Porter May (21-12) at 220 each lost their ticket-round matches. Juan Camacho (22-13) at 285 fell by decision in the opening round.
Eastern Hancock’s Brayden Tincher (24-7) reached the 170 quarterfinals after scoring a pin in the first round in 4:51. He lost by decision in the ticket-round.
Greenfield-Central’s seven semistate qualifiers faced tough semistate roads with six falling in the first round. Lincoln Parsons (23-12) at 113, Dakota Herald (26-10) at 126, Wickham (22-17) at 138, Isaiah Holden (22-17) at 145, Josh VanOsdol (23-15) at 152 and Clay Guenin (33-6) at 160 each lost their openers. Senior Chase Gardner (30-9) advanced to the 170 quarterfinals with a pin in 1:46 before losing by major decision in the ticket round.