IHSAA wrestling state finals: Jesse Mendez makes history, a father-son bond and more

Akeem Glaspie
Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS -- The 2022 IHSAA wrestling state finals started Friday on a historic note with two girls wrestlers making the opening round for the first time ever and the milestones continued under the spotlight at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. 

Saturday's championship round creates one of the most electric atmospheres of any state finals as 28 grapplers fight to earn 14 state titles.  

Crown Point 138-pounder Jesse Mendez became the 10th wrestler in state history to win four state titles. The Ohio State commit clinched the feat with a fall in 3:38 over Kankakee Valley's Cole Solomey.

More on Jesse Mendez:'I want to be known as the best ever do it.'

IHSAA wrestling state finals:Jesse Mendez gets fourth straight title; see who else won.

 Mendez started the day with a record-setting pin against Dalevile's Julius Gerencser. The 16-second pin is the third-fastest recorded in the state finals. Mishawaka's Pat Day set the record with an 11-second pin in 2006. 

Crown Point Jesse Mendez defeats Kankakee Valley Cole Solomey in the 138-pound weight class final during IHSAA wrestling state finals on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. This is Mendez fourth state championship win in four years, one of only ten to do so in IHSAA state wrestling history

Cathedral's Zeke Seltzer won his third straight title and became the 22nd wrestler to make it to four state finals. 

Crown Point won the team title with 178 points. The 11 wrestlers the Bulldogs placed in the championship round were the most since 1954. Brownsburg finished second with 105 points. 

Here are some standout moments from the championship round of the wrestling state finals:

'Best father-son duo'

Moments after Cathedral 132-pounder Zeke Seltzer won his third state title via 10-5 decision over Crown Point's Anthony Bahl, the Missouri commit shared a hug with the person who helped mold him into one of the best wrestlers in the nation, his father Brian. 

Brian, a longtime coach and Fighting Irish assistant, is a constant presence in Zeke's corner, cheering him on and offering words of encouragement. The fatherly guidance and coaching is not lost on the younger Seltzer, and the two took a moment to savor the last embrace of Zeke's high school career. 

Cathedral Zeke Seltzer hugs his father after winning his second state title during IHSAA wrestling state finals on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

"It's awesome, watching him coach ever since I was a little kid. Him coaching me, its just been the best father-son duo," Zeke said in his post-match interview. 

As Zeke heads to wrestle in the SEC, Brian still plans to be at every match, more so as a father than a coach.

The two have experienced the pain of losing a state final but each state title helped heal the wounds of that defeat. Seltzer lost just two times over the final three years of his high school career, finishing with a 161-3 record. 

The elder Seltzer is excited for the next chapter of his son's career, and he too is grateful to have coached in Zeke's corner. 

"Every (state title) was special, but the last one, to share it with him... Basically I told him that I loved him and the sky's the limit," Brian said. "Just telling him as a dad I'm proud of him, I love him so much and I'm glad I got to be his dad and his coach at the same time. I'm lucky."

Center Grove's Watson builds on past defeats, Buchanan wins Mental Attitude Award

Center Grove 145-pounder Hayden Watson still has the picture of himself at the 2021 state wrestling finals on his knees, dejected after a loss in the championship round. 

The picture illustrates a wrestler still searching for the elusive title after finishing in third place the year prior. Falling short of the ultimate goal for the second year in a row could break the spirit of wrestler, but Watson used it as fuel.

Every time he looked at the photo, he knew he had to continue working hard to finally earn a state title. That feeling helped him fight through the grind of postseason wrestling and those grueling Tuesday practices. 

Center Grove Hayden Watson wrestles East Central Rider Searcy in the 145-pound weight class final during IHSAA wrestling state finals on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

In his last chance to capture the title, the Citadel commit seemed to get stronger as the tournament went on. Watson earned an opening-round pin, pulled out a tough 4-3 decision and punched his ticket to the championship round with an 11-3 major decision over previously unbeaten Matthew Koontz of Perry Meridian. 

Watson clinched the title with a pin over East Central's Rider Searcy in 2 minutes, 31 seconds. 

"I had my dad send it to me so I could look at it and not want to feel that ever again," Watson said of his 2021 championship loss photo. 

"Everything that he's done just to get to this point, he never let those those setbacks of being this close to winning the title slow him down," added Center Grove coach Maurice Swain. "That can break some guys and make them maybe not reach the goal. His mental toughness, physical toughness, just got him there and I'm proud of him."

