Wrestling / State tournament preview, Northwest
Where: Assembly Hall, Champaign
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Thursday: 2:30 p.m. (one-round of prelims)
Friday: 8:30 a.m. quarterfinals, 7 p.m. semifinals
Saturday: 9 a.m. quarterfinal wrestlebacks, 1 p.m. (3rd-, 5th-place matches), 6:30 p.m. (Grand March, followed by championship matches).
Each of the area competitors listed below is glad to have booked a spot in the last 16-man bracket of the season, but now it's all about reaching the top of the mountain and settling for a stop at base camp. And yes, the state wrestling finals is much like a climb up Mount Everest. It's a marathon of sorts, with plenty of slippery footing and dangerous stops along the way, where even the best are unable to withstand the emotional and physical test placed upon them by the best in their field.
This group below have survived -- good for them, and best of luck. So here's a brief look at each of them in advance of today's opening round.
Gold Club traveler
Hunter Rollins (Hersey, 160, 39-2): A standout ever since stepping into the Huskies' starting lineup, once Rollins grabbed the most sought-after awards available during the postseason, he just kept on winning them. Rollins has claimed eight of the possible nine championship trophies available to him, including an unprecendented three consecutive sectional titles at the Barrngton venue. "All of those titles are nice, and something to be proud of, but the real prize is still out there, and that's my only focus right now," said Rollins, who admits the disappointment of falling short of advancing into the final last season still lingers, as do losses to No. 1 Devonte Mahomes (Oak Park-River Forest) and No. 2 Peter Andreotti (Marist). "I cannot dwell on that right now, but to have the chance to meet both of them again this weekend is one of the things that continues to drive and motivate me," says the No. 3 ranked 160-pounder. He might just get that chance. A win over first-round opponent (No. 11, Alex Anaya, Downers Grove South, 39-6) today, followed by a quarterfinal triumph means a date with Andreotti in the semis. A victory there likely means a shot at Mahomes before a packed house Saturday evening.
Bobby Alexander (Conant, 120, 33-3): An excellent mix of mobility, acceleration, power and urgency are just some of what propels the Cougars sophomore, who surprised the field last year to capture a fifth-place medal at 106 pounds. "Bobby has been a model of consistency all throughout the year, and even though he lost to the No. 2 rated kid in the state (Jon Marmelejo) in his sectional semifinal, he dominated everyone else to get through," said Conant coach Chad Hay. The 11th-rated Alexander (19 pins) boosted his chances this season with championship rings at Lake Park and Leyden, and later at the MSL and regional tournaments as well. A victory in his opener with No. 12 David Kasper (Marist, 24-14) means a likely rematch with No. 7 Steve Polakowski (Libertyville, 40-4) who recorded a 5-1 decision over Alexander at the time.
Ben Calamari (Barrington, 34-7): Anytime a competitor navigates his way through a group of behemoths, where one wrong move puts you on your back, or six minutes of pushing, shoving and hand fighting ends with several OT sessions, it's truly a major accomplishment to still be alive this deep into the season. This two-time state qualfiier is one of the amazing remaining heavyweights, and in recent weeks, the Broncos' captain, ranked No. 8 in the polls, has been just that. Calamari is on quite a run, grabbing three straight championship rings in as many weeks, culminating with a sectional title last weekend. Thursday he opens with Kyrin Tucker (Normal Community, 27-3) as he looks to a possible rematch with No. 5 Alex Fritz (35-13) of Marmion Academy, whom Calamari beat (4-2) early on.
Kevin Conrad (Barrington, 132, 32-13): In the final weeks of the season, the Broncos' captain began to unleash surprises late in the match, when it meant the most to his future, helping the two-time state qualifier win in impressive fashion. "I think I kind of thrived under those types of conditions this season, and it really helped that I kept my composure and never panicked, even when things didn't look very good," said Conrad. When the chips were down, the three-year starter edged the gifted Benny Clifford (Conant) in OT to win a second consecutive MSL title. One week later, he edged Brian Egan 4-3 for a regional crown, and last week, in heroic fashion, he outlasted Abel Rios (Zion-Benton) in his state qualifying bout. The road gets even more dangerous, as No. 1 George Fisher (Marmion Academy, 43-4) awaits as his opening round opponent this afternoon.
