Captain Ben Clifford was the last-minute hero as Conant defeated wrestling rival Schaumburg 36-27 Friday night inside a noisy William N. Perry Gymnasium in Hoffman Estates.
The Mid-Suburban League regular-season triumph also gave the host Cougars (11-4-0, 4-1-0) the "Fight for the Fin" Cup for another season after Conant coach Chad Hay beat his brother-in-law Mike Levanti, the Saxons' man in charge.
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Hay praised the winning approach after Clifford (24-3) defeated a valiant Tom Palchek with a pin at 5:12 to end the hopes of the visitors. The teams were both 3-1-0 against MSL West teams entering the meet.
"We came into this dual with the expectation to win, but Schaumburg has such a great lineup with some great individuals," Hay said. "But the guys, and in particular a couple of our seniors, Benny and Corey Ross, came through when we needed them. It proved to be a very good team effort tonight to get the win."
"We all had a lot of confidence that Ben would win that last match to give us the win," said Conant's Tyler LaBarbera (10-6), who helped put his team back on course following a pin at 220 pounds to extend the Cougars' lead to 8 after a Matt Stopka pin at 195 pulled the Saxons (12-8-0, 3-2-0) within 2. "But it's really about the team and the coaching staff, which has helped us get to where we're at right now -- and hopefully an even better spot next week at the conference tournament, and at regionals."
"We got some very good efforts and results from Stopka, Matt Zolper (285), Luke (Gruszka) and a few others," said Levanti. "But we left some points out there tonight, and we lost a couple of close matches while giving up a couple of pins which we didn't expect. That's not how you beat a very good dual team like Conant, which doesn't make a whole lot of mistakes."
Luke Gruszka (27-4), sensational in his first year at Schaumburg after a transfer from Oswego, brought the Saxons back to life after the first two bouts of the night went the way of Conant, as Gus Karapanos opened Senior Night with a win at 138 and Griff Rose followed with a pin at 2:51.
Both sides took turns putting points on the scoreboard, with Sadarriss Patterson (145, 15-2) impressing with his 14-5 major for the Saxons and Ross stunning Austin Manetta at 1:18 to fuel the big home crowd.
Later, freshman Logan Gruszka (28-6) drew the visitors even at 24-24 following an 11-3 major over Kyle Preisker, but Dan Madonia and Bobby Alexander (120, 22-2) responded to give the Cougars the lead for good at 30-24.
"Bobby is obviously a tremendous wrestler, but Ivan gave him a great match (7-5) and Tony (Vezzetti) was able to get us a little closer with his win at 126 (7-6)," said Levanti. "Even though I thought Tom (Palcheck) competed hard against Clifford, it just wasn't enough against a wrestler like Ben."
"It was an exciting night, and it was great to see the guys give the effort we needed," said Hay. "Everyone knew what had to be done tonight, and it truly was a great dual-team win. We did some things with our lineup that we hoped would work out, and they did."