CHAMPAIGN -- Sitting high atop the 125-pound rankings from the very beginning of his fourth and final season of high school wrestling, Stevenson senior Danny Sabatello had never even given much thought to who would be the champion of his division when the last spotlight inside Assembly Hall was turned off on the third Saturday of February in Champaign.
It would be him, of course.
It's not that Sabatello is overconfident, it's just that he possesses that something extra that all champions have. Combined with terrific talent, desire and work ethic, it's clear the Purdue-bound two-time state champion was simply the best.
Sabatello defeated Providence star Eddie Klimara in a rematch of last year's final at 119 pounds. In that meeting, Sabatello surprised the then-favorite 3-2 to give Stevenson its first-ever state wrestling title and fueled plenty of speculation about what would happen should the two meet once again.
"I always felt I could win a second straight state title, even if it was against Klimara, because if you want to be the best, you've got to beat one of the best, and just moments after hearing the final whistle and looking over real quick to see the faces of my coaches, Shane Cook and Josh Hjorth, I immediately thought to myself, 'I did it for the second time,' " said Sabatello, for the first time during the postseason sporting a grin from ear to ear.
The future always looked bright for the two-time champ, who began his prep career at St. Viator. There he quickly became the best wrestler on the roster while earning a league crown and a trip downstate his sophomore season, when he would took fourth at 112 pounds.
A year later, after his transfer to Stevenson, Sabatello's hard-fought victory over Klimara sent shockwaves throughout a big Assembly Hall crowd.
"Even back then, I never put a lot of stock into rankings or what others thought or said about me," said Sabatello. "Instead, I just worry about myself and how I can improve each week in and out of the room, then during tournaments."
"When Danny arrived at Stevenson, I brought him into my office, and we had a nice talk, and I gave him a big giant Stevenson (duffel) filled with equipment and a uniform, and I asked him if there was anything else he needed," said Cook. "All he said was, 'Yes, a state championship.'
"That was all that had to be said, because ever since then he's been on a mission of commitment to dominate each and every opponent he faces, and he's done that with just about everyone he's faced."
Sabatello's two-year run for the Patriots' ends with a mind-blowing 81-4 record, which includes 279 takedowns, 17 technical falls, 8 major decisions and 6 pins, prior to his first match on Friday evening.
"I just go out there and do what I need to do," said Sabatello, "and I don't watch or scout others during a tournament, because it doesn't matter."
While Danny Sabatello was at St. Viator, his cousin Mike Sabatello, who'd been a state medal-winner at Hersey in 2003, was also a part-time coach for the Lions. On several occasions he bemoaned the fact that as technically and tactically advanced his young cousin was, his lack of a mean streak was keeping him from reaching another level.
"He's got that edge now," smiled Mike Sabatello on Friday as he was preparing his talented 171-pounder at Oak Park-River Forest, Sam Brooks, for competiton.
Danny Sabatello will be moving on to Purdue next fall where he will have an opportunity to compete for a spot in the starting lineup at either 125 or 133 pounds.
"It (Purdue) just felt like a great fit for me right from the start," he said. "I always wanted to be at a Big 10 school, and was impressed with the coaching staff, the team and the facilities during my visit there. I think it will suit me just fine."
"Danny has meant a lot to this program during his two short years with us," Cook said. "He's helped change the culture (here) and he's even helped bring a big fan base out to his matches at the sectionals, and here at the state tournament the past two seasons," says Cook. "I think we've all been good for each other."