MICHIGAN CITY — For each time Ryan Utpatel gets knocked down, there's always one more time when he gets back on his feet.
The Michigan City senior wrestler isn't going to win many matches, but he's established an approach that will serve him well off the mat.
"It's character building for sure," Utpatel said. "I never let anything keep me too down. I'm hard on myself, but I get right out of that and go to work. I think it's different in this sport because you get back what you put into it. What I'm putting into it, I'm getting back that I'm going to work hard after high school in anything I try to achieve. I've got to be the best I can be at anything I can. Wake up every morning, punch the day in the face."
There are few, if any, sports that are physically and emotionally grinding as wrestling, and Utpatel embraces all of it. He toiled on junior varsity for two years, 'getting his butt kicked' before a back injury sustained while lifting weights wiped out his junior season. Each year, he's had a new head coach.
Most kids would've chucked the head gear a long time ago, but not Utpatel.
"I've never thought that once," he said. "I played football my freshman year and not starting kind of hurt. I came up here and realized it's all individual. You do what you want, and I gravitated more toward wrestling. The losses definitely hurt, but it lights something in me to come back and work harder to try to improve. It's just that constant growth mindset. If I get one percent better every single day, in a month, I'll be 30 percent better."
New Wolves coach Chris Deutscher noticed something special with Utpatel back in the summer, when he began a weight lifting program. Utpatel took the initiative to get other boys to attend and has been a motivator ever since.
"As the season started to progress, he's been the one to get us going, to set the right tone," Deutscher said. "I noticed a couple practices when he wasn't here because he had some school activities he had to attend, the kids just aren't really self-starting without his leadership. He's basically an extension of the coaching staff, doing all the things you could ever ask of a senior leader. There have been times in the past where the kids and the coaching staff weren't on the same page, they didn't have the same mindset, they weren't trying to accomplish the same things. He's picking up the right things and running with them."
For a coach trying to re-build the sport at the school from the ground up, it's important to have someone who can show that success is possible with Michigan City wrestling. It's also vital to have someone who establishes a work ethic that endures the ups and downs.
"It's never a one-man show," Deutscher said. "One guy can make a great deal of change but it takes the village to move the mountain. He gets down, but he never really stays down. He's picking other people up and setting that tone. Having this versus some of the things in the past, it's night and day."
Those words, Utpatel said, are 'very uplifting.' An unassuming person by nature, he didn't knowingly take on the whole leadership thing or expect it to gain the momentum it did.
"I just got accustomed to it," he said. "Coach makes an example out of me. That's just how I am. If he's not here, I get everyone jogging, go straight into lines, warm up, get everything going."
In a society of instant gratification where fewer people are willing to make an investment without the assurance of a reward, Utpatel is a shining exception.
"Just being that role model for every underclassmen up here," he said. "If you're not successful at something, you have to train every day to get better at it. You can't just lay down and quit. Just because something is hard, I'm not going to stop. If I go out and get my butt kicked, I'm ready to come in the next day and get to work and try to make my team follow me if I can as close as possible, get that hard-working mindset, not sitting around at practice, not doing anything for two hours, just trying to constantly succeed."
Utpatel takes five Advanced Placement classes and hopes to graduate with distinguished honors. He aspires to go into the trades and ultimately become an electrician, following the career path of his dad, who is an HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) technician.
"Four years in the books or four years in a training program making money," he said.
It's not surprising that the 145-pounder's expectations for the season are as team-oriented as they are personal.
"I started my freshman year and I'm facing guys who have been wrestling since they were 7," Utpatel said. "The (Duneland Athletic Conference) is one of the toughest conferences in the state. The start of the season doesn't define you. You have to do well against key opponents. I'd like to advance past sectionals. If I can't go, I'd like to see at least three of my teammates go. I want everyone that wrestles at sectionals to at least go somewhere. I'll be here supporting them the whole way."