Brian Egan (Buffalo Grove, 132, 36-2): Two-time state qualifier was cruising along with a perfect record just before the conference tourney when hit with a blood infection, knocking him out of the competition. But he returned a week later only to see his unbeaten streak end in his regional final to MSL rival Kevin Conrad in a thrilling six-minute bout. "Brian had a great second day at the Barrington sectional, winning four straight to finish third and put himself right back into contention for a state medal this weekend," suggested Bison coach Dave Durlacher. The No. 8-rated Egan, who shines as a tactical genius, is part of a superb division filled with extraordinary talent. That includes Egan's Thursday's opponent, No. 12 Michael O'Connor (St. Rita, 35-10). If victorious, Egan would advance to face No. 2 Larry Early (OPRF, 42-0) who many favor to win it all.
Shola George (Prospect, 285, 42-3): The Nigerian-born Knights big man has been nothing short of sensational ever since coach Tom Whalen penciled him into his starting lineup after taking over the heavyweight spot for another state qualifier, Terry Thomas. "Shola was just a natural. There were obvious communication problems early on with some language barriers, but the kid is a hard worker, both in football and wrestling, and he's really done everything that we've asked from him, and it shows with him getting back downstate and fully capable of getting on the medal stand Saturday night," said Whalen. A sparkling two-year record of 79-13 speaks volumes, as does his beloved double-leg takedown move, which has gone a long way toward his No. 8 spot in the state polls. There isn't an easy out in this bracket, beginning with his Thursday opponent, No. 4 Nick Allegretti (36-3) from Lincoln-Way East. No. 1 Brian Allen (Hinsdale Central, 44-0) is on the top half of his bracket, and if they meet, it will be in the semifinals.
Coord Wiseman (Barrington, 145, 29-7): It's a case of deja vu all over again for the Broncos senior, who last season fought his way back through wrestlebacks, and eventually went home with a sixth-place state medal, then did the same last weekend on before the home fans. "Coord had to do it the hard way once again, but hopefully with the same type of result in Champaign this weekend," said Hoving. The three-year starter missed significant time with a fractured wrist, but came back strong to retain his No. 7 state ranking. The MSL champ opens play this afternoon against No. 12 John Gahagan (OPRF, 34-7) who won at Hinsdale Central, as well as regionals.
Mitch Alexander (Conant, 152, 11-1): His resume is filled with terrific accomplishments, but also one stop after another on the disabled list, including a season-long bout with a concussion which threatened to end his season on the down note. "(Mitch) won our tournament way back in November, then was diagnosed with that concussion and not cleared until late January, so for him to qualify after that setback says a lot him, and I really feel a big weight was lifted of his shoulders after qualifying," said Hay. The four-year stalwart came within one victory of advancing two years ago as a sophomore, then appeared to be on course for another long postseason run last year when a knee injury squashed that idea. Alexander has No. 7 Notay Jackson (Mt. Carmel, 28-2) a returning state qualifer, in his opener today.
Miguel Camarena (Barrington, 120, 26-13): One of the great stories of the year for the MSL and regional champion Broncos, this unheralded first-year starter became one of the key ingredients in the final weeks of the season to earn a spot in the final 16. "We didn't think we would have Miguel, especially at the start of the year," said Barrington coach Ken Hoving, who thought he lost of one few seniors due to personal issues outside of school and wrestling which appeared to be insolvable. "We are so glad to have him with us, and his heart and determination are biggest than our room, and it's showed with a great run in the postseason." He opens with No. 9 Jon Valligran (O'Fallon, 39-5) who won 32 last season.
Luke Gruszka (Schaumburg, 145, 37-6): After starting out his prep career in his homeland of Oswego, the 2012 sectional qualifier, along with his terrific freshman brother (Logan, who just missed joining the Assembly Hall party) moved east with his family to Schaumburg to help solidify an already strong core under second-year head coach Mike Levanti. Luke Gruszka then reached his first state tournament after dropping down from 152 when the postseason began. "Coming through the backdraw in a sectional as tough as Maine East is more about your mental and emotional state than anything physical, and that, along with his ability to do what he does best -- defend and score on top -- is the reason he's down here," says Levanti. The junior opens with the Wisconsin-bound and No. 2-rated Justin Weber (38-3) of Stevenson.
