On the Mat

In a first, IHSAA brings state wrestling finals to Evansville

When Indianapolis was named host of the NBA All-Star Game for the first time since 1985, the city of Evansville seized the moment to make a little history of its own. Evansville welcomes the 86th Indiana High School Athletics Association state wrestling finals on Friday and Saturday at the Ford Center, marking the first time the city has hosted an IHSAA state finals event in any sport.

“Hosting IHSAA state wrestling will be a fantastic weekend for Evansville and its wrestling community,” says Brandon McClish, executive director of the Evansville Regional Sports Commission. “The NBA All-Star game happening in Indianapolis this weekend is the reason why the state wrestling went to bid, and our city is very thankful that we were able to win. This could not have been done without a complete collaborative effort led by Explore Evansville, EVSC, Sports Commission, and the City of Evansville.”

Photo provided by Joe Herrmann, Mater Dei High School. Senior Tyler Vanover has a 36-3 record in the 150-pound division.

He describes hosting the state wrestling meet as akin to catching lightning in a bottle. The first round for wrestlers in the 150-285-pound divisions starts at 2 p.m. Friday. Wrestling in the 106-144-pound divisions begins at 5:30 p.m. Quarterfinals start at 9 a.m. Saturday, with wrestling continuing throughout the day and culminating in the state championship matches at 7:30 p.m.

McClish hopes the Ford Center will be filled to near its maximum capacity of 11,000.

“This is the first time that a state championship has ever been held in Southern Indiana, and we hope that our community comes out and supports it,” he says. “There will be many guests from other cities, and we all look forward to putting on a great show for them. Explore Evansville will be hosting a fan fest in between sessions on Saturday to keep our Downtown businesses thriving all weekend.”

McClish says early calculations estimate the state wrestling tournament’s economic impact should exceed half a million dollars in the two-day event with travel, lodging, food, and fan fest activities taking place.

“This is a major win for the city of Evansville,” he says.

Mater Dei Carries the Torch

Four Mater Dei High School wrestlers are the Southern Indiana Athletic Conference’s lone representatives at state.

Photo provided by Joe Herrmann, Mater Dei High School. Junior Ty Henderson is 33-1 at the 120-pound division.

“There will for sure be a very big and loud Mater Dei crowd, which will be very cool, and it is just such a cool opportunity to be in that atmosphere, so I am going to make sure that I enjoy every bit of it,” says Caleb Schaefer, a Wildcat freshman who carries a 33-6 record into his opening round match in the 113-pound division against Jalen Sawyer-May, a senior who is 14-1 for Kokomo High School in Kokomo, Indiana.

While Caleb is making his first state appearance, it will be older brother Isaiah’s third trip.

“It will be super cool to have the added support of the local Mater Dei community at the Ford Center this weekend,” says Isaiah, who finished seventh at state in the 106-pound division as a freshman and seventh in the 120-pound division as a sophomore.

Isaiah, who has a 36-2 record, will battle Peter Nguyen, a Guerin Catholic High School senior from Noblesville, Indiana, who is 33-4, in a first-round match at 126. Ty Henderson, a junior who is 33-1 at 120, will meet Cameron Woods, a junior who is 30-7 for Portage High School in Portage, Indiana. Tyler Vanover, a senior who is 36-3 at 150, will battle Carson Fettig, a senior who is 42-2 for Hamilton Heights High School in Arcadia, Indiana, in the other first-round match for Mater Dei, ranked No. 6 by online wrestling news service Indianamat.

Mater Dei coach Greg Schaefer says the Wildcats always have enjoyed their trips to Indianapolis for state, and their fans have always traveled well.

“However, we cannot pretend that it isn’t nice to not have to travel,” says Greg, who has helmed Mater Dei’s program since 2007. “We are excited to compete in our hometown and are thankful for the opportunity.”

Photo provided by Joe Herrmann, Mater Dei High School. Isaiah Schaefer brings a 36-2 record into his first-round match at the 126-pound division.

Isaiah says being coached by his father — who earned his own IHSAA wrestling titles in 1995 at 100 pounds and 1998 at 119, as well as a Cadet Freestyle national championship in 1996 before wrestling at Indiana University — is an amazing experience.

“He’s able to balance the role really well, and he has so much experience and knowledge in the sport,” said Isaiah.

He hopes to live up to his No. 1 ranking.

“Every day I strive to be and perform my best,” Isaiah says. “Taking nothing for granted and being the best I can be in everything I do.”

Isaiah says he and Caleb have such a positive relationship that they push each other to be their best in everything.

“I’ve tried to help encourage him to stay patient, poised, and grateful for the opportunity,” Isaiah says.

Caleb says his brother always reminds him to stay calm, believe in your ability, and make sure you enjoy the opportunities you are presented because they do not come up every day.

He considers it a blessing to wrestle for his father.

“I get to have my father with me every step of the way and every day,” Caleb says. “Having him in my corner is such a blessing, and I cannot imagine him not being a high school coach, because I grew up around wrestling and I get a privilege that not many other people get, which just inspires me every day to take advantage and become the best version of me.”

Greg says the dad/coach relationship is not always easy.

“At the end of the day, kids need to know that they are loved and supported by their parents,” he says. “At times tough love is necessary. Tough love is easier to exercise when you have a strong foundation of trust and respect. This should be the goal of every coach for their athletes whether they live under the same roof or not.”

When You Go
86th Annual IHSAA State Wrestling Finals
12:30 p.m. Feb. 16; 8 a.m. Feb. 17
Ford Center, One S.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Admission: $15 per session or $30 for all sessions. Reserved seating only – no general admission.
Streaming: All matches on Friday and Saturday, including Saturday night’s championship round, may be viewed via live stream for a subscription fee of $15 via IHSAAtv.org and the IHSAAtv suite of apps (iPhone, Android phone, Roku, Amazon Firestick, AppleTV, and Android TV).  If you have a FloPro+ plan, you may also view the livestream at FloWrestling.com through the consolation rounds.

Fan Festival
1-6 p.m. Feb. 17
There will be a variety of activities and attractions — including food trucks, rock climbing, a zip line, giant pong, cornhole, music, and more — on Main and West Franklin streets, with shuttle services available.

Follow sportswriter Gordon Engelhardt on X @EngGordon.

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Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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