The IU wrestling team is battle tested entering its season opener Nov. 2.
Literally, battle tested.
The wrestling team gathered at the Cliff Edge Paintball field outside Bloomington last Saturday. A picture on the IU wrestling Instagram page shows wrestlers draped in sweatpants and sweatshirts in preparation for their friendly contest.
Head coach Angel Escobedo is changing the culture at IU, preaching family values and team chemistry. Group activities like paintball have become the norm with the wrestlers in the program.
“When we all have similar goals and are around like-minded people, the better that we are going to get,” Escobedo said. “You don’t have strength when you’re all scattered, but you have strength when you come together.”
Among the people hidden by paintball helmets was Escobedo, who didn’t want to miss out on the fun.
“I love when the coaches can get out there with us and have fun,” junior Brock Hudkins said. “It’s a great family environment.”
The team split between upper and lower classmen for the duel, with the coaches being added to the veteran wrestlers’ side.
Who got the win?
“C’mon,” Escobedo said with a chuckle. “The upperclassmen by far.”
Even though Escobedo and the older wrestlers took the competition, Hudkins saw it from a different perspective.
“Coach is awful,” Hudkins said with a laugh.
In his second year at the helm at IU, Escobedo is looking to steer the program to produce great wrestlers and also great men.
“I want to build guys that want to get better, not only on the mat, but off the mat too,” Escobedo said. “Every day I ask them what they are doing to build their character. We stress that every day is an opportunity to grow, whether you’re having a good day or bad day.”
Senior Jacob Covaciu said Escobedo's mindset has already set in with all the wrestlers.
“It’s more about being great wrestlers,” Covaciu said. “The coaches want us to be great men of society. I just strive to be the best person that I can be on and off of the mat.”
With a strong attitude and the first match in sight, the Hoosiers feel a sense of excitement around the program.
IU is coming off of a season that saw many highs and lows. The Hoosiers posted a 6-12 dual match record last year, including a 1-8 conference mark. IU, however, defeated No. 12 the University of North Carolina and No. 25 Stanford University.
The Hoosiers will be without Elijah Oliver, who led the team in wins with 29 and qualified for the NCAA championships. IU also lost other key rotation wrestlers with the departures of Jake Danishek (19-14), Bryce Martin (21-11) and Norman Conley (21-16).
“They were vital parts in our lineup,” Escobedo said. “But at the same time, we have guys that have come in and looked to fill in their shoes.”
IU will rely heavily on a group of three of returning Hoosiers that are ranked by Track Wrestling. Covaciu (No. 30), junior Brock Hudkins (No. 26) and sophomore Paul Konrath (No. 27) will all look to contribute in the IU lineup this season.
Hudkins, who was a two-time national qualifier at Northern Illinois University before transferring to IU, will be competing with junior Liam Cronin for the starting position at 125 pounds. Cronin spent the summer training for the Greco world team trials and racked up 17 wins last year.
“Whoever is wrestling at 125 is ready to be an All-American,” Escobedo said. “They are going to be pushing each other. Iron sharpens iron.”
Hudkins views the competition in the same way.
“I always try to change people around me for the better,” Hudkins said. “I want to be there for people that need it. I want to do everything that I can for the team. We’re family. We’re brothers.”
IU will also turn to a wave of young wrestlers to fill gaps in the lineup as it welcomes a freshman class of 13 to the program. Escobedo, though, says the transition for the youngsters has been relatively smooth as a result of the leadership of the upperclassmen.
“We’ve slowed it down and focused on areas that high school wrestlers struggle with,” Escobedo said. “It’s cool to see guys like Fernando Silva and Brock Hudkins pull the young guys out and help them with technique. They know what we want to see with technique, and they’re helping the younger guys with it.”
The Hoosiers will travel to East Lansing, Michigan, for the Michigan State open to start the season. Conference play will start Jan. 10 when IU hosts preseason No. 1 Iowa. IU will also welcome Purdue, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska to Wilkinson Hall this winter as a part of its always challenging conference slate.
“We have a lot of guys trying to establish their name in the national rankings, and it's hard to navigate through Big Ten wrestling because there aren’t any easy matches,” Escobedo said. “It’s also a great opportunity to knock off opponents. We are excited and thankful to be in a such a challenging conference because it will set us up to do well nationally.”
After reigning victorious in the paintball session, the wrestlers headed to a local elementary school to contribute to a “haunted hallway” as a part of the upcoming Halloween celebrations.
“To see a smile on the kids face was just a blast and especially to be able to do it with your brothers, it’s something that I’ll never forget,” Covaciu said.
With Escobedo’s positive reinforcement and driven mentality, a buzz swirls within the IU wrestling locker room as it feels primed for a breakout year.
“I’m ready to enjoy the long journey and the tough battles,” Hudkins said. “I’m just ready to do it with the team and put Indiana on the map. We’re ready to show everyone that you can’t sleep on Indiana.”