PORTAGE, Ind. – His match at 125 pounds held until the end of Minnesota’s wrestling meet with Purdue on Sunday, Leroy Vega stood in front of cheering friends and family in the East Campus gymnasium of his alma mater, Portage High School.
The adoration reached a fever pitch as Vega, who won two Indiana State championships while wrestling in this gym, prepared for his match with the Boilermakers Chris Fleeger.
“Leroy is like a cult figure in this town,” said Ed Pendowski, Vega’s former high school coach.
Purdue’s wreslting program competes at one local high school each year to promote the sport. Pendowski came forward and suggested Sunday’s match be held in Portage.
Vega’s warm welcome ended abruplty when the match started.
The second-ranked Vega came out quick, taking down the third-ranked Fleeger five seconds into the match.
Fleeger came back right away, however, and took a 3-2 lead with an escape and takedown of his own. The Purdue fans went back and forth with the Vega fans as the momentum continuously shifted between the two wrestlers during the seven-minute match.
Holding a 5-4 lead going into the third period, Vega sealed his victory with a takedown in the final five seconds.
Though Minnesota’s usual sparkplug wrestled last, Vega’s teammates came out with similar fire.
“It’s funny how our guys wrestle for certain things,” coach J Robinson said. “I honestly think it was a big deal for the guys to wrestle for the Vega family and kind of say thank you to them for having Leroy with us for four years.
“That was kind of cool for our team because it gave them a different kind of focus ñ it wasn’t just another match, there was something behind it.”
Defending national champion and top-ranked Minnesota dominated 15th ranked Purdue, taking a 35-3 win out of the small Northwest Indiana town.
Overall, the Gophers earned one technical fall, one pin, and three major decisions.
Purdue’s Oscar Santiago scored a decision over Nake Baker at 165 pounds for Minnesota’s only loss on the afternoon.
“This team is really close,” said Vega, a three-time All-American. “For them to go out there and wrestle like that in front of my family and Purdue’s fans, it’s just awesome.”
The Gophers (16-0, 5-0 Big Ten) also defeated Northwestern on Friday night in Evanston, Ill., 38-6, and extended their streak of dual meet wins to 30 after the road trip.
But the team didn’t want to focus on that after Sunday’s win. This meet was for Vega.
“We couldn’t be happier with what’s going on there,” Pendowski said. “The way he’s been treated, the education that he’s getting, the quality wrestling he’s involved in – we couldn’t ask for anything better than his choice to go to Minnesota. We couldn’t be more proud of him.”