Embracing the Spotlight: Marauders’ duo ready for first wrestling state finals

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Devin Kendrex of Mt. Vernon wrestles Lawrence North's Brandon Johnson at 220 pounds in the wrestling sectional at Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022. (Richard Sitler/Daily Reporter)

FORTVILLE — Mt. Vernon High School’s wrestling tradition continues to grow, and the program’s latest legacy chapter, which is still being written, speaks quite loudly.

With two wrestlers set to compete at this weekend’s Indiana High School Athletic Association’s state finals inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, both Marauders are first-time qualifiers, and oddly enough, at opposite ends of their individual prep careers.

Carson Johnson, a 138-pound senior, broke through in his farewell state-tournament series tour with a collegiate future at the University of Indianapolis ahead of him this fall.

His 2021-22 state finals cohort is a freshman in Devin Kendrex at 220, who hasn’t even began to touch his potential despite amassing 31 wins in 37 career matches.

As one Marauder prepares to exit, one is just getting started, but both intend to make a statement once the state finals’ win-for-go-home, opening round commences on Friday.

“Everyone in the room knows Devin puts in the work, and I do, too, so maybe the other guys will see, if you put in the work, you get the results. We’re trying to lead by example,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s path to state was a byproduct of hard work, resilience and the examples set by those before him.

As a freshman 120-pound semistate qualifier in 2018-19, Johnson watched on as Mt. Vernon’s last state-placers, senior Chase Wilkerson (126) and junior Chris Wilkerson (138), both moved on and eventually finished seventh in their respective weight classes in downtown Indianapolis.

Unable to compete in the state tournament as a sophomore due to injury, Johnson, once again, had to wait but nearly matched his soon-to-be college teammates by reaching the New Castle Semistate quarterfinal round in his second go-around as a junior.

However, a first-round 6-4 decision led to a loss by fall to Carmel’s Brac Hooper in 1 minute, 10 seconds with his shot at state on the line in 2020-21.

During last weekend’s New Castle Semistate quarterfinals, Johnson found himself full circle, but this time, he left everything on the mat to secure his 34th win this season and a spot among the top-16 at state.

Johnson advanced to the semistate quarterfinals by pinning Greenfield-Central’s Matt Wickham in 1:59 and never let up, defeating East Central’s Dylan Lengerich by decision 8-4 in the “round-to-go” to punch his ticket.

The emotions were indescribable for Johnson, who put the past truly behind him by placing fourth at semistate as one of his weight-classes four state qualifiers.

“He’s been through a lot. People don’t remember that he had elbow surgery and he’s had things happen that he’s battled through, and here he is. His goal was to finally get to state and he did it,” Mt. Vernon head coach Randal Hayes said.

At state, Johnson carries a 34-4 record into Friday’s evening session at 7 p.m. with two first-round segments scheduled at Gainbridge Fieldhouse due to facility protocols. The first session, which will include Kendrex, is set for 11 a.m. Each session will highlight seven of the 14 weight classes. Winners from each first-round match advance to Saturday’s quarterfinals and medal rounds.

“Now, it’s just fun, honestly. The stress is off my shoulders. I’m committed to the University of Indianapolis. I’m just beyond excited for what the future has in store for me, and I’m so blessed to have this path,” Johnson said.

His first-round opponent Cameron Clark of Jay County has followed a similar route.

Clark, a sophomore, is 22-3 on the season and like Johnson was a runner-up at sectional and regional. That’s where the similarities end, though.

Clark, who is ranked 16th in the state by Indianamat, upset Delta’s 11th-ranked Dillon Tuttle, a senior, in the New Haven Semistate finals by decision 7-2 to win the 138-pound title. A state qualifier at 132 in 2020-21, Clark holds the advantage of familiarity at state, but for Johnson, he can boast degrees of separation.

Johnson, who is ranked 8th in the state, defeated Tuttle, as well, in the Hoosier Heritage Conference finals this season by decision, and according to the rankings, is the favorite, not the underdog.

