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Cubs wrestler will battle for berth in finals

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Connor Tolley has reached a rare milestone.

Undefeated heading into today’s Evansville Reitz Semistate, he is only the third wrestler in Franklin Community High School history with a spotless record this deep into the state tournament.

The others are Bryce Hasseman (2000) and Aaron Clark (2001). They won state championships.

Tolley is bidding for the same.

Ranked No. 3 at 220 pounds, the senior standout is — at 33-0 — the county’s only unbeaten wrestler. Equally impressive, he has not surrendered a takedown all season.

If both streaks continue through the end of the state tournament, he will have accomplished both of his preseason objectives.

“I definitely wanted to have an undefeated season, and my other goal was not to be taken this season,” Tolley said. “Those

were the two main goals I’ve set for myself.”

So far, so good.

A master tactician who combines technique, strength and savvy, Tolley is bidding to join Hasseman and Clark as an undefeated state champion. A fourth-place finisher at last year’s IHSAA state meet, he is heading in the right direction.

But he still has a ways to go.

To advance to the state finals, he has to be among the four place winners in his weight class at the semistate, where he happens to be the defending champion, a distinction that guarantees nothing at this stage of the tournament.

It’s a point veteran Franklin coach Bob Hasseman, Bryce’s father, never tires of driving home.

“The key is, don’t falter in any way, and don’t take anybody lightly, because everybody’s good,” said Hasseman, whose team is ranked No. 1 and stacked with a team-record 11 semistate qualifiers.

“It doesn’t matter if a kid has a .500 record or whatever. They’re pretty good, or they wouldn’t be there.

“So you’ve got to wrestle hard and take one step at a time.”

A diligent preparer, Tolley has followed that road map all season.

Before each meet, he watches film and commits to muscle-memory exactly how to approach a particular opponent, or a particular set of opponents in the case of a tournament field. No two are the same, so he tailors strategy accordingly.

“I always take it one week at a time, and I just try to set weekly goals on how I’m going to wrestle at that tournament, specifically,” said Tolley, who recently signed a letter of intent with NCAA Division I Tennessee-Chattanooga. “I have different (goals) each week, and I think I’ve been meeting them every week.

“So I think I’m on top of it right now.”

No argument from Hasseman, who lauds Tolley’s dramatic improvement from a year ago.

“He’s become a lot more offensive,” Hasseman said. “He’s kind of transitioning from a high school wrestler to a college wrestler. He’s kind of upped his game a little bit. He pins a lot of guys, but his forte is really just takedown, ride and control, getting away on the bottom.

“He hasn’t been taken down this year yet. That’s kind of a big deal.”

Not surprisingly, Tolley spent much of the offseason reflecting on last year’s fourth-place finish at the state finals. Though not devastated by the result, he did leave the mat wondering if maybe he left something on it.

He has no intention of wondering the same this time.

“I just don’t think I was ready enough. I think I could have done better; but at the same time, I needed to be a little bit more developed,” Tolley said. “I think I am a lot more developed than I was last year.

“I just feel like I’m wrestling 20 times better than I was last year.”

His timing couldn’t be better because his weight class is one of the most competitive in the state.

Still lurking at 220 is defending state champion Gelen Robinson of Lake Central. Undefeated the past two seasons, he’s a Purdue football recruit and the son for former Purdue basketball and NBA star Glenn Robinson.

But before Tolley or anyone can prepare for the state finals, they have to get there first, which means taking care of business at the semistate.

“As long as (Tolley) keeps his head on and keeps doing what he’s doing and stays positive and confident, he’ll be a hard guy to beat,” Hasseman said. “The guys that move on are the guys that are going out there to win. That’s the way it is. You’ve just got to do it.

“You’ve got to do it from the beginning of the tournament to the end.”

For Tolley, the best part about the semistate is that it will truly be a team event. In any given year, only a handful of Cubs might participate.

This time, just about everyone is going.

“That’s what makes the big difference about it. Almost the whole team’s going down there,” Tolley said. “You’re down there with all your friends, so while you’re wrestling, you’re also having a lot of fun at the same time.

“We all have pretty high expectations for everyone right now. You can definitely tell we are a team, and we’re ready to go down there and just compete the best we can.”

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