Mental toughness is a common trait among Center Grove grapplers as 182-pounder Drake Buchanan won the Mental Attitude award. The Air Force commit won his first state title via 4-1 decision over Crown Point's Orlando Cruz after finishing as a runner-up last season

Buchanan embraces the cerebral side of sports. The senior has a GPA over 4.5, wants to study Japanese in college and chose the Air Force over offers from multiple Ivy League schools. 

Buchanan said the ability to get a great education and everything the Air Force has to offer suits him well.

"I think with the military academy, one thing about me personally is I'm very regimented. I like schedule. I like structure," he said. "So that was another thing I really liked about the military. It's a very structured, very defined,"

'If I go up 3-0, I'm not losing' 

Warren Central's Kyrel Leavell knows when facing an opponent for the second or third time there are no secrets on the mat.

Wrestlers are great at picking up tendencies and waiting for a chance to exploit a weakness. One way to combat someone who knows your tendencies is to stay on the offensive, but last week at the New Castle semistate, the Warriors' 120-pounder wrestled too passively against Perry Meridian's Toby Billerman.

Leavell beat Billerman twice heading into semistate, but Billerman won the semistate title win a 4-2 overtime win. 

Warren Central Kyrel Leavell defeated Perry Meridian Toby Billerman in the 120-pound weight class finals during IHSAA wrestling state finals on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

The loss was Leavell's first of the season but it provided him with the wakeup call he needed heading into the state finals. The two met for the fourth time in Saturday's championship round, and Leavell did not wait to strike.

The sophomore scored quickly with a takedown and stayed on the offensive, leading to a 9-5 decision and his first state title. 

"I wrestled tough, I wrestled hard, and really I just had to go get it," Leavell said. "That first takedown is always a confidence booster. If I go up 3-0 on anybody, I'm not losing the match."

Leavell wears a knee pad with 'Just a kid from Warren' written on it. The phrase is a way of paying homage to his community while embracing the opportunity to reach new heights of achievement. One fellow Warrior who inspired him to strive for greatness as a kid was Danny Williams. Williams is Warren's only two-time champion, and battled back from a broken leg to clinch his second title in 2002. Williams went on to win a national championship at Minnesota, and Warren assistant coach Riley McClurg thinks Leavell can follow in Williams' footsteps. 

"Since (Kyrel) was a little kid his goal was to break Danny Williams' record and put up three," McClurg said. "Do I believe he can do it? Yes, 100%. But just because we won the state title this year doesn't mean we lay off the gas, right?

"We got to get back in the lab and we got to continue to get better. Because guess what the competition's gonna do? They're gonna get better too." 

A freshman's naivete

Heading into his freshman year at Brownsburg, 106-pounder Jake Hockaday told his coaches making it to the state finals in his first year would be a cool accomplishment. 

His coaches took a second to process his comment and made sure to let him know making it to the finals is just the beginning. They knew the freshman had the talent to not just make it but to win the state title. 

Brownsburg Jake Hockaday does a back flip to celebrate winning the 106-pound weight class during IHSAA wrestling state finals on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Entering his first varsity season, Hockaday didn't know what he didn't know, but he'd soon prove his coaches right, compiling a 43-2 record and winning the 106-pound state title with a 4-3 decision over Crown Point's Gavin Jendreas.

"He's talented. He's really good," Brownsburg assistant coach Alex Skipper said. "We knew he could put it together and make a run at the state title. He's just a very humble kid, but it works to his advantage."

Hockaday had an impressive resume of club wrestling wins in Greco, Freestyle and Folkstyle before coming to Brownsburg. The first-year Bulldog is technically sound, stronger than he looks and a hard worker. He credits a conditioning drill called track sprints where each wrestler must complete a sprint in the allotted time or continue running with helping him stay strong in the third period of a match. 

With one title under his belt, Hockaday enters elite company as a freshman state champ. He said there's no pressure when competing in your first title match. Now he's got to continue his career with the status of state champion and expect to get the best from everyone he competes against.

"I just got to think that everybody's putting in the same hard work as me, but in the end I'm gonna come out on top. That's the plan," he said. 

Follow IndyStar wrestling Insider Akeem Glaspie on Twitter at @THEAkeemGlaspie.