INDIANAPOLIS – Why is Cathedral junior Jordan Slivka so silly? Because serious didn’t work. Serious got him beat. Slivka reached the IHSAA wrestling state finals as a freshman in 2016 and finished third. Got there again last season and finished fifth. Tensed up both years. Underachieved. Seriously.
“This year I had a new mentality,” Slivka was saying Saturday night. “Why be so serious? You got to learn to love it, and that’s what I did. I’ve hated it before — the pressure, the big matches, knowing I might lose. I hated it. Not this year. This year, I went for it.”
Slivka flicked the switch this season and was positively glowing Saturday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where he played a cat-and-mouse game with undefeated senior Christian Hunt of Yorktown and came out with a 1-0 victory that won two state championships — the individual title for himself at 145 pounds, and the state title for Cathedral.
Most wrestlers don’t glow, you understand. They glower. They growl. Brayton Lee of Brownsburg, one of the best wrestlers this state has ever produced, withdrew deep inside his own head before his 152-pound final, listening to music and working himself into a lather.
Lee probably didn’t need the lather, given that he’s ranked No. 1 in the country in his weight class, already was a two-time state champion and had finished each of his first three opponents inside of three rounds entering the 152-pound final Saturday night against Cathedral underdog Elliot Rodgers. But Lee knows what he knows so he does what he does, working with the loaded Brownsburg wrestling program and working some more at the Red Cobra Wrestling Academy run by former New Pal coach Chad Red Sr., whose son Chad graduated from New Pal in 2016 as the third undefeated, four-time state champion in Indiana history.
“And he’s serious,” Chad Red Sr. was telling me Saturday night. “When you wrestle Brayton, you’re wrestling a man.”
Before the match Lee made eye contact with nobody, not his opponent and not even his coaches, and then went onto the mat and did what he does. He took down Rodgers repeatedly, and if he wasn’t in position to chase the pin, he let Rodgers up — conceding the single point so he could take him down again for two more points. That’s how he mounted a 24-9 victory in the second round, a methodical performance that hid the emotion he’d stashed just below the surface.
When the referee signaled two points for his final takedown, pushing his lead to 15 and giving him the technical fall — think: mercy rule — Lee, who will wrestle next season at Minnesota, rose and burst into tears.
“I’m not normally an emotional guy,” Lee told the crowd after putting the finishing touches on his 164-1 career.
Not many of these guys are. Not when it’s time wrestle, anyway. Asa Garcia of Avon was pacing maniacally before his 126-pound final, which he won for his second individual state title in three years. Before winning the state title at 132 pounds, undefeated Graham Rooks of Columbus East stood in the center circle as if he were waiting on a bus, not trying to win a title that had eluded him as a freshman (third at 106 pounds), sophomore (fourth at 120) and junior (fourth at 126).
And then there’s Jordan Slivka.
This guy, he’s blowing kisses to the crowd before the match. He’s finding the Cathedral cheering section, and it was huge, and he’s pointing at you, and you, and you, and definitely you. He’s tapping his heart.
For the state championship matches, and I’m going to need you to try to picture this, they hold one match at a time, under a spotlight, while lights are turned down around the arena. It is the ultimate fishbowl moment, just your opponent and the referee and you in your singlet.
And Slivka? He couldn’t wait to dive into that fishbowl.
“People freak out under the lights,” he was saying afterward, fingering his state championship medal. “I love it. I love this.”
He’s not like most of these other guys. When everyone else is warming up by pummeling and jogging and doing whatever it is that wrestlers do, Jordan’s kicking a ball around the wrestling room. When almost everyone else is sitting quietly inside the locker room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, all these wrestlers contemplating the years and years of work that have led them to these six minutes, Jordan’s the one bouncing around the room trying to make friends.
Probably why coaches at Cathedral call him “loudmouth” — and please, don’t let that bother you. The coaches love Jordan. Made him a team captain this season as a junior, didn’t they? They saw how Jordan was recruiting kids to the team, having them over to his house, determined to turn this alpha male breeding ground into a family. Plus they have other nicknames for him. They call him Pigpen because he’s a mess. They call him Squirrelly because he does nutty things like turn a cartwheel in the middle of a match at New Castle.
The championship match Saturday night was trending toward tension, scoreless after one period, when Hunt started Round 2 on top and Slivka escaped immediately, earning a point and clapping his hands in celebration. He spent the next two rounds fending off Hunt, sprawling and rolling and feinting one time so successfully that Hunt pounced on the mat for an opponent who wasn’t there.
Slivka smiled and kept going, kept sprawling, kept shoving Hunt’s head into the mat. When the referee blew his whistle for the final time, Slivka rose and turned to the Cathedral section and pounded his chest some more. He blew kisses. He screamed: “I told you so!”
And to himself, after deciding this season to trade serious for silly and believing it would help him summon his best, this is what he was thinking:
I told you so.