For the Vandalia wrestling program, it’s not only been a source of pride during what many felt would be a rebuilding year – it’s been a motivating factor as well.
"They know our tradition," Vandals coach Jason Clay said of his team. "You’ve got some of those young kids that grew up watching it in the kids’ club. They don’t want to let anything slip.
"We talk about that a lot. I think you’ve got to kinda hang your hat on tradition, and sometimes that carries you through."
On Saturday, it helped carry the Vandals to their 15th consecutive regional title, ensuring that the tradition will live on another year.
The title secures Vandalia a chance to advance to the dual-team state tournament for the 12th time in 16 years, as it will move on to face Benton at its own dual-team sectional on Feb. 24.
Not bad for a team that lost six state qualifiers – including five state medalists – from last year’s Elite Eight team.
And really, the Vandals’ latest regional crown was never in question.
Vandalia had the championship all but wrapped up before the day’s second session of wrestling began, as they advanced 12 wrestlers to the finals.
Eleven of those wrestlers went on to book dates in this weekend’s Vandalia Individual Sectional, as Trever Pyle (103 pounds), Jake Harris (135), Alex Foster (140), Levi Ulmer (152) and Devin Cook (215) won titles, while five others placed second and another finished third.
It all added up to 211 points for the Vandals, nearly 50 more than runner-up Litchfield (162) and well ahead of Shelbyville (131), Hillsboro (127), Cumberland (105.5), host Robinson (84) and Effingham-St. Anthony (28).
The outcome had Clay sporting a smile of relief throughout the day after dealing with some butterflies the night before.
"I told the kids afterwards I had a lot of fun today," Clay said.
"I was a little nervous last night; I didn’t know what to expect.
"I felt that if we wrestled well, we’d be in good shape, and if we came out a little flat, I was going to be a little bit worried."
The Vandals were anything but flat. Instead they were flat-out dominating.
Pyle set the tone for Vandalia in the finals, pinning Shelbyville’s Buddy Holmes just 30 seconds into their 103-pound title match.
Pyle (35-3) needed just 40 seconds to pin St. Anthony’s Blaine Reiss in the semifinals after receiving a first-round bye.
"Trever looked really good today," said Clay of the fourth-ranked Class 1A 103-pound grappler in the state.
While Pyle’s title was easily the most dominating of the day, Ulmer had hands-down the most exciting championship win of the day.
Trailing 6-1 late in the final period of his 152-pound final against state-ranked Jeff Gill of Shelbyville, Ulmer scored a sudden reversal and takedown.
Then after edging ahead of Gill, 7-6, in the final minute, Ulmer recorded the unlikeliest of pins, setting off a wild celebration on the Vandals’ bench.
"The match of the day, I’d say, was Ulmer’s – that was exciting," said Clay of the win over Gill (26-7), a state quarterfinalist a year ago.
"He beat a quality kid and it just shows what he’s capable of. And with him being a freshman, it’s pretty exciting stuff."
Ulmer also had an impressive 21-6 major decision win over Litchfield’s Zach Going (27-13) in the semifinals after receiving a first-round bye.
"I was really proud of him, because he had the toughest weight in the tournament for sure," Clay said.
"We were worried this week with how it was gonna go for him, but he wrestled awesome."
While Ulmer and Pyle have exploded onto the scene during their freshman seasons, Cook’s regional title was the culmination of four years of patience and diligence.
After breaking into the starting lineup as a junior, Cook (27-12) continued his breakthrough senior season by pinning Shelbyville’s Jared Fisher early in the second period of their 215-pound title bout.
"Cook looked really good," Clay said.
"That kid won Cook’s weight last year, and Cook’s just improved a ton."
Cook advanced to the championship with yet another pin, this time at the 2:31 mark of his bout against Robinson’s Ben Rardin.
Cook’s surge during the second half of the regular season earned him a first-round bye in the regional.
"He’s kind of your classic four-year program kid that just keeps working and plugging away, keeps listening and lifts in the offseason," Clay said.
"He’s kind of the program kid that’s self-made from hard work. I’m really proud of him, too."
Like Cook, Harris (22-10) carried the momentum generated by a strong finish to the regular season into the postseason.
The junior needed just 58 seconds to pin Shelbyville’s Ryan Brown in the championship of the 135-pound division.
He advanced to the title bout with a pin of Robinson’s Slater Stifle in just 1:23.
"He missed part of the year and has had a shoulder that’s been bothering him," Clay said.
"But he’s a solid kid who wrestled a year or two in the kid’s club, so he’s experienced.
He’s kinda got his own style, but he’s a strong kid and has a good cradle."
Foster followed Harris’s title with a come-from-behind 7-3 decision over Hillsboro’s Brandan Schehl in the 140-pound championship.
Having already secured a third-straight sectional appearance, Foster (29-10) claimed his first regional title by scoring seven unanswered points in the final period.
"Foster started a little slow, but he just keeps going and keeps going, and gets it done in the end usually and wears guys down," Clay said.
Justin Hill (112), John Vosholler (125), Anthony Coney (130), Jake Etcheson (160) and Jacob Whalen (285) all came up one victory short of adding to the Vandals’ title count, finishing second in their respective divisions.
But Clay indicated their respective semifinal victories were as instrumental to the Vandals’ team title as anything.
"That semifinal round was real key for us," Clay said. "Getting that many kids through to the finals is really what set us up for (the championship)."
Hill picked up a key 13-7 decision over Cumberland’s Drew Huddlestun in the semifinals before falling by technical fall to Coy Davison (35-1) in the championship.
Vosholler pinned Cumberland’s Britt Beasley in his semifinal bout before giving Shelbyville’s Alex Jones all he wanted in a 9-5 setback in the 125-pound championship.
Coney edged Hillsboro’s Nick Milanos in the 130-pound semifinal, 13-12, before falling to Shelbyville’s Dalton Brown (29-2) in the finals, 7-1.
Etcheson took a key 4-2 semifinal decision over Robinson’s Mitch Thacker (24-8) before falling to Hillsboro’s Zach Hopwood (25-3), 11-2, in the finals.
Whalen, a first-year high school wrestler, gave the Vandals an unexpected boost by advancing to the heavyweight finals with a 4-2 win over Robinson’s Clint Woodward before getting pinned by Litchfield’s Gage Ayers in the title bout.
"The kid in the finals was a little big for him," said Clay of Whalen, who weighs roughly 200 pounds, "but he’s done a great job for us."
Caleb Walton qualified for sectionals for the second year in a row with a third-place finish in the 171-pound division, bouncing back from an 11-7 semifinal loss to Robinson’s Mike Smollinski with a quick pin of Hillsboro’s Zach Wittshire in the third-place bout.
Sophomore Brendan Cripe came up just short of qualifying for sectionals, falling 17-2 to Robinson’s Ben Ackman in the 145-pound third-place match. Cripe got to the medal round with a 17-2 win over Litchfield’s John Starr.
Still recovering from a recent injury, Anthony Wernle’s bid for a second-straight sectional appearance came up short in the 119-pound division, but Clay expects the junior to return to be at full strength in time for the Vandalia Dual Team Sectional.
Clay credits his team’s successful quest to secure one more dual-team meet on its home floor to its scrappiness and coachability.
Some recent words of encouragement from some former Vandals helped, as well.
"They know what it takes (to succeed), and for them to come out and say, ‘Hey, it really looks like you’re improving,’ it meant a lot, and I told the kids that," Clay said.
"I think that encouragement and believing in themselves was all they were lacking."