Powerful finalists seek some fortune

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Heritage Hills senior Jake Rickenbaugh listened to input from coaches during practice Wednesday in Lincoln City. Rickenbaugh is headed back to the state finals, where he finished eighth last season in the 170-pound despite wrestling with cracked ribs. This season, he’s a state championship hopeful as the state’s second-ranked wrestler. Southridge’s Andy Fischer is also state-bound as a first-time qualifier.

Herald Sports Writer

In wrestling, state championships take persistence, hard work, talent and a little bit of luck.


Those first three are at least attainable. The luck? That’s a different story.

Just ask Heritage Hills senior Jake Rickenbaugh, one of two local wrestlers who will compete at the state finals that kick off tonight at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

A year ago, Rickenbaugh entered the state finals at 47-1 after clinching the semistate title in the 170-pound weight class in Evansville. Patriot coach Matt Thompson was confident. Looking at the field, he felt his man had a legitimate chance at becoming Heritage Hills’ first wrestling state champion.

But that prospect was already in jeopardy. In the semistate semifinal match, Rickenbaugh cracked a pair of ribs. He finished the day and rested for the week, but after one day of wrestling at state, he re-injured them in his quarterfinal matchup Saturday morning. The pain was too much and he forfeited his last two matches, settling for eighth place.

“Last year was a huge disappointment with that broken rib,” Thompson said. “It’s amazing to me he was actually able to win semistate with a broken rib, make it through Friday night with a broken rib, but then Saturday, once the guys just start cranking on him, we couldn’t go anymore.”

A year later, Rickenbaugh is back, healthy ribs and all. He’s pinned 37 opponents this season, breaking his own school record of 35 set a year ago. He enters the state finals with 53 wins and just one loss, which came last week in a 3-2 decision against No. 3-ranked Jacob Stevenson of Franklin, who Rickenbaugh could meet in the state championship if the seeds hold. (No. 1 wrestler Austin McCloskey of Western Boone is already out of the tournament after tearing his abdominal muscle.)

With the injury forfeits to end last season and with the semistate setback this year, it would seem like that would just add extra motivation. But Rickenbaugh doesn’t need it.

He’s wired a little differently.

“Jake is a different breed,” Thompson said with a laugh. “He doesn’t need the motivation. He likes to fight.”

It’s why Rickenbaugh shrugs off  his semistate loss as a possible learning experience. He wanted to win and he didn’t. Now, it’s about taking the steps to correct that.

“It’s nice to have (the semistate title) and I would have liked to repeat ... but all in all, the ultimate goal is to go up to Bankers Life and come back with a title. In the big picture, state is the only one that matters.”

Rickenbaugh understands just how hard it is just to make it to Indy; he won’t spend time dwelling on the past. It’s the advice echoed by his brother Tyler, a state qualifier in 2011 at 160 pounds. In his senior season, Tyler finished in, coincidentally, eighth place. Big brother has been in Jake’s ear over the past few weeks, doling out advice.

“(Tyler) was disappointed with his finish his senior year and him and coach Thompson have both pushed me to never settle,” Rickenbaugh said. “Always keep going forward, keep going for better. You can always settle and be happy, but why settle when you can go get more?”

But even Jake is aware of the opportunity. The challenge of state finals week is balancing preparation with equal parts celebrating.

“I think a mistake a lot of people make is not appreciating the moment while you’re in it,” Thompson said. “We’ve still got a job to do, but you’re definitely going to appreciate the fact that you’re there and competing amongst the best. That’s not an opportunity most people get.”

It’s the same attitude Andy Fischer has adopted. The senior is the first state qualifier for Southridge in eight years. And he’s already taken on a bit of a celebrity status.

“We’ve made T-shirts with ”˜the fatal cradle’ on the front and ”˜Fischer’ on the back,” Schank said, referencing the 182-pounder’s signature cradle maneuver. “We’ve already sold about 100 of them. ... Just shows you at a school our size how much everyone likes Andy and how geeked up they are for him.”

But there is still a balance. Schank said Fischer is realistic. He understands the competition he’s facing. As a fourth-place semistate finisher, he’s matched up with semistate champion Ryan Jankowski of South Bend St. Joseph in the first round. But he’s not going to Indianapolis just to watch.

“It is tough to do it, but ”˜Fish’ has the ability to win with his cradle,” Schank said. “It’s such a weapon that you could be wrestling a person that is just a better wrestler than you and you still have the ability (to win) if you just lock it up one time. ... So we kind of hang our hat on that, and it’s what got him where he is.”

“We just hope he gets a chance to use his cradle,” he added.

And while the competition will be stout, Schank reminds Fischer, “he’s no slouch.” Before finishing fourth at the semistate last weekend, Fischer was 46-0 and a regional champion.

“When you get to that level, everyone is good so everyone can have a chance,” Schank said. “So that’s the idea I’m trying to instill in him. Anybody can win.”

It’s the attitude that scares wrestlers and gives them hope. But Rickenbaugh is confident. This past week, he’s spent time analyzing video of himself and other wrestlers, developing strategies for five or six potential matchups and becoming as sharp as possible. As a lifelong wrestler, Rickenbaugh said the feeling is indescribable. Senior season. State finals. It all starts this evening.

“It’s a dream come true,” Rickenbaugh said. “Senior year, coming in you want to go in, put on a good show. You want it to end the way you want and then going on top, (that) couldn’t be any better. There’s really no way to explain the feelings. It’s what everybody dreams about since they start wrestling as little kids.”

Contact Joseph Fanelli

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