While he failed to reach the New Castle Semistate finals, Johnson admittedly and uncharacteristically fell short, losing to Westfield’s Ike O’Neill by technical fall after besting the Shamrock earlier this season.

“Honestly, when he finally got over that hump, I think, it just drained him. He knew he finally made it, and it just drained him,” Hayes said. “The kid he lost to he had beaten twice already, but he finally got there. He deserves it.”

Johnson defeated O’Neill by decision 6-3 during the Traicoff Memorial Tournament this past December, and in January, he beat Tuttle by decision 7-5. Prior to his first loss in the Arsenal Tech Sectional finals against Cathedral’s Luke Gonzalez, Johnson won 28 consecutive matches.

With top-ranked, three-time state champion Jesse Mendez (37-0) of Crown Point, Tuttle (33-6), Gonzalez (32-7) and O’Neill (30-10) on the opposite side of the 138-pound bracket, Johnson could face No. 7 Ashton Hayhurst (14-1) of Castle in the quarterfinals before potentially seeing Roncalli’s third-ranked Bryce Lowery (37-0) in the semifinals.

Anything is possible, and Johnson knows it. All he has to do is look over at what Kendrex has achieved.

“It’s not just having someone go with me to state, a freshman going with me. A freshman. You don’t hear about that often. That’s a first in Mt. Vernon history to be a freshman state qualifier. That’s huge,” Johnson said. “It’s awesome to have a buddy to be down there with. It’s going to be cool.”

Kendrex works with the Central Indiana Academy of Wrestling in the offseason and has since the eighth grade.

He entered the 2021-22 season ranked in the state and maintained his placement at 22nd overall. He finished second at the New Castle Semistate, becoming the program’s first championship-match finalist since Andrew Quintana in 2005-06. The Marauder 275-pounder was also runner-up at semistate and eventually placed third at state as a senior.

“Devin is still raw. He’s still learning. Every week, we teach him something new. Literally, every week, he’s still learning. Now, he’s doing it off of raw talent,” Hayes said. “He still has a lot to learn, so his upside and willingness to learn is off the charts. He already has his summer planned out. He knows where he’s going. He knows what he’s doing. Who he’s going to be trained by. He’s got it all planned out.”

Kendrex’s (31-6) first-round opponent is 17th-ranked Chance Harris (33-6) of Fort Wayne Concordia. Harris is a first-time state qualifer and like Kendrex was second at sectional and regional before taking third at the New Haven Semistate.

If Kendrex can get past Harris, second-ranked Nathan Critchfield (33-0) of Evansville Mater Dei, more than likely, will await him in the quarterfinals. However, if Kendrex makes it that far, then he’s an automatic state medalist regardless of what unfolds on Saturday.

“There’s a really good chance he’s on the podium at state. I don’t see how he’s not,” Hayes said. “If he puts in a strong week, it could happen. I do what I call a practice partner of the week. It has nothing to do with the competitions, tournaments or anything. It’s just on how they practice that week, and I give it out once a week. I make a shirt and they get one that says ‘Practice Like a Champion’ on it. Devin just got his second one of the year last week.

“He got it because he stays after every day. He runs extra sprints. He does extra push-ups. He stays after and drills something we worked on that day. Every day, as a freshman, that’s rare. Let’s get to Saturday and see what happens.”

If You Go

What: IHSAA Wrestling State Finals

When: Friday (first round, weight classes 152-285 pounds) 11 a.m./(first round, weight classes 106-145) 7 p.m.; Saturday (quarterfinals with semifinals to follow) 9 a.m./(consolation finals) 4:30 p.m./(championship finals) 7:30 p.m.

Where: Gainbridge Fieldhouse, 125 S. Pennsylvania Street, Indianapolis

Who: Mt. Vernon’s Carson Johnson (138 pounds), Devin Kendrex (220 pounds)

Admission: Reserved seating only (no general admission). All tickets are digital only through mobile phone and may be purchased via Ticketmaster.com.

Cost: $10 per person (Friday)/$15 per person (Saturday – good all day)