It was great theatre.
In the final match of the tournament, with a 6-point pin deciding not only the tournament but also the overall conference team championship, Conant heavyweight Tyler LaBarbera embraced the spotlight.
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His pin at 3:44 gave the Cougars and coach Chad Hay just what they needed to eke out a championship -- by one-half point -- over runner-up Schaumburg in the Mid-Suburban League wrestling meet Saturday at Hersey's Ken Carter Gymnasium.
The tense third-place match won by the Cougars' affable senior gave his club 227.5 points. That figure is astounding considering how far off the lead Conant once was. The Cougars trailed Schaumburg by 52.5 points following a rough semifinal round, after which Conant not only trailed Schaumburg but also Barrington.
"Things couldn't have gone much worse for us during the semifinal round," said Hay. "We lost one match after another, and Schaumburg really came out firing and kind of took over the tournament, while Barrington caught up and passed us also.
"But the thing about this team is it has no quit in it. We've won some really close duals right at the end, and we prevailed at the Leyden Invite recently to win the team title there. So when we pulled all the guys together after the semis and just asked them to go out and do their job, and just get after it and maybe things will turn around if we do, they went out and did so."
The Cougars were a perfect 9-0 in wrestleback semifinals to ensure the same number of competitors in third-place matches. And with seven eventual third-place finishes plus individual titles from Kyle Peisker (113, 24-9), Bobby Alexander (132, 29-2) and Griff Rose (152, 24-4) the Cougars slowly got closer to the lead.
Conant still trailed 219.5-210 after Rose defeated Barrington's Johnny Blanke 3-1.
"My corner signaled me a couple of different ways that we needed a pin to win it all," said LaBarbera, "so I knew what we needed in order to win. And after losing my semifinal, which I felt I should have won, I at least had a chance to avenge that early loss and be the difference-maker for our team today."
LaBarbera was the No. 2 seed behind then-undefeated Junior Castillo of Hoffman Estates, only to watch No. 3 Matt Zolper of Schaumburg (25-7) earn the heavyweight title following a 2-1 OT win over No. 4 seed Tyler Cooke (21-9) of Hersey.
Zolper was one of four Schaumburg champions. Also winning for the Saxons were sophomore Logan Gruszka (138, 11-1), only recently back after battling injury; Sadarris Patterson (170, 28-3); and Matt Stopka (195, 28-4), whose fall at 3:15 over sophomore sensation Alex Jacobs (Fremd, 24-5) gave the Saxons' captain his second straight MSL triumph.
"We looked to be in good shape heading into the final round today, so it's disappointing not to at least come away with the tournament championship, but luckily we'll have another chance next week against Conant at our own regional," said Stopka.
After a spate of injuries, (215.50), Barrington was at near full strength for the first time this year. And coach Ken Hoving's team showed it can compete with the best of them heading into next weekend's rugged McHenry regional.
"It was great to have nearly everyone finally back, and to see where we could be with our regular lineup in place and ready to go," said Hoving, who saw three Broncos win titles while four turned in second-place finishes.
"We were right there until the end, but you've got to give a lot of credit to Conant for their ability to stay in it and not let down, and to Schaumburg, which has some great individual guys who can get those important bonus points," Hoving said. "That should make for a great regional next weekend between both of them while getting us ready to compete with the likes of Deerfield, Crystal Lake South, Cary-Grove, McHenry, Lake Zurich, Stevenson and others at a fully loaded regional."
Sophomore Matt Stathakis (27-3) got the Broncos off to a rip-roaring start with his 8-6 win over Schaumburg's Hazen Rice (26-9) in the 106-pound final. Next, Broncos senior Matt Conrad (26-10) had a terrific opening period against the top seed and state-ranked Alexander, but the Conant junior finally gained back the upper hand with an impressive third period to win 13-8 for his third MSL crown in three years.
Conrad produced a splendid takedown when he got in low, which he turned converted into a well-orchestrated spladle near the edge to go up 5-0 one minute in. But Alexander used a reversal to cut into the lead, only to see his opponent respond with two of his own to make it 7-2 early in the second period.
"My strength is on the mat, so I knew if I kept working it would be there for me," said Alexander, who used a near-fall as time was running out in the second period to draw even at 7-7 before a 6-point third period sealed his victory. "And when it was, I just had to hit it to get back in control."
Julius Smith (22-11) staged the biggest upset of the final session with his 4-1 win over top-seed Luke Gruszka (24-4) of Schaumburg at 160 pounds to give the Broncos their second of three titles, the last coming from teammate Jack Bornhofen (220, 23-8).
Like Smith, Bornhofen was idled for a considerable chunk of the season before getting back into the lineup.
"I had a badly sprained foot, and it didn't allow me to keep my conditioning up at all," said Smith. "It was really hard just sitting and watching my teammates during those three, four weeks that I was out. But the wait was worth it for sure."
MSL East champ Prospect didn't convert its two chances at individual titles, while division runner-up Wheeling, which finished behind the Knights (158-123) for fifth place, had a pair of champions. The first came when Johny Carvajal (32-9) defeated Eric Race (20-13) of Schaumburg by a 5-2 decision at 120 pounds, and four bouts later Tulga Zuunbayan (34-7) won at 145 pounds over Connor Boundy of Barrington.
"I am really happy and proud of Johny, because he's put in a lot of work during the last couple of weeks and he seems to be peaking right now," said Wheeling coach Neal Weiner. "And the same goes for Tulga, who won his second straight MSL title (but) also needs to open up a little bit more, like he did in his semifinal, if he hopes to get downstate."
Rolling Meadows coach Dave Froehlich was given the perfect MSL going-away present when the Mustangs' Darden Kardiu (32-7) left little doubt as to who was the best this weekend at 182 pounds with a dominant performance in his final that ended just 75 seconds in with a fall over Matt Bruno (20-14) of Schaumburg.
"Darden has come a long way since last season, not only as a wrestler but as a person," said Froehlich, who along with Ralph Cortez of Fremd will retire after the school year. "And while his work on and off the mats has been impressive, it's the way that he's undertaken the role of a team leader that has impressed both me and the coaching staff."
Buffalo Grove senior Chase Ori (21-3) who didn't even compete in the MSL tourney last season, made a statement of intent in the upcoming postseason with a sparkling two-day performance which ended with the Bison star capturing the 126-pound title after a 12-2 major decision over Juan Guajardo (22-8) of Palatine.
"I had a lot of support from our coaches, especially (head coach) Dave Durlacher, when I decided to come back for my final year, and now I am looking forward to the challenge ahead of our regional next week, and advancing into the sectionals after that," said Ori, who was third two years ago as a sophomore.
Conant's Kyle Peisker (113, 28-5) won his first league title with a 5-0 decision over Mitch MacTavish (24-9) of Hersey.