97th IHSA wrestling state tournament
Where: State Farm Arena (formerly Assembly Hall), Champaign
When: Today: 3:00 (2A prelims) 5:00 (3A) prelims). Friday: 8:30 a.m. (quarterfinals), 7 p.m. (semifinals). Saturday: 9 a.m. (quarterfinal wrestlebacks) 1 p.m. (3rd-, 5th-place matches) 5:30 p.m. (Grand March, followed by championship matches).
The Lowdown: There can be little doubt of the measure of achievement the 14 area qualifiers have earned. But the stakes have been raised after they survived last weekend's sectionals, and now all the talk centers around each the 16-man weight brackets in action on the big floor at the University of Illinois.
Frequent flyers:Eric Barone (Crystal Lake South, 145, 38-4): South fans along with Gators coach Ross Ryan have come to expect the unexpected from this live wire who, with his take-no-prisoners approach and supreme confidence is quite capable of making a deep run. "Eric has always been a hard worker, but the difference with him this year is his confidence and mental toughness, which I believe has made him into the force he has become," said Ross. The junior will finally make his way into the top 10 polls after defeating then-No. 3 Fernie Silva (Hononegah) in the sectional finals while others in the class suffered defeats during last weekend's tournament schedule. This weight is jammed with high-profile stars, including No. 2 Juwan Edmond (Hinsdale Central, 44-1) and Silva, who are on the other side of his bracket. Tourney favorite Larry Early (OPRF, 31-7) ) is on the horizon in the semifinals.
Michael Cullen (Cary-Grove, 120, 26-4): The central figure in the Trojans' program will be searching for a third state medal in a different weight class as he begins his quest against Patrick Augustyn (Glenbard North, 36-8). Cullen, who moved up from 113 at the FVC tournament (where he collected his third straight league title), has never looked better. "My frame of mind and energy level are way up there ever since bumping up, and I now feel like I can go with anybody in this weight class," said the junior standout. Cullen's recent move to this weight class made an already talent-rich bunch even deeper. It includes long-time nemesis and No. 1-ranked Kris Williams (Thornwood, 27-0), as well as No. 2 Steve Polakowski (Libertyville, 39-1) and two-time runner-up Mark Duda (Marist, 31-6), who lost to Williams in the final one year ago.
Nick Gil (Crystal Lake South, 138, 40-1): One of the true contenders for a state title from the area, the Gators senior enters the tournament as the No. 2-rated '38-pounder, and just a click behind No. 1 Walter (Isaiah) White (Oak Park-River Forest, 34-4), who prevailed 3-1 in the only meeting between the two at the finals of the OPRF Invite in mid-January and is clear on the other side of this bracket. The three-time state qualifier, and 2013 state medalist summed it up best when asked what his expectations are this weekend during a brief chat after winning at Barrington last weekend. "From here on out, it's just three wins in three matches to achieve the goal I've set out to reach," said the Naval Academy-bound four-year star, who enters the action with over 150 career victories. It begins in earnest this evening against Devon Simpson (41-5) of Granite City, and more than likely No. 2 Mario Levelle (28-7) from Marist in Friday's quarterfinals.
Logan Hanselman (Cary-Grove, 126, 28-7): The Trojans' senior was out a short while after a nasty fall at home but has come back to find his form and reach the tournament for a second consecutive year following a successful run to glory at the FVC and regional tournaments and a second-place finish at sectionals last weekend in Barrington. "After having to go through wrestlebacks last season at both regionals and sectionals to get downstate, I really feel that experience, plus having one year under my belt in Champaign, has been a boost for my confidence while making me more mentally strong for what's ahead," says Hanselsman, who in his first season finished with just one half dozen wins but slowly grew into a force in the league. He reached his career high of 34 wins in puching his first ticket to Champaign. First-rounder with ESCC runner-up Mike Mullaney (Marist, 20-10), with a win sending him against No. 2 Jon Marmelejo (41-1) of Glenbard North Friday morning.
Anton Krocko (Hampshire, 182, 36-9): The Hampshire junior was able to handle the intense heat surrounding a first-class division at the Lakes sectional to not only secure his second consecutive tournament trip, but also the first time under coach Terry Wilkinson the program has sent two competitors downstate. "I am very proud of the achievements of both Anton and Kyle (Szlenk) who had to come back through wrestlebacks in order to qualify with so much pressure on them to do so," said Wilkinson. Krocko, too is savoring the experience. "I am very excited to be here again," said Krocko, "and with Kyle. But I know I can be better than I was at sectionals, and the hope is to have a great first match, and to keep wrestling through the weekend." Krocko first faces undefeated Harrison Williams (41-0) of Springfield.
Maiden voyagesDuke Bogicevic (Larkin, 126, 37-4): That Bogicevic was able to survive a weight class which boasted three qualifiers with 40 wins and another with 43 who failed to advance is really saying something special about this four-year standout, who didn't begin wrestling until his freshman year at Larkin. "There were four state-ranked, and another four honorable mention kids in his bracket, and he still was able to advance -- that was quite an accomplishment to say the least," said Larkin coach Steve Hoyt. A sectional qualifier a year ago with 27 victories, the senior becomes the first to qualify for the Royals since the 2012, when heavyweight Devontae Joshua made the trip.The consequence of a fourth-place finish at the sectional means an opener with sectional champ Shane Oyster (Lockport 39-6), currently No. 3 in the polls.
