Walking over to the referee to have their hand raised in triumph after wrestling their hearts out for six or more minutes is an experience that has happened time and time again for Columbus East wrestlers Graham Rooks and Nick South.

But the final hand raise given to both of them during the IHSAA Wrestling State Finals was one they’ve dreamed about they’re entire lives.

South and Rooks took the mat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Feb. 17 to earn the most important hand raise of their high school careers on their way to winning state titles in their respective weight classes. Both wrestlers were crowned state champions in front of thousands of fans, but the grunt work was done behind closed doors when nobody but their coaches were watching.

East coach Chris Cooper deemed Rooks and South two of the hardest working Olympians on the team, which is why it was no surprise the pair of Indiana University recruits celebrated at the top of the podium. Now, they share The Republic Wrestler of the Year honors.

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“During the offseason, it’s a lot of technique, so we can pick and improve things that we really need to hone in on during the season,” Rooks said. “… By the time state, semistate comes around, we focus more on fine-tuning some things that maybe just need a little bit more improvement, but most of the areas we improve a lot are during the offseason.”

No. 1-ranked Rooks had arguably the hardest road to the 132 pound finals, having to hand No. 2 Manzona Bryant of Culver Academies his only loss of the season before facing Avon’s No. 3 Alex Mosconi in the championship. Rooks beat Mosconi 4-1 to cap off the school’s only individual undefeated season with a 48-0 record in his senior season.

No. 5-ranked South knocked off a familiar foe in top-ranked Gleason Mappes from Center Grove at 160 pounds. South won the final match 9-6 to beat Mappes for the second time in two weeks.

South was one match away from matching Rooks’ undefeated record, but Mappes handed him the only blemish on his junior season in their first meeting, and South ended 48-1 in his first varsity season as an Olympian. The IHSAA transfer rule forced South to wrestle at the junior varsity level his sophomore year after transferring from Jennings County.

South’s first crack at getting back to the varsity level was when he competed in the Classic Duals last April. He won a couple of matches, but Cooper said he was incredibly rusty starting out. He spent countless hours on the mat working on his technique during the summer and offseason to get himself back to where he needed to be. South improved so much that he and Cooper eventually set the bar of expectations to the highest level.

“During the season at one point, we were like, ‘You can win a state title this year. You’re good enough,'” Cooper said. “He had worked on his game enough to get to that point and put together a fantastic tournament. It all just speaks to his coachablility, his commitment to the weight room. It’s pretty evident to look at him. The kid lives in the weight room.”

South and Rooks have joined Rooks’ younger brother Cayden in becoming East’s only state champions in school history. Cayden Rooks broke the ice last year when he won a state title at 120 pounds. He was one point away from becoming a two-time state champion, but lost in a 3-2 decision to Asa Garcia of Avon in the 126-pound championship match.

Cayden Rooks and South still have one more year to add to their legacy as they try to become East’s only two-time state champs next season.

Graham Rooks’ high school career, however, has come to a close, but he will be leaving East as the school’s most decorated wrestler. He’s the only wrestler to place at the state finals all four years, earning a third-place finish as a freshman and fourth-places the past two years before going all the way this season.

Graham Rooks also holds all six of the career and single-season records for the Olympians. He definitely has left an everlasting mark on the program.

“I don’t think I would have done it any other way,” he said of his road to becoming a state champion. “The drive that I had coming in from freshman through junior year, getting beat by the person who ultimately wins the state title every year. That drive to push me to be the best, all the extra practices and stuff that I went to over the summer to win state, I don’t think I would have changed anything.”

Graham Rooks and South entering a tournament and coming out on the other side together as champions at the high school level could be foreshadowing the possibilities to come in the future. Graham Rooks is headed to Indiana University next season, and both Cayden Rooks and South are following behind after their senior seasons.

Cooper recently went to Michigan State to watch the Big Ten Tournament and said he couldn’t help but think about Graham Rooks being out there representing the Hoosiers in the near future.

“It’s pretty awesome,” South said. “We’re going to hopefully have a lot of success in college. Then Graham coming back, he’ll be beating up on us from getting so much better at college. That’ll be really good for us.”

Both athletes will continue to hit the offseason hard this summer to perfect their craft even more. South will be working toward chasing another monumental hand raise at the end of his final high school season, while Graham Rooks will be busy working toward what will eventually be the first hand raise of his collegiate career.

The Republic All-Area Wrestling Team

Graham Rooks, Columbus East: The senior went 48-0 and was state champion at 132.

Nick South, Columbus East: The junior went 48-1 and was state champion at 160.

Cayden Rooks, Columbus East: The junior went 45-2 and was state runner-up at 126.

Jake Schoenegge, Columbus East: The junior went 42-6 and finished third at state at 145.

Dawson Combest, Columbus East: The senior went 44-4 and finished fourth at state at 138.

Corban Pollitt, Columbus East: The senior went 34-10 and finished seventh at state at 152.

Andy Davidson, Columbus East: The senior went 32-17 and was a state qualifier at 170.

Jacob Bolte, Columbus East: The senior went 31-9 and was a state qualifier at 220.

Dalton Anderson, Columbus East: The junior went 27-10 and was a semistate quarterfinalist at 285.

Jeremy Clark, Columbus East: The junior went 29-14 and was a semistate quaterfinalist at 113.

Brigham Kleinhenz, Columbus North: The senior went 39-8 and was a state qualifier at 170.

Dalton Craig, Jennings County: The senior went 31-5 and was a semistate quarterfinalist at 132.

Brooks Wathen, Jennings County: The junior went 34-8 and was a semistate quaterfinalist at 152.

Zane Beineke, Jennings County: The senior went 32-8 and was a semistate quaterfinalist at 170.

Honorable mention

Brown County: Bryce Denton, Levi Mullins, David Tucker. Columbus East: Joey Gordon, Nate John, Noah White. Columbus North: Bradley Gutierrez, Morgan Smith, Deandre Watson. Jennings County: Victor Antunez, Xavier Barberis, Teagan Johnson, Jaylan Kirchner, Nathaniel McDonald, Joey Moran.

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Frank Bonner is a sports writer for The Republic. He can be reached at fbonner@therepublic.com or 812-379-5632.