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updated: 2/13/2013 1:56 PM

Scouting Fox Valley wrestlers at state

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By Mike Garofola
Daily Herald Correspondent

96th IHSA state wrestling tournament

Where: Assembly Hall, Champaign

When: Today: 2:30 p.m. (one-round of prelims); Friday: 8:30 a.m. (quarterfinals), 7 p.m. (semifinals); Saturday: 9 a.m. (quarterfinal wrestle-backs), 1 p.m. (3rd, 5th place matches), 6:30 p.m. (Grand March, followed by championship matches).

The lowdown: The cast, crew and contestants have all arrived and are in place in advance of the 2013 state tournament, which begins today. Fourteen 16-man weight classes are set, much to the delight of yet another noisy and animated crowd.

The Fox Valley area has 12 state qualifiers this weekend. Here's a look at their chances to come home with hardware.

Sal Annoreno (Bartlett, 138, 30-2)

The road to a second-straight state title became a little bumpy following his stunning loss in the semifinals last weekend at Maine East, forcing the NIU-bound Hawks star to travel back through wrestle-backs where he easily nabbed a third-place finish, but more importantly, a lower seed here this weekend due to the new IHSA seeding system put in place for the 2012 season. A five-star talent, who can up the tempo and pace in a heartbeat, his magnificent run through the postseason in the final weeks of the campaign ended with a remarkable three days inside Assembly Hall which culminated with the first state championship in program history, and a preseason No. 1 ranking. His hope to repeat hinges on what for sure will be one of the most anticipated quarterfinal matches, that coming against No. 3 Mech Spraggins (45-1) the three-time state medalist from Belleville West, who boasts a 159-11 career record. "Anything can happen at this time of the year, so you've just got to be mentally prepared and ready to go from the very first match on there this weekend," said Annoreno.

Michael Cullen (Cary-Grove, 113, 42-0)

The area's best hope, along with Annoreno, to lift the big trophy Saturday night, the sophomore is nearing mock speed heading into the tournament today. "I feel like I am just about where I need to be heading into this weekend, but that doesn't mean I won't work as hard as I have during the week leading up to my opener in Champaign," said the Fox Valley Conference and regional champ, who added a second consecutive sectional crown to an already crowded trophy case at home. "This is what we've been talking about since the beginning of the season, and now it's finally here, and I look to go down there and compete for a state championship Saturday night." Cullen (26 pins) has carved up his opponents in the last three weeks to the tune of 5 pins, one technical-fall and a dominating performance in the sectional final against Colin Kenyon (New Trier) to earn one of the top 4 seeds in a brilliant class, where he and the best of this group, Mark Duda (Marist), Brian Rossi (Lockport) and defending champ Kris Williams (Thornton) have a combined 131-7 record. Cullen's opener will be against Anfarnee Rodgers (Glenbard East, 34-12) which would follow with a dangerous quarterfinal opponent in No. 5 Ronald Triche (Providence Catholic, 37-2).

Nick Gil (Crystal Lake South, 126, 39-5)

The Gators' junior burst onto the state scene last year and came within one victory of placing during his first trip downstate, and he never slowed down by staying near the top of the state polls all season long. Never one to back down from elite competition, all of his losses have come against high-profile opponents, including No. 2 Jordan Northrup of Harlem and No. 3 Isaiah White (Oak Park-River Forest), both fiercely contested bouts. "I really feel like I am right there with the best in the state, and as long as I continue to work and train as hard as I have, there's no reason why I can't be right there with them in the tournament," says Gil, No. 6 in the latest state poll, despite losses to White (3-2) and Northrup (2-1), that coming in his regional final. His biggest challenge of the year could come in the semifinals, where No. 1 Jered Cortez (Glenbard North, 44-0) awaits. Opening match is against Haydon Grammar (Edwardsville, 21-11).

Austin Ryan (Jacobs, 106, 34-3)

Back again after suffering an injury in his sectional semifinal that ended his season abruptly, the junior comes into this weekend one victory away from reaching 100 in his career. The two-time state qualifier, and three-time regional champ opens today with No. 3 Anthony Bosco (Marmion Academy, 33-8), who finished third last year at the 2A state tournament. "I don't really spend a lot of time looking at the brackets, because you continually have to beat someone good here if you hope to eventually medal, but Anthony is a solid wrestler, and someone I've competed against during the offseason in IKWF and freestyle so we know each other a little bit," said Ryan. "It's a long season, but I am excited and ready to go, and feel like this is my best chance to medal since starting at Jacobs."

Eric Barone (Crystal Lake South, 132, 35-7)

You don't get the impression this Gators' sophomore is fazed at all by the star-studded cast he belongs to here this weekend, which has all but one from the Top 10 in the state polls here, including No. 7 Mario Levelle (Marist, 34-10), Barone's first opponent today, as well as No. 2 Larry Early (OP-RF, 42-0), who is within reach if he can win his first two matches on the big mats of Assembly Hall. "I always felt I could get downstate this year, and after I fell short last year, I promised myself I wouldn't get anywhere near wrestle-backs this year, where it's so much harder to get out of in order to qualify," said Barone, who lost in his state qualifying match (4-2) after winning three straight to get there. This weight class is a nasty one, deep and talented from top-to-bottom, beginning with the aforementioned Levelle, a state qualifier last year with 36 victories.