Austin Manetta (Schaumburg, 182, 23-15): When the Maine East sectional begin, this Saxons senior might be one of the least likely to advance after a regular season filled with plenty of promise but plenty of letdowns as well. "I have no qualms in saying (and I am sure Austin would agree) that he's had a most difficult season, on and off the mats, and there were times when we didn't even think he would finish out the season," said Saxons coach Mike Levanti. "But I guess all of the many conversations about the importance of sustained effort and personal responsibility seem to have paid off." It won't be easy here, with Manetta facing an opener with No. 9 Ethan Benoit (Marist, 24-9)
Sadarriss Patterson (Schaumburg, 160, 23-4): Athletic, with plenty of dash and guile, this two-year standout was unable to put in a full season for the second straight season due to a variety of injuries, but the junior was ready to go when it counted, joining three other teammates on a trip downstate. "When Sadarris is focused, he's a tough as anyone to beat," said Levanti. He's got a draw in his opener (No. 7, Matt Schneider, Lincoln-Way Central, 40-7) but he also knows a win puts him in a rematch with (Hunter) Rollins, where a victory gets him into the semifinals, and likely No. 2 Peter Andreotti (Marist, 34-3). The two-time MSL runner-up won the Lake Park tournament early on, and later, a regional championship on his home floor.
Javier Rhoades (Leyden, 285, 25-4): There's more about Rhoades than what he's done on the mats. "Javy was headed for no good, and when he was a freshman and on his way to a 10-day detention (or worse), Jason Potter (Leyden's former head coach) and I kind of suggested it was wrestling or the highway for him," recounts Eagles coach Mike Fumagalli. "He's been a model citizen ever since, both in the classroom and the community, and what he's accomplished in this sport is icing on the cake for him and our program. Javy is wrestling at the absolute top of his game right now, and his best puts him in the mix with every other guy at 285 pounds." With his confidence on the rise and his mutlti-dimensional attack and outstanding conditioning, the 224-pounder poses a threat to 300-plus pound opponents, who can have trouble with his speed and athleticism. Rhoades (12 pins) opens with Corinthian McBridge (TF South, 37-3) and feeds into the Allegretti-George winner Friday morning.
Mark Shealy (Barrington, 182, 36-6): Both he and his teammate Calamari stole the headlines throughout the postseason for the Broncos as the duo fueled team championships at both the MSL and regional tournaments, the third straight for the veteran big men. "It was a fantastic opportunity for me and all of my teammates to win those titles, but now hopefully the best is yet to come for me. But the road won't be easy, and it's going to be a real dogfight in my weight class," said Shealy, who recently commited to attend Notre Dame next fall. The two-time MSL and regional champ erased a bitter ending at the 2012 sectionals with an impressive two-day effort to garner top honors at the Barrington sectional, and a spot far enough away from most of the top ranked '82-pounders. First up for the Broncos captain is No. 11 Brendan Ditchman (Lincoln-Way Central, 31-13). With success in that opener, Shealy would likely face No. 5 Jimmy Mickens (38-4) of Mt. Carmel, an opponent to whom he's dropped a pair of matches (2-0. 4-2) during the regular season.
Matt Stopka (Schaumburg, 195, 35-7): A second-place finish at the highly regarded Illini Classic near the end of the season, coupled with back-to-back titles at the MSL and then regional tournaments, brought the hard-working senior into top-flight status after operating in relative obscurity through most of the regular season. "We really like where Matt sits in his bracket. He's beaten his first-round opponent (Ben Threeloff, St. Rita, 27-9) twice, and he wrestled Sage (Hecox, of Harlem, 20-3) tough in the final at Lincoln-Way East (Illini Classic) in a 3-1 loss, so we feel real confident about his first two matches here," says Levanti. The No. 11-rated Saxon won 28 in his first full season, which included his first sectional appearance.
-- Mike Garofola