Scouting the team wrestling state tournament
Where: U.S. Cellular Coliseum (Bloomington)
Schedule: 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. (quarterfinals), 2 p.m. semifinals, 6 p.m. first- and third-place meets
Local focus: Conant's can-do attitude yielded great results, as the Cougars topped Glenbard North on Tuesday to advance into the Elite Eight of the Class 3A team wrestling series.
"It's just amazing," Conant's Tyler LaBarbera said after he and his teammates went through their paces on Wednesday under the guidance of coach Chad Hay in preparation for a Saturday morning quarterfinal matchup against Oak Park-River Forest.
"Coach Hay and the other coaches put together a great game plan for (Glenbard North), and it was then up to all of us to go out and do our job, and as we have all season long, that's exactly what we did. And now we're heading downstate."
To Hay, the outcome wasn't a complete surprise.
"Our win over Glenbard North was typical of the way this team has been this year," Hay said. "From the very beginning, we've stressed that it's all about the team, and when you go out there you have a job. And as long as you do your job, our chances of winning and being successful improve with each guy that wrestles."
Hay cited several examples to prove his point, including memorable comebacks against Schaumburg in a key Mid-Suburban West divisional dual in which his club fell behind 24-0 early before roaring back to score the last 30 points in a 36-27 victory. Or its 1-point victory over Oak Forest to capture the Leyden Invite crown. And perhaps its greatest comeback of all, rebounding from more than 50 points down to Schaumburg at the MSL tourney and winning the meet when LaBarbera recorded a pin in the final match.
"These guys just stay within themselves, never getting too high, and never, ever getting too low. They are so good at picking each other up when we really need it, and that really says a lot about everyone of them," said Hay.
The "do your job" approach was especially key against Glenbard North.
Conant's Kyle Peisker stayed away from a bonus points against Austin Gomez, who'd majored the 113-pounder just two weeks ago at the sectional. And Marcus Williams (21-17) kept Panthers two-time qualifier Patrick Augustyn under wraps in a 6-1 loss.
"For those guys to go out and wrestle that hard and smart, it gave us all a lift and kept us close until we got ourselves up and running," said LaBarbera.
"That's just the way this team is," said Conant's Griff Rose, who struck for the game-winners against both Schaumburg and Barrington to clinch the MSL West crown. "We're like a bunch of blue collar, 9-to-5 guys who know what hard work will do. And on the mats, with that work ethic, we can keep things close all the time and get after it when it really counts at the end."
The Cougars would fell behind Glenbard North 14-3 after 138 pounds, then went to work in cutting into the lead.
Alexander, Karapanos, Dan Andress and Seungnak Shin fueled a 20-0 run. Two bouts later, when LaBarbera won his match 4-2, Hay knew his club was on its way to Bloomington.
"I am not sure if the fans knew that Tyler's win actually clinched, especially after they got the pin at 106 to make it 26-26," said Hay. "But all of us knew we'd won more individual matches, and the result would be in our favor with the criteria.
"When everyone finally realized that, the place went absolutely up for grabs, and all I am thinking is how happy and proud for everyone associated with this team and our program."
Here's a look at each of the 3A quarterfinals:
9 a.m.: Planfield Central (16-6-0) vs. Marmion Academy (13-3-0)
Marmion was rarely at full strength in the regular season as the team battled one injury after another, but the No. 3-rated Cadets manhandled the competition at regionals, winning by nearly 145 points over their closest challenger. Wisconsin-bound Johnny Jimenez (126, 43-3) walked into the record books last Saturday when he joined an elite group after winning his fourth straight state title in Champaign. He leads a talented and deep bunch which includes five state medal-winners, many of whom were part of a second-place finish here a year ago.
Central has a fine young coach in Jim Kappas, who was in charge of this program when it made its initial visit here in 2010 with its terrific trio of Nathan Davis, Eric Oyster and Joey Uccardi. The Wildcats have had their share of injuries, which has kept the lineup in flux during most of the season. But one constant has been the fine work from seniors Nick Nasenbery (126, 30-7) and Dominic Sterr (182, 43-7), who finished fifth individually last weekend.
9 a.m.: Marist (23-5-0) vs. Lincoln-Way Central (19-3-0)
Led by three-time state medalist Peter Andreotti (160, 42-3), the ESCC champs finally advanced into the Elite Eight from a sectional which had been dominated by Sandburg the past few years. The No. 2 Redhawks, who beat the defending 3A champions by 46 points last month at regionals, enter the tournament at No. 19 in the nation according to Intermat Magazine. Former Marist star Brendan Heffernan brought nine competitors to Champaign, many with expectations of winning championships. While five earned medals, none were of the gold variety, giving his club some extra motivation for this weekend.
Central is sometimes lost among southside giants such as Lockport, Marist and Sandburg, but the Knights have advanced downