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Franklin wrestler takes last shot at state championship

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The lone smudge on what D.J. Smith hoped would be a perfect senior season has aged 39 days.

Long enough for the Franklin Community High School wrestler to have gotten over the initial disappointment of dropping a 2-1 decision in double-overtime to an athlete from another state.

Fresh enough for Indiana’s No. 1 ranked wrestler at 113 pounds to continue to learn from it.

“It was kind of frustrating to lose that one because I thought I could keep an undefeated season going,” said Smith, who lost to a defending state champion from Michigan (Benny Gomez) at Franklin’s annual Super Six in January.

“The main goal for me is to win a state championship, and that match taught me some of the things I need to do better — to be more aggressive because I didn’t get any takedowns. I didn’t wrestle my match.”

The same can’t be said for this past weekend. Or most of the season.

Smith on Saturday improved to 35-1 by scoring a 5-2 decision over Tyler Ferguson of Evansville Reitz in the 113 finale of the Evansville Semistate.

He is one of five Johnson County wrestlers who won his weight class and among the eight local qualifiers for the State Finals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Smith could well have the routine memorized, having qualified for state the past two seasons at 106 pounds.

As a sophomore he lost to eventual state runner-up Nathan Boston of Lawrence North in the opening round. Smith last February took third, losing, 5-2, to New Palestine’s C.J. Red in the semifinals and then defeating Cael McCormick of Yorktown, 5-0, in the third-place match.

Smith moved up one weight class for this season, while Red, only a sophomore, jumped up two and now competes at 120.

“I kind of figured I would go 120, but I stayed at 113. That’s what’s best for our team, so I was OK with that,” Smith said of the top-ranked Grizzly Cubs, who if all goes well could be in contention for a team title Saturday evening.

Aside from an additional year of physical and mental maturation, Smith also is fueled by a sense of urgency.

His outstanding prep career is winding down. The maximum number of matches remaining in a Franklin singlet can be counted on one hand.

“The mindset is definitely to win it all,” Smith said. “In previous years I don’t think it was a huge thing to me because I still had time left. This time it’s a state title or bust, but I have to take it one match at a time because everyone at state is good.”

Among those thirsting for the same championship Smith seeks are Munster freshman Jason Crary (49-2), Merrillville senior Michael Garza (42-5), East Noble junior Garrett Pepple (42-1), Perry Meridian’s Cornelious Elliott II (42-3) and Reitz’s Ferguson.

Smith has committed to wrestle for the University of Indianapolis beginning the 2014-2015 school year. Owner of a 3.6 grade-point average, he’ll major in sports management.

At the moment, though, he’s guilty of tunnel vision. A tunnel leading directly to downtown Indianapolis.

“It would be disappointing if I didn’t win, but I wrestle because I enjoy it,” he said. “You have to wrestle your way and also be prepared for your opponent. It does take some game-planning, and that’s a big part of wrestling that’s underrated. It’s important to prepare for each opponent.”

Two impressively large strides are required to transport one’s self from the third-place platform of Saturday night’s awards podium to where the champion stands during the medals presentation.

Smith is familiar with the former but wants to literally move up in the world.

“For a kid to win a state title he has to be on top of his game, have the right officials, have the right draw. You have to be ready to go, but you can’t be too jacked up,” longtime Grizzly Cubs coach Bob Hasseman said.

“D.J. has been in a lot of tough matches. He’s been there before, and I think will handle it pretty well.”

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