Ray Griggel (Dundee-Crown, 220, 15-6)

Last year a skin condition ended Griggel's junior season abruptly, then a shoulder injury suffered during the football season threatened to wash away his entire senior, but the likable big man put it all together in the nick of time to lock down his first state appearance, much to the delight of head coach Bob Skillman. "Good health has been the key for Ray, that and our assistant coach Ray Brunner and heavyweight Jeremy Marshall and 95-pounder Christian Johnson have been in the room everyday giving him the workout he needs. Even though he placed fourth at sectionals, I truly believe he can medal this weekend." Griggel will face No. 3 Tom Howell (Marist, 34-5) in his opener.

Logan Hanselmann (Cary-Grove, 120, 34-9)

No task is too tall for the junior, who came back through wrestle-backs at both regionals and sectionals to secure his first appearance here. "Logan's focus, determination and desire have all improved greatly since becoming (Michael) Cullen's partner in the room, but they have become so good for each other in the same regard," says C-G head coach Ryan Ludwig. His opener today is a tough one as he faces No. 2 Trayvon Zabala (Joliet Central, 43-0) who is a three-time qualifier, state runner-up as a sophomore, with 151 career victories. The FVC champ has 6 pins and major decision victories on the season.

Anton Krocko (Hampshire, 182, 30-9)

Head coach Terry Wilkinson was a little concerned about the toughness of his young guys, but after watching 4 freshmen and sophomores advancing into the sectionals, then Krocko into the state tournament, his fears were erased for good. "Anton had the deck stacked against him going into that second day of sectionals, but he showed a lot of guts by dominating someone who pinned him earlier to get himself downstate," Wilkinson said. Krocko would win four straight in the consolation bracket, beating a quartet with 106 victories among them, including CPS champ Terryon Bradley in the third-place match. His first opponent is No. 12 Brock Letcher (34-3) from Taylorville.

Travis Keeling (Hampshire, 170, 38-7)

The crown jewel of the Whip-Purs' program, and one of the few veterans on Wilkinsons' club this season, the senior captain has wrestled several of the giants here this weekend, and been this close, or the victor with most. "Our front-loaded nonconference schedule has these guys fresh and rejuvenated for a good run here and for Travis, he's gone against guys like No. 2 Andrew Marsden (Crystal Lake Central) and No. 3 (Michael) Maduko (Montini) so nothing is new to him at this point," says Wilkinson. Keeling lost a heartbreaking 5-3 OT bout to Maduko on Friday at the Antioch sectional after dictating the match, but rebounded with 4 straight victories to seal his first trip to Champaign. First up today is No. 5 Michael Cole (32-7) of Rock Island.

Brandon Mabry (Huntley, 195, 36-6)

After being sabotaged twice on the eve of sectionals due to illness, the Huntley senior finally broke through last weekend by advancing from a difficult weight class to earn his first trip downstate, and coach BJ Bertelsmans' eighth in as many seasons. " We knew at the start of the year he would be tough to handle because he's really strong for a 95-pounder, and after going at 225 last year, he got himself plenty of experience moving around those big guys, which I think made him that much better this year," said the Red Raiders' head coach. "Needless to say, I am very happy for him, because he's a great kid, in and out of the room, and that's what it's really about." Mabry (16 pins) will face No. 3 Blake Blair (Edwardsville, 44-3) the two-time qualifier, who went 42-5 en route to his second-place state finish.

Nick Peters (Crystal Lake South, 138, 36-9)

The Gators' veteran of three sectionals chose the same course of action as his teammate Barone last weekend, staying true to his vow of not stepping foot in wrestle-backs after a disappointing stop there last year ended his hopes of a trip downstate. "Your chances to succeed are so much tougher, so you kind of make a promise to yourself not to get into that situation again," said Peters, who won 35 last season, after earning 20 the year before. "I cannot tell you how happy I was for Nick when he qualified, because he's worked so hard, and he means so much to our program," offered Ryan. The No. 10 rated captain has 5 runner-up tournament trophies this season after falling short against Manny Silva (Hononegah) last weekend, which is a real tribute to the type of schedule CLS takes on. The reigning state champ, Bartlett's Sal Annoreno, is his first-round opponent today.

Michael Underwood (Cary-Grove, 138, 40-9)

After suffering a heartbreaking 3-2 loss in his state qualifier a year ago, the Trojans' captain came back with a vengeance in his final season grabbing a well-deserved spot in the final 16-man bracket following a marvelous postseason which included his first FVC title. "I was running out of time, this was it for me, so I never relaxed this season, and just kept working hard, and it all finally paid off for me," said Underwood, whose mettle came through with a brilliant showing in OT matches (7-0), which includes his third-place match at sectionals last weekend. Wheaton North's two-time state qualifier Sean Murray (36-14) is his first opponent today, and with a victory likely setting up a date with No. 2 Cullen Cummings (43-1) of Downers Grove North, the state runner-up to Annoreno last season.

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