Christian Brunner (Dundee-Crown, 182, 40-4): The other half of a dynamic duo from Dundee-Crown, this super soph has backed down from nobody, including No. 2 Colton Emmerich of Deerfield. Emmerich walloped the reigning FVC and regional champ early on with a major decision, but Brunner pushed Emmerich to the brink in their sectional final before falling in the closing moments on a reveral. "My goal from my last match of last season was to get downstate, and I've been able to do so because of my friend and workout partner Jeremy Marshall," said Brunner. "As a great heavyweight, he has helped me deal with big strong guys, while I've helped him get quicker and faster on his feet -- which has made both of us so much better because of the day-to-day work in the room." Brunner's first opponent is Chicago Public Champ Nicola Gallo (42-2), with No. 6 Jimmy Mickens (Mt. Carmel, 34-8) up next.
John Cullen (Cary-Grove, 132, 32-10): The younger of C-G's wrestling brothers has made a name for himself this year, as the two-time sectional qualifier and now state qualifier has enjoyed a breakout season. "He has been my biggest booster and fan," said John Cullen on his brother Michael's influence, "and during this last half of the season, he's really pushed me hard in the room, upped the intensity of our workouts, and I really feel it's been one of the biggest reasons for my success during the postseason." The sophomore opens against Chicago Public Champ Danny Carlson (37-1) from Lane Tech, who was here three years ago as a freshman.
Garrett Dziedzic (Crystal Lake South, 120, 32-12): It didn't seem fair that a fifth and final meeting with his FVC rival (Cody Ferencz, Jacobs) would decide who qualified for state. But Dziedzic was unfazed and the junior prevailed 5-1 to join three teammates downstate this weekend. "Cody beat me earlier in the tournament to send me into wrestlebacks, but right away I knew looking at the brackets there was the chance we would see each other again," Dziedzic said. "But this time, with so much riding on the result I knew I had to take advantage of the opportunity if it happened." Dziedzic opens up with No. 6 Richard Townsell (OPRF, 27-4) in Champaign. "Garrett's effort during the two days at sectionals nearly brought me to tears, I was so proud of him," admits Ross.
Jeremy Marshall (Dundee-Crown, 285, 40-6): What a wonderful season for the Chargers' big man who finished just out of the running at regionals a year ago, then roared back to tear through the competition this year with championship rings at both the FVC and regional tournaments and a second-place finish behind No. 5 Chris McDermand (Libertyville) last weekend at Barrington. "Being in the room and training each day alongside Ray (Griggel), then watching him go on this memorable run in the state tournament from being unseeded to a fourth-place medalist at 220 pounds provided me with all the inspiration I would need with the hope of following in his footsteps this year," said the D-C captain. A solid opponent awaits Marshall (Kameron Hardwick, Lake Park, 42-8) in his opener, with a chance to meet reigning state champ Brian Allen (42-1) of Hinsdale Central in the quarterfinals.
Brian Pence (Crystal Lake South, 195, 26-4): It hardly seems possible that just two short years ago, the Gators senior was just above .500 (15-11) when his season ended with a sixth-place finish at the FVC tournament. That's ancient history now, but it provided all the motivation this big-time attacking '95-pounder needed. A break-out year in 2013 ended one win short of a trip downstate, but this year 35 wins, an FVC title and a second-place finish at regionals showed he belonged among the best in his group. "When you look at where Brian was not even two years ago, it's just amazing, but he's put in all the extra off-season work to get bigger, faster and stronger to get at the level he's now at, and we really feel he's ready to go this weekend," says Ryan. Pence will have the chance to make a real impression in the bracket in his state opener with No. 2 Andre Lee (40-3) from OPRF.
Kyle Szlenk (Hampshire, 106, 36-8): The other half of Whip-Purs' dynamic duo down in Champaign, the sophomore has been a dynamo ever since dropping down from 113, as witnessed by a command performance en route to an FVC title, and 15-4 record after the move. "He's so much more comfortable, strong and quicker at (106). and in my opinion, he's shown he is quite capable of a top six finish this weekend," says Wilkinson. Szlenk won three straight times in wrestlebacks, capping it all with a tech-fall at 4:38 to seal his place downstate. First up is a date with No. 4 Devante Gary (32-4, Bloomington) a two-time state qualifier, who won 34 last season.
Ricky Vigil (Huntley, 32-9): The Red Raiders junior represents a terrific lower weight group which produced four sectional qualifiers, all which came close to making a clean sweep downstate when the action came to a close last Saturday night in Barrington. Vigil parlayed his regional title into a good spot in the bracket, and his ability to win a close second-rounder put him into the position of needing just one more win to get through, which he did with a thrilling 3-2 victory over Parker Stratton of DeKalb. "Ricky got out to a (2-0) lead in his qualifier, which puts pressure on your opponent in important matches like that," said coach BG Bertelsman. "Then he just did what he had to do in order to win, and we're obviously very happy for him." A monumental task is ahead as Vigil faces three-time state champion Johnny Jimenez (38-3) of Marmion Academy in his opener.
-- Mike Garofola