Going into the Brown County Invitational without three varsity wrestlers did not bode well for the home team.

Their roster was already short a wrestler in one weight class, so with four forfeits guaranteed in each match, the Eagles gave several of the teams they faced an immediate 24-point advantage.

Of the five teams they wrestled, they beat only Indianapolis Emmer- ich Manual.

Yet, coming back to the mat after three weeks away, even the matches they lost were hard-fought.

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Junior Evan Bullock (18-1) walked away undefeated Jan. 9, winning three by pin and two by major decision. Senior Bristen Dial (19-1) matched that performance with three wins by decision — two major — and two wins by forfeit.

The two have had excellent seasons, with only one defeat each.

“Bristen started wrestling real smart,” Head Coach Mark Bruner said. “He’s real in control, and he’s real focused on what he’s running, and it’s paying off.

“He’s only lost once this year, and he avenged that loss against the kid. He’s got some goals, and he’s wanting to reach them.”

Even those Eagles not making a run for state this year have made strides. Sophomore Levi Mullins (2-13) had a rough season as a freshman and is still not among the highest scorers on the team, but his presence on the mat this year has matured noticeably.

Bruner’s pride in his wrestlers is obvious any time their improvements are mentioned. His enthusiasm for their potential shows in his beaming smile.

“And he’s still a sophomore, so it’s promising,” Bruner said of Mullins. “Here we have a kid that, last year, was nervous because maybe he was outclassed. This year, he grew a little bit, he’s getting a little stronger, and so he’s gaining confidence, which is great.

“It doesn’t matter when, where, what, you just don’t give up, and good things can happen, and Levi shows that time after time,” Bruner said. “He’s in every match, he plays to win — and he doesn’t win every time, but he’s right there on that verge, and doesn’t give up.”

With the Western Indiana Conference tournament on Saturday, Jan. 23, and sectionals a week after, Bruner is looking forward to good things.

Asked if he thinks the team could take more wrestlers past sectionals to regionals this year than last, Bruner doesn’t hesitate.

“I think so; I think so,” he said. “You know, we’ve got a good group of kids, and they’re all working hard, and all of a sudden their expectations are changing, and all of a sudden — who knows.

“It’s just a matter of who shows up at that tournament,” he said. “All of a sudden one kid has success, the other kid wants it, and then the other kid — it kind of builds on itself, and so, we hope.”

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Ben Kibbey is a Brown County transplant from the cornfields of central Ohio. He covers county government, business, outdoors, sports and general news.