In the opening round of the IHSAA Wrestling State Finals, Eastern's Evan Ellis defeats Brendan Sutton of Jennings County 9-3 despite a split lip. (SJ Photo/Dean Hockney)

In the opening round of the IHSAA Wrestling State Finals, Eastern’s Evan Ellis defeats Brendan Sutton of Jennings County 9-3 despite a split lip. (SJ Photo/Dean Hockney)



INDIANAPOLIS – It was a perfect ending to a perfect season for Eastern High School’s Evan Ellis. In front of nearly 12,500 wrestling fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Feb. 18, the senior soared to an altitude no other Comet had obtained – an IHSAA wrestling state championship.

“It is a blessing,” said Ellis after the championship match. “I have been training for this for 14 years. It is not just a season, it is a lifetime.”

The grappler nearly missed getting out of the opening round the night before. In what may have been the gutsiest performance of his career, Ellis battled back from a split lip that the medical staff could not get to stop bleeding. In a last-ditch effort and up against the injury clock, the medical team wrapped Ellis’ lower mouth shut around the back of the head, resulting in Ellis finishing the match with an open mouth packed with gauze. Back on the mat, Ellis finished his first round with a 9-3 decision over Brendan Sutton of Jennings County to advance to day two and the medal round.

In the quarterfinals, Ellis knocked off Brandon Streck of Merrillville 1-0 before defeating Robert Samuels of Lawrence North 3-2 in the semifinals.

That set up a state championship match at 285-pounds between a pair of undefeated wrestlers – No. 2 Ellis and No. 1 Isaiah Williams of South Bend Washington. With three pins in the state finals, Williams was heavily favored over Ellis, but a first minute takedown put the Greentown native up 2-0. He was in the down position to start the second period but quickly escaped for a 3-0 advantage. Ellis (46-0) then sealed the perfect season with a third period takedown for an insurmountable 5-0 lead.

“It has been a really good senior season,” said Ellis. “But I had so many emotions this week.”

Those emotions had nothing to do with wrestling – on Tuesday of state championship week, his grandmother, Ginny Ellis, passed away. The night before he had promised her he would win the state title – a promise that came true.

Ellis is the first wrestling state champion from Eastern and the 15th in Howard County history. Ellis ended a 25-year draught for a Howard County wrestler standing on the top of the podium at the IHSAA state finals – the last Howard County state champion was Western’s Chad Shepherd at 135-pounds in 1991.

Ellis is the first individual state champion from Howard County since Bethany Neeley crossed the finish line in first place in the 1,600-meter run in 2013. He is the fifth Comet to win an individual state championship, joining Jeremy Ashcraft (1994 pole vault), Grant Cole (2013 long jump), Bethany Neeley (also won the 2012 1,600-meter run) and Brittany Neeley (2013 800-meter run).

With a career record of 160-18, Ellis has three IHSAA state finals medals – this year’s state title, a 220-pound third-place medal from 2016 and an eighth-place 220-pound medal from his sophomore year. He will next take his skills from the Hoosier Heartland Conference to the Ivy League’s Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

“It is going to be a challenge,” he said. “It is an awesome atmosphere out there and will be a great four years.”

Three other Howard County wrestlers participated in the state finals, with all three bowing out in the opening round. Kokomo senior Jabin Wright lost 12-6 to Colin Poynter of Portage at 120-pounds, Western freshman Hunter Cottingham dropped a 4-1 decision to 126-pound state runner-up Blake Mulkey of Brownsburg and Kokomo senior Gavin Herrera fell to 195-pound state champ Andrew Davison of Chesterton.


Kokomo Jackrabbits 1

UPDATED: This story has been updated to state the league will not play an actual All-Star Game but rather Kokomo will host all-star festivities.


KOKOMO, Ind. – For the third time in three seasons, the Kokomo Jackrabbits are hiring a new field manager – but this time for a good reason. After the first manager was fired after 30 games, Matt Howard took over for the next year-and-a-half and led the squad to the Prospect League playoffs. Now, Howard is the inaugural Indiana University Kokomo head coach and the Rabbits are ready for a new era – and this time, they are looking to a seasoned bench veteran.

On Feb. 13, the Jackrabbits ownership group announced several changes for the 2017 season while introducing former Austin Peay State University head coach Gary McClure as the Jackrabbits new skipper. The group also announced that with its expansion from the Milwaukee area to other locales – including Kokomo and Lafayette – they have changed its name from MKE Sports and Entertainment to ROC Ventures.

“We’ve enjoyed a tremendous relationship with the people of Kokomo ever since bringing the Kokomo Jackrabbits to town,” said Mike Zimmerman, owner of ROC Ventures. “It all began with citizens choosing the name of the team. When you create things that bring people together, it creates community and further opportunities for all. We’ve based all of our activity here on that basic formula – return on community.”

