For a while, it looked as if the expected race for the big trophy would not materialize between favored Deerfield and challengers Barrington, Cary-Grove, Crystal Lake South and host McHenry.
As it turned out, Lake Zurich which was just a click behind Deerfield nearly two hours into the Class 3A regional.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the round of wrestleback semifinals -- so funny that Barrington coach Ken Hoving finally managed a small grin when he saw his club pull within reach of Deerfield, trailing just 119-113 in advance of the medal round.
Later, after celebrating individual titles from Matt Stathakis (103, 29-3) and Matt Conrad (132, 29-10) and saying thank you to his FVC coaching counterparts for their help along the way, Hoving broke into a broad smile midway through the finals when the scoreboard flashed his Broncos were now atop the leaderboard at 146.0-136.5.
Five weights later, and after a trio of second-place finishes, the Broncos got one last bit of help at 195 as Ryan Grannemann of McHenry defeated Christo Moran of Deerfield 4-1, helping get the Broncos a fourth straight regional championship.
"It's still kind of hard to believe we went from being near dead midway through to the very top of a very strong and deep group of teams here in McHenry," said Hoving. "But we did it by keeping our mistakes to a minimum, getting some help along the way from others and, especially, going six-for-six in wrestleback semifinal matches and sending nine into our sectional next weekend."
The Broncos ended their successful day with 155 points, 13 more Central Suburban champ Deerfield and 29 points clear of third-place McHenry.
"(Deerfield) clobbered us at our quad by 25, 30 points, and even though we were a little shorthanded then, they were clearly the better team and the one that to me was the team to beat here," said Hoving. "But despite our (15-7-0) record, we stand by our rough nonconference schedule, and it's that schedule which has made these guys battle tested and ready to go at this time of the year. When we finally got ourselves close to 100 percent healthy, we showed we can be a very competitive bunch."
The Broncos await their dual-team oppnent and sitie, which will be announced in a few days by the IHSA.
Perhaps things began to go south for Deerfield when in the featured final of the day Michael Cullen (Cary-Grove, 24-3) outlasted Andrew Mehrholz (Deerfield, 41-3) in a wild and controversial OT match which was ultimately decided by tie-breaker when, after a series of odd calls (and non-calls), Cullen came away with a 4-3 victory.
Two of the state's best at 120 pounds, both said beforehand that it didn't matter what the other's tactics would be. And it showed, as a tense, hard-fought six minutes ended level at 1-1.
Cullen was with a 1-point penalty for moving to0 quickly from the down position prior to the whistle, which gave Mehrholz a 2-1 lead in the second OT session. Finally, in Cullen was able to ride out his superb opponent.
"(Mehrholz) is a great talent, and he's just a sophomore who I might see again next weekend at sectionals, and hopefully downstate in two weeks," said Cullen, a junior. "So I won't get too excited for the win, that's for sure."
The Mehrholz heartbreaker, was followed by another when Cary-Grove's Logan Hanselmann (25-6) bounced Deerfield's Brian Spinello (37-10) in the 126-pound final. That led to a 2-0 shutout win by Conrad over John Cullen (Cary-Grove, 28-9). And when the state's No. 2-rated 138-pounder, Nick Gil (37-1), finished off Deerfield's Sage Heller (38-7) with a nearly flawless 12-5 decision, the Broncos were off and running.
"Hoving should take us all out to eat," joked Cary-Grove coach Ryan Ludwig. "This was a tough group of teams here, and I am thrilled and very proud of the three champions we have, and the five we're sending to sectionals -- but sad we couldn't get our 52- and 60-pounders through."
Trojans heavyweight Michael Gomez (29-11) continues to impress, getting a pin at 3:13 of his final. Teammate Josh Dermont (170, 29-13) came back through the consolation bracket to lock up his first trip to the sectional tournament. It was good news for Garrett Dziedzic (120, 29-10), Casey Callahan (152, 28-7) and Roland Gastfield (23-12) from Crystal Lake South. Gastfields' win came in dramatic fashion when he roared back from a 12-6 deficit to register a pin at 5:12 in his sectional qualifier bout with Seth Harris (21-13) of Stevenson.
"What a great story about Roland," said CL South coach Ross Ryan. "When we got together for our seed meeting, we fought to get Roland the third seed by saying he wasn't the prettiest looking wrestler but he finds a way to win, works so hard, and never seems out of a match -- and if that's not enought, he scored a 34 on his ACT -- and he proved me right."
The Gators' big three of Gil, Nick Barone (145, 35-4) and Brian Pence (195, 24-3) continued to sail along, each coming away with victories while building their impressive combined overall record to 96-8.
Barone, a junior, had his hands full with Lake Zurich senior Brandon Arteaga (29-4), who cruised into the finals before falling 4-3 to Barone when a reversal with eight seconds remaining proved the difference.
"(Arteaga) was a great opponent, and it was the kind of match I kind of expected when you have two state-ranked guys going at each other," said Barone. "It was a great test for me, and I am just happy to come away with the title to send me into the sectional in a good position."
Arteaga will be joined at the section by Alex Zurawski (16-9, second at 195 pounds), and 152-pound champ Sean Lynch, who after a long layoff from injury came back to book his place in the sectionals for a fourth consecutive time.
"I've always come back and gotten in 18 to 22 matches before regionals, but I've had this nagging shoulder injury from football that just needed a lot of rest," said Lynch (5-0) who won his third straight regional crown following a gritty 5-2 win over Cody Patchett (27-12) of McHenry. "But to be honest, I feel the best I've ever felt at this time of the year, and really fresh and ready to go from here on out."
The news was mixed in the Stevenson camp, where Tyler Harrington ran his record to 33-5 after an impressive run through the 170-pound division, while freshmen Eric Carter (103, 28-13) and junior Zach Horwitz (182, 22-15) safely navigated a trip to Barrington next weekend.
"I was a little disappointed in my 3-1 loss to Stathakis in my semifinals, especially after that giving up those 3 back points, but I had to get over it fast and concentrate on wrestlebacks if I wanted to advance," said Carter, who quickly did so with a pin (1:15) and then a 6-4 decision over Kyle Clough (Deerfield, 26-7) in his sectional qualifying match.
Harrington, a junior whose family moved into the Stevenson boundaries from Nebraska during the off-season, upended Travis Cysewski (Barrington, 27-13) to win his first regional title in Illinois with a 7-4 decision.
"The coaching staff at Stevenson is terrific, and they have made it so easy for me coming into a new program, while helping me prepare for my first year of wrestling in the area," said Harrington.
Chase Ori (126, 24-4) was the lone man from Buffalo Grove to advance, despite a valiant effort from teammate Jake Siebert (29-10). Siebert came all the way back through a rugged 145-pound bracket only to fall to Connor Boundy (27-14) of Barrington in a qualifying match.
"Boundy, Peter Minewegen (138) and especially Julius Smith (160, 25-12) all got us big wins in wrestlebacks, then again in their third-place matches to eventually close out Deerfield," said Hoving. "It was truly a team effort today."