Game Summaries & Headlines.
Columbus East’s Liam Krueger competes against Madison’s Kelsey Bilz in the 106-pound sectional championship match at Jennings County, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021. Paige Grider for The Republic
All season long, the Columbus East wrestling coaches have felt sophomore Liam Krueger had the potential to make it to the state finals.
The trick was getting Krueger to believe it himself.
“The coaches have told me all year that I’m going to state,” Krueger said. “They told me I have to believe it for that to happen. Probably around the start of the tournament season, I started to believe that.”
Saturday, that belief came to fruition. Krueger finished fourth in the 106-pound weight class at the Jasper Semistate to qualify for this weekend’s state tournament.
“We’ve thought for awhile he was capable of it,” East head coach Chris Cooper said. “Saying that as a coaching staff is one thing, but he just took it one step further.”
Krueger’s ascension to become one of the state’s top wrestlers in his division didn’t come without years of work. He was adopted from China at age 4, along with twins Chloe and Sophie. Chloe, who runs cross-country and track for the Olympians, and Sophie, who is a cheerleader for East, are two months older than Liam.
A year after arriving in Columbus, Liam was playing PAAL football, and the parents of one of his friends, Brysen Hutt, who now wrestles for Columbus North, suggested to Krueger’s parents that they sign him up for wrestling. So Krueger started wrestling with youth coach Rashaad Trapp, but without immediate success.
“Liam is a kid that’s wrestled in our youth club for a long time and just persevered,” Cooper said. “He was a kid that didn’t have a lot of a success at an early age, but he stuck with it and came to practice every day, and he built himself into a successful wrestler. He does everything we ask. He lifts weights. He comes to all of our offseason programs. He’s a really likeable kid.”
Last year as a freshman, Krueger qualified for the Evansville Semistate, but lost in the first round. He made it back to the Jasper Semistate this year and won his first two matches, including a 3-2 decision against sixth-ranked Charlie LaRocca of Center Grove in the quarterfinals, known as the “ticket round.”
In that ticket round match, Krueger, ranked No. 9 at 106, scored an early takedown and escape, then gave up takedown before holding on for the win.
“It’s a great feeling,” Krueger said. “It was a shocker. I trained all week to beat the kid I beat in the ticket round. I was so happy.”
Krueger then lost in the semifinals and third-place match both by 4-1 decisions.
“Those matches I wrestled were not my best,” Krueger said. “It was a little sloppy. I was not able to get the points I wanted.”
Because of his fourth-place semistate finish, Krueger must face a semistate champion in the first round at state. Krueger (25-8) drew LaPorte sophomore Ashton Jackson (31-2), who is ranked No. 7.
“I definitely think I can do well in it,” Krueger said. “This week, I just have to watch film and see what I can do against him. I think it’s a very winnable match. Rankings don’t mean everything.”
Krueger and Jackson have not faced each other this season, but they did last year, with Krueger winning 2-1 at Mishawaka’s Al Smith Invitational.
“That’s encouraging,” Cooper said. “That was a year ago, but it just shows that we’re right there with him.”
That matchup will take place at 11 a.m. Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Because of COVID concerns, the IHSAA has split Friday’s first rounds into two sessions, with wresters from the 106- to 145-pound classes going in the morning and the 152- to 285-pound classes starting at 7 p.m.
Krueger was at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to see a couple of teammates wrestle in last year’s state finals.
“It’s huge,” Krueger said. “It’s a little scary that I’ll be on the mat this time. But it’s just a wrestling match, and I just need to do what I do every day in the wrestling room.”
If Krueger wins, he would compete in the quarterfinals at 9:30 a.m. Saturday against No. 25 Cody Rowles (37-2) of Jay County or No. 5 Nathan Smith (27-5) of Southport. If Krueger makes it to the semifinals that follow, he could see No. 4 Evan Seng (24-1) of Evansville Mater Dei, who won the Jasper Semistate.
Friday’s winners are guaranteed three matches on Saturday. The third-, fifth- and seventh-place matches start at 5 p.m., and the championship bouts begin at 7:30 p.m.
“I definitely want to go top eight,” Krueger said. “It would be nice to go top four. It feels really good to know that I made it as a sophomore. It will be nice because now, I’ll have some experience underneath me for the following years.”
Krueger credited Trapp and Cooper, along with Central Middle School coach Heath Fisher, East assistant coach Ty Olds and Olympians junior 113-pounder Noah Lykins with helping develop him to reach this level.
“I’ve had some ups and downs in my matches, but I’m really pleased with the season I’ve been having,” Krueger said. “A lot of it has to do with the coaches I’ve had. All four of them have told me I have to believe it mentally. Noah Lykins has a lot to do with my success and making it. Without good teammates, you won’t get anywhere in wrestling.”