In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the St. Stephens wrestling team, the Indians produced three state qualifiers.
Bradley Bader, Blake Rogers and Ian Martin will each vie for a state title when the NCHSAA individual state championships start Thursday.
Indians coach Billy Baker said the wrestlers worked hard this offseason to earn their postseason appearances.
“These are the lowest number of wrestlers we’ve had in my 13 years at St. Stephens, but the three we got state-qualified deserve to be there,” Baker said. “They’ve all worked hard and all have big goals this season.”
Rogers’ season almost never happened.
The 106-pound junior injured his knee, had surgery in August and missed half of his team’s regular season.
He fought back to finish 27-5 on the mat, qualifying for the state championships for the second-straight year.
The junior hopes to improve on his second-place finish a season ago.
“I had a pretty quick recovery from injury,” Rogers said. “I came back in to practice, went after it real hard and made sure I took care of my knee. I got real focused. I busted myself every day to work as hard as I could. I think if I can keep myself healthy and keep the determination, I think I should do pretty good at states.”
Driven by a runner-up finish of his own, 113-pound senior Bradley Bader said he’s put in more effort this season than any one prior.
“My season so far has been nothing but hard work and practice,” he said. “I’ve been focused on doing good in practice and not cutting weight, but more about getting better in the wrestling room. I’ve been taking that out to the mat during matches.”
The hard work paid off, as Bader finished second on the team in wins (34).
It’s a transformation that Baker said he never really expected to see.
“Bradley didn’t start wrestling until he was in the eighth grade,” Baker said. “I was doing some remodeling work on his parents’ home. He had just been cut from the football team and didn’t weigh but about 83 pounds. I told him that I expected to see him out for wrestling in November. Never thought I’d see him there, but he sure enough came out. Now, he’s been a three-time state qualifier.”
Then there is Ian Martin.
The 138-pound senior was a fourth-place finisher at states in 2011 and ended last season with a record of 48-7.
This season, he has won a team-high 49 matches, losing twice during the season.
“Ian has come a long way,” Baker said. “He missed qualifying for states as a sophomore, came back and finished fourth last year. He has worked very hard.”
Seeing one of his close friends claim the 138-pound title last year motivated Martin to rededicate himself for his senior campaign.
“I got to see (Hibriten’s) Scottie (Hardiman), one of my friends that I wrestle with a lot, win at my weight class,” Martin said. “It was depressing almost because I beat him in the regional finals. All the respect to him, but I just wished I could have seen him in the finals. That’s what I want this year — to be in the finals.”
The last Indian to win a state wrestling championship was Ray Farnsworth, who defeated Havelock’s Christian Holleman last year in the finals of the 119-pound weight class.
All three wrestlers hope to repeat Farnsworth’s success.
“I’ve tried to follow in his footsteps,” Bader said. “I found myself in wrestling. I’ve always tried to wrestle like him. Now I’ve developed his style into my own. If it wasn’t for him winning states, I wouldn’t be so dedicated to win.”