Frank Bumgardner has led the Wawasee wrestling program to a meteoric rise.
When he was hired for the 2015-16 season, he took over a program that finished the previous year with only six wrestlers on the roster and went 1-21 in dual meets.
In his third year, the Warriors won the Class 2A state championship at the IHSWCA Team State Duals on Dec. 23 at Memorial Coliseum.
While Wawasee couldn't fill even half of its 14 varsity spots prior to Bumgardner, the school wasn't without athletes with wrestling experience. The Viper youth wrestling club, run by Joey and Jamie Salazar, who both wrestled for the Warriors in the 1990s, had grown from 15 wrestlers to nearly 40 in the five years before Bumgardner took over at Wawasee.
Jamie Salazar, a three-time All-American at Manchester College, is an assistant, serving as a reminder of the program's past heights, as well as a motivator for this year's squad. He also assists with the school-sponsored Wawasee Wrestling Club for elementary and middle school students that won the Indiana State Wrestling Association-sponsored Elementary Dual Team State championship Sunday.
“These kids, I've seen them progress over the years,” Jamie Salazar said. “I've seen their work ethic, and they have the ability to win, but it was centering them and focusing on a common goal. They're a ball of clay, we just have to chisel them out.”
As an ambassador of sorts for the program, Jamie Salazar reached out to many alumni in advance of an open house in October to christen the renovated wrestling room. That included Big Ten Deputy Commissioner Brad Traviolia, who with Lance Lantz, won Wawasee's first wrestling state titles in 1986.
Traviolia, who also earned collegiate All-American honors at Northwestern, was keynote speaker for the event.
“We needed to create a buzz again,” Jamie Salazar said. “I wanted to pay tribute to all those wrestlers from the past that paved the way for these kids now. I think the community, the kids and the parents, and now the administration, are all starting to buy into the concept of 'Warrior Tough,' and they realize these kids are for real.”
It's a half-empty roster no longer.
This year, with Geremia Brooks unbeaten in his 20 matches through Team State, Wawasee's varsity lineup stands half-full of wrestlers with at least 19 victories and no more than three losses after team state:
• Jace Alexander (106), 24-1
• Chris Schuller (120), 19-2
• Braxton Alexander (126), 25-1
• Geremia Brooks (132), 20-0
• Garrett Stuckman (138), 21-2
• Alex Castro (182), 23-3
• Elisha Tipping (285), 23-1
The Warriors (26-1, 5-1 NLC) have little left to prove this season in that format. The biggest question to answer at this point is whether Wawasee will fare as well in other tournaments.
“It's a good question and we're going to find out,” Bumgardner said. “In our weight classes where we're really strong, it's not going to make a difference.
“The big question there is going to be the weight classes where we're not quite as strong, can we score points in the consolations. If we can, we're going to be a pretty danged good tournament team.”