VANDALIA — Navigating a wrestling team through the dual team state finals tournament can test even an experienced coach.
The quarterfinals, semifinals and final matches are all on the same day, and the hurdles that entail can push a team to a breaking point.
“You come into the day and the goal is to win a state title," Vandalia coach Jason Clay said. "That’s what the kids talk about doing. They believe they are going to do that and they have to believe that if they are going to be successful.”
Clay coached the Vandals to a third-place finish in this year’s Class 1A tournament, following up on a second-place finish last season. He also guided three wrestlers (Jarek Wehrle — sixth at 106, Gavin Mouser — fourth at 195, and Anthony Enlow — fourth at 285) to medals at the individual state tournament, making him the Herald & Review Area Wrestling Coach of the Year.
The Vandals used setbacks at the individual tournament to feed their desire to finish the team season strong.
"In the finals it was disappointing to lose all three of the matches," Clay said. "Every match was close and I think our kids take a lot of pride in the dual meets and they wrestle well for each other.
"In a dual setting we're a good competitive team. Monticello had me worried, but our kids were very confident in themselves, and I think the experience of having been there before helped them come out and wrestle really well."
Vandalia opened up the dual quarterfinals with a 59-15 victory over the Sages, but ran into trouble and lost to Aurora Christian — the same team that handed the Vandals loss in the dual finals last year — 38-30.
“It was one of those matches — (Aurora Christian) has a little more superstar power then we do," Clay said. "I think we have the stronger team overall, but they have some strong wrestlers in places. We lost two one-point decisions in matches against state placers."
It was up to Clay to get his team back up off the mat and prepared to wrestle Heyworth for third place.
“Winning and then losing in the semifinals and then wrestling again a couple hours later, I told the kids, ‘I’ve been a part of teams that got fourth and I’ve been a part of a team that’s gotten third and there is a big difference,’” Clay said. “There are only two teams that get to end their season with a win. I also told them, 'You are going to be proud of yourself if you come back and wrestle well in the third-place match and end the season on a high note.'"
The team responded with three quick pins to go up 18-0, and they rode that wave of momentum to win 54-24. The finish gave Vandalia three state trophies over the past four seasons, but that run pales in comparison to the 25 consecutive regional titles the Vandals have added to their trophy case.
"We definitely talk about it," Clay said. "We talk about (the streak) weekly, if not daily, and about taking pride in it. We try to teach the team about writing their own page in the history of the program, but it is something we take a lot of pride in and I think the kids draw confidence from it. They know they are going to get it done no matter what."
Vandalia returns a loaded team next season, with 12 of the 14 wrestlers competing at regionals coming back. But those spots might not be guaranteed as the Vandals' program always has new wrestlers bursting on the scene.
"We have some good young kids coming and they have a lot of experience and they will push the older guys so it’s hard to know how the lineup will look," Clay said. "Competition in the room leads to success on the mat and hopefully we can build to that state title. That’s the goal and we are close and that’s what we are aiming for every year."