NORMAN � Opponents no longer snicker when they see a Little Axe wrestler standing in front of them.
That's the kind of respect you get when, as a school, you've had a winning season every year since 1993-94.
The Indians are no longer the doormat of Oklahoma wrestling, but there is still one label the school is chasing � champion.
Despite solid team results, it's been a tougher battle in the individual ranks. The Indians had two state finalists 14 years ago and that has been it.
And then came Brandon Henson and Dustin Hawkins. It wasn't just one of them making it to last year's championship round. Both of them did, Henson at 103 pounds and Hawkins at 189.
It was a tremendous feeling for the boys and the school after the semifinals, but an equally bitter disappointment the next night as the wrestlers were denied their dream of a championship.
�I think about that match so much, a countless number of times,� Hawkins said. �The things I could have done differently. You always do that.�
Hawkins and Henson aren't alone in their passion. Not when it comes to Little Axe wrestling. Indians coach Jim Love lives the sport.
Love said Little Axe has had a wrestling program for 21 years, and he's been there for 19 of them. He remembers what it was like that first year.
The wrestling room has become a source of pride for the Indians. Individual and team honors adorn a champions' mantel outside the locker room. Banners depicting the teams' success are posted on the walls.
A far cry from how it used to be.
�I got here, my first year, and we didn't even have a room,� Love said. �Didn't even have a room. What we did was we used the football locker room.
�After the football season was over, we used the locker room. We put this orange mat in the middle, and that was our wrestling room. We hadn't won one match before I was here.�
Love never quit, though. He knew Little Axe was where he wanted to be, knew it was the place he was going to create a program.
Love's persistence won over the school's administrations over the years, and the Indians' wrestling room takes a back seat to nobody.
�He's meant everything to us. He's always been there for us,� Henson said. �He puts everything he has into the sport.�
Henson knows firsthand the passion Love brings. It used to be difficult to get kids out for wrestling. Henson and Hawkins were no different.
Neither was a natural wrestler. Henson was looking to play basketball because he was too small for football.
Hawkins had major discipline problems. Love saw wrestling as a way for Hawkins to use his aggression in a positive manner.
�I was in sixth grade, and I'll be honest and say I wasn't that good of a kid,� Hawkins said. �I've always been big, and I liked getting into fights.
�I like to throw people around. Football you get to hit people, but it's not the same. I get to throw people around here, and it's OK. Wrestling has changed my life.�
Hawkins and Henson have helped change the perception of Little Axe wrestling. Hawkins is 28-1 and enters this weekend with a 112-18 career record. Henson's career mark is 104-20. He is 31-2 and has not lost to an in-state opponent this season.
Henson has already made school history by becoming the first four-time state qualifier. He placed fourth as a sophomore to go with his runner-up finish last year.
You can't question his determination. Being a 103-pounder as a freshman isn't the easiest thing to do � try doing it as a senior.
�It's all about discipline,� Henson said. �Watching your diet and not cheating. I know this is where I need to be at to be successful. I'm not going to cheat myself now.�
Hawkins was the opposite. He's been allowed to eat more, if anything, in making the move to 215. At this weight, he won't have to run into Tonkawa stud Jake Love again. Love, the undefeated champion at 189 last year, is once again unblemished and favored to take the crown. Hawkins' road to the 215 title isn't envious, but he knows he has a shot.
Henson and Hawkins aren't the only Little Axe wrestlers competing. Austin Hodge qualified at 160 pounds. Walter Lynn qualified at 285. Hodge and Lynn are juniors.
�All we are about is pride,� Hawkins said. �We love our sport, love our team. It's great that it's us two again. We've been doing this since seventh grade. All the long trips, all the different gyms, it's been us. Our dads haven't missed a moment. This is our last chance.�
Said Coach Love: �These are tremendous kids. They do everything right. They do what you ask of them. They're great leaders. We're really going to miss them when they're gone, but they're not gone yet. I hope we got one more great weekend in us.�
*For video with Hawkins and Henson, go to NewsOK.com/Varsity.
*Robert Przybylo breaks down the state wrestling tournament with mini-previews in each class. Read his analysis on the Varsity blogs at NewsOK.com/Varsity.