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February 16, 2013

Blanton's historic day has bittersweet finish

Alexandria wrestler runnerup at state

INDIANAPOLIS — For a few moments following his first — and last — loss of the season, Alexandria wrestler Luke Blanton was inconsolable.

The 138-pound senior slumped toward an empty mat and buried his head in a towel. He gathered himself together long enough to take his place on the second step of the podium then returned to his lonely vigil.

Minutes earlier, Blanton had dropped a 12-7 decision to Mishawaka’s Tommy Forte (45-0) in the state championship match. His appearance under the spotlight at Bankers Life Fieldhouse marked the first time an Alexandria wrestler ever had competed in the sport’s ultimate match.

After a brief interval, Tigers head coach Jack Grimaldi walked to the mat and helped Blanton to his feet. He disappeared into a corridor of the arena and returned minutes later to try somehow to put words to what he was feeling.

“It was a pleasure,” Blanton said, brushing aside a few remaining tears. “It’s what I worked for my whole life, is to be wrestling under the lights. I didn’t get the end result I wanted, but it must be a lesson from God. I don’t know what it is yet, but He’s got a plan and I’ve got to follow it and glorify him.”

Blanton then launched into an impressive list of the things the Lord has blessed him with, including the love from his family, the tutelage of his coaches and the support of the entire Alexandria community.

As had been the case throughout the postseason, the Tigers had one of the largest and loudest cheering sections in the stadium. Taking up nearly four full rows of seats, the Alexandria fans chanted “Luuuuuke” as their hero took the mat and gave Blanton a rousing ovation when he stepped to podium to accept his runner-up medal with glistening eyes.

“It just feels awesome,” Blanton said. “Knowing that they’re up there, win or lose, as proud as they can be. It’s a big boost. When something goes my way, or it doesn’t go my way, they’re right behind me. I had one of the biggest crowds here cheering for me.”

He also walked away from the state finals with the Ward E. Brown Mental Attitude Award. The honor is given to a wrestler nominated by his principal and coach who excels in “mental attitude, scholarship, leadership and athletic ability.” Alexandria also will receive a $1,000 scholarship in Blanton’s name from Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance.

But he didn’t walk away with the ultimate goal.

That was due largely to an outstanding match wrestled by Forte. He got a pair of takedowns early and led 4-1 after the first round. It put pressure on Blanton and made him change the style that had carried him to 51 consecutive wins this year.

“Obviously, that kid’s (Forte) good,” Grimaldi said. “And some things we’re clicking (for Blanton). After awhile he tried to force some stuff, and it didn’t work out. You have to just stay in your zone and keep going after it.”

Blanton had a pair of chances to get back into the match late in the second round. At one point, he appeared to be on the verge of a reversal with a firm grasp on Forte’s ankle. But the official blew his whistle to break the hold because of potential danger.

Moments later, Blanton was nearing an escape — and possibly an ensuing reversal that would have tied the match — but he couldn’t beat the buzzer to end the period.

“Momentum changes like that can be the key to a match,” Grimaldi said. “They can get you going again and help turn things around. But it just didn’t happen.”

A flurry of points early in the third round gave Forte a commanding lead, and Blanton fought back with a series of takedowns and reversals. As time ran out, he was clinging to Forte’s back desperately attempting to flip him over for a pin that had become his only chance at victory.

When the buzzer sounded, Forte’s hand was raised and Blanton shook hands with the opposing coaches before sprinting out of view.

“There’s nothing you really can say,” Grimaldi said. “It’s not the outcome we wanted. You work very hard to get here and win. When you don’t fulfill your dreams and goals, it’s hard and you have to move on. I’m proud of what he did.”

In 75 years of IHSAA competition, no Alexandria wrestler ever has done better.

It’s the kind of season, in fact, that could one day put Blanton’s name on a banner in the school’s gymnasium alongside Mr. Baseball J.D. Closser and Miss Basketball Jodi Howell.

“It’s great to be able to accomplish something like (being the program’s first state runner-up), and he’s earned it,” Grimaldi said of Blanton’s place in school history. “It’s something that’s going to be forever his. He definitely made history at Alexandria. He’s going to be a tough act to follow.”

As the night wore on, the enormity of his accomplishment was not lost on Blanton.

He’d shed his tears and cursed his fate. But somehow, even in the depths of his despair, he was able to keep prospective.

“It’s still phenomenal,” Blanton said of his senior season. “It wasn’t the result I wanted, but I’m still proud as hell.”

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