Perpetual growth propels Cat senior

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Jasper wrestler Ruger Kerstiens clapped for the opposing team before the start of the Wildcats’ season opener last month against Boonville. While the Wildcats have been missing standouts Grant Brescher and Nathan Schitter who’ve been out with injuries, they’ve been able to follow the lead of another senior leader in Kerstiens. He tops the Wildcats this season with a 25-5 mark at the 160-pound class, where he bulked up from 138 pounds last year.

Herald Sports Editor

Quizzed about Ruger Kerstiens, Jasper wrestling coach Jace Brescher thought a moment. He arrived at a succinct conclusion.

“He’s the type of kid,” Brescher said, “who always seems to do the right thing.”

Then, Brescher clarifies himself even further. Sure, the statement envelops Kerstiens’ wrestling chops, as he’s already a three-time sectional champion and has qualified for the semistate an equal number of times.

Brescher then backtracked. His “right thing” plaudit had nothing to do with wrestling, at first.

Brescher was talking about the way Kerstiens scoops up litter. And the way he leads housekeeping chores among the team, not simply barking orders and demands but also participating in the dirty work himself. And the way Kerstiens thickened his body for his senior year, adding more than 20 pounds of bulk — adding the pounds the right way, of course.

The Wildcats may be a bit incomplete at the moment, with seniors and defending state qualifiers Grant Brescher and Nathan Schitter on the mend with injuries. But Kerstiens hasn’t gone anywhere, and as long as he’s around, the sense of order hasn’t expired. Around the wrestling room, Kerstiens is impossible to miss; just look for the guy who weighs in at a trim but stacked 160 pounds and leapfrogged two weight classes from last year when he competed at 138.

“I look miniature. I have my 138 picture on the wall in (the wrestling room),” Kerstiens said, comparing a picture taken last season to now. “Looking at that and then looking at me now, it’s really weird thinking about it, because I don’t realize how much I grew until I look at that picture.”

Call it the natural progression of things, or the byproduct of an innocent wager. Whatever the reason behind it, inflation is treating Kerstiens well.

It began with a bet, as he and teammate Scott Varner engaged in a friendly battle to see who could gain the most weight before the start of this wrestling season. That distinction went to Kerstiens.

“By one pound. We had weigh-ins,” Kerstiens said, cracking a smile.

“I always felt like I was a littler guy, and my goal was just to get bigger and not to be the littler guy on the team, I guess.”

He actually didn’t even stop at the nice, round figure of 160. He bulked all the way up to about 172 or 174 originally, adding muscle practically by the minute thanks to his work with Glenn Buechlein, Jasper’s new assistant principal.

Kerstiens had room to grow regardless, as he gained about an inch of height since his junior year. The rest of the growing has been outward.

And none of the new mass is soft.

“Pure muscle,” said Grant Brescher, who outweighed Kerstiens last year but is now two weight classes below. “(He’s) always lifting, always doing what he needs to do to get it done.”

Jace Brescher can’t notice many pauses in Kerstiens’ intensity. Snow day with no practice? Kerstiens finds a gym. Practice gets out early? Kerstiens lingers and hits the weights. Weekend mornings? Kerstiens is training with Buechlein, even during the wrestling season.

The sense of structure is also applied to his work with the school’s Team Tailgate, a group that began a few years ago aiming to stir school spirit by hosting cookouts before JHS athletic events with side events like cornhole or volleyball matches. Kerstiens and buddies Jared Schnarr and Jacob Seibert grabbed the lead as organizers, accomplishing everything from ordering T-shirts to tending the grill.

As Jace Brescher, Jasper’s first-year coach, is still in the getting-to-know-you phase with many of his wrestlers, the team’s recent cross-state trip to Mishawaka served as almost a study of Kerstiens’ character.

When the team made a pit stop at a gas station, Kerstiens was the guy who advised everyone else to hold up for traffic to safely pass when the team crossed a busy road. And while no one else paid mind to a stray piece of garbage, Kerstiens was the one to stop and toss it in the trash.

Kerstiens impressed through another avenue, too.

He was the only Wildcat wrestler to survive the first day of the Al Smith Invitational, a mega-tournament that attracts 32 of the state’s top teams. Only the top eight wrestlers in each weight bracket reach the second day, and to Kerstiens’ coach, his maturation was measurable with practically every match.

“He looked like he just grew so much,” Brescher said. “I think making it there, he had more confidence in what he was doing and he seemed to be putting it all together, and he really looked good on that last day.”

He’s put experience to good use, as Kerstiens also dabbled in football and baseball as a youngster before channeling his focus into a sport that’s taken him all over the globe. The summers after his freshman and sophomore years, he competed abroad and witnessed the nuances of the wrestling culture of other countries — from the speed-over-strength ways of Japan to the new methods of throwing he soaked up in New Zealand and Australia.

In his final high school season, Kerstiens may be more comfortable than ever. He still sports the speed of a 138-pounder, and matching the muscle of opponents is hardly a problem in his new division.

“I compete better with those kind of guys than the small, quick guys,” Kerstiens said. “That’s why I like 160 better, I think.”

Even though he’s trending smaller again, scaling back more than 10 pounds from his offseason gain to reach 160, his coach never worries about him making weight; Kerstiens manages his weight to where he’s always safely a few pounds below 160 on the day of competitions. And since he’s not feverishly trying to trim pounds before every weigh-in, Jace Brescher expects that should leave him fresh at the end of the season.

Those stops to Fazoli’s and Golden Corral on the Mishawaka trip were prime chances for pig-out sessions — just not for Kerstiens, who’s always shunned junk food in favor of balanced meals.

“Just the real food, I guess you’d call it,” he said.

Even eating the right things. True to the Kerstiens form.

Contact Brendan Perkins

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