MKE was a direct reference to Milwaukee and the airport code for the cities General Mitchell International Airport (much like IND for Indianapolis). With the MKE Sports and Entertainment becoming more regionally known, it was time for the change to better identity its purpose. Zimmerman’s ROC Ventures is named to remind everyone of the thread unifying all of ROC’s projects: Create value by creating and strengthening community opportunities.

“It’s become more and more clear to us that developing and helping create a real ‘deep economy’ locally is the key to lasting success for the entire surrounding region,” Zimmerman said. “That’s the principle behind ‘return on community,’ and that’s our commitment.”

The first big announcement of ROC Ventures was the naming of McClure as the leader of the Jackrabbits. The longtime NCAA Division I head coach at Austin Peay (Clarksville, Tennessee) is the winningest coach in Ohio Valley Conference history. While leading the Governors from 1988-2015 (28 seasons), McClure compiled a record of 847-750, with a 363-276 record in conference play.

“I’d like to thank Mike Zimmerman for this amazing opportunity,” said McClure. “I look forward to not only shaping our young players into professionals but also becoming an integral part of the community with my wife Amy.”

McClure is already a member of the Austin Peay Athletics Hall of Fame and 38 of his players were selected into the Major League Baseball Draft. His squads won a conference record five OVC regular season titles and five OVT tourney titles. He coached 49 first-team All-OVC players, nine conference Pitchers of the Year and three conference Players of the Year. Last season, he coached the Battle Creek Bombers in the Northwoods League

McClure and his wife, Amy, have been married for nearly three decades and have one son, Alex, a scout for the Chicago Cubs, who played in the Royals and Marlins minor league systems.

“This guy’s baseball IQ and coaching talent is off the charts,” said Dan Kuenzi, president of ROC Ventures Sports and Performance. “We’re getting a pro who operates at an extremely high level, and the players are going to appreciate the excellence he brings to his job.”

All-star festivities and more in Kokomo

After rain washed out most of the 2016 Prospect League All-Star Game in Kokomo, the Jackrabbits announced a reformatted event would return to the City of Firsts on July 17. While the league moves away from an actual game, all-star festivities will include a Home Run Derby and a professional scout workout for league players at Municipal Stadium.

“This is an event that brings deserved attention to the Kokomo community, as well as a nice economic boost,” said Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight. “We’re proud to once again have been selected as host.”

Last year, the Home Run Derby was a major success with baseballs being sent off the scoreboard, into the Wildcat Creek and across Apperson Way. Unfortunately, Mother Nature did not cooperate with the All-Star Game as rain stopped action on the turf before a complete game could be declared. Howard was the skipper for the West Division and 10 Jackrabbits have dressed for the All-Star Game in two seasons, including 2015 ASG Most Valuable Player Mark Zimmerman.

In a move that should make fans happy, Kuenzi said ticket prices would remain unchanged for the 2017 Jackrabbits campaign and several special events are planned, much like in the first two seasons.

For more on this story, see the Feb. 14 edition of the Sports Journal of Central Indiana


Kokomo Mantis 2


KOKOMO, Ind. – The Kokomo soccer community was excited when the ownership group of the Kokomo Jackrabbits announced that it would add a soccer squad to its stable and play games in Kokomo Municipal Stadium in 2016. But after a mixed-results first year, ROC Ventures announced the Kokomo Mantis FC would take a year off from competition to reorganize and move to a new league.

“While we put the 2017 season on hold, I am happy to announce that all other aspects of the Kokomo Mantis FC will continue as preparation for 2018,” said ROC Ventures, Sports and Performance President Dan Kuenzi. “We are currently in talks with the NPSL (National Premier Soccer League) about the 2018 season at Municipal Stadium.”

The Mantis played in the Premier Development League’s Heartland Division last year, finishing 4-6-4 with quality wins over PDL powers Des Moines Menace and Chicago Fire United. But the PDL schedule proved challenging – after two home matches on May 20 and 23, the squad did not return home until mid-June, losing a lot of momentum to develop a fan-base. Then, the Mantis played three games over the Fourth of July holiday weekend when many fans were out-of-town.

Add in a long two-game, 2,200-mile round-trip through Canada and the Mantis schedule become a scheduling and financial issue.

Fortunately for soccer fans, Kuenzi said ROC Ventures is dedicated to keeping the most popular sport in the world in Kokomo and will reorganize into a different league. The group is in talks to move to the National Premier Soccer League, with plans for the Mantis to take the turf pitch in 2018 after a PDL-mandated one-year non-compete clause is complete.

For more on this story, see the Feb. 14 edition of the Sports Journal of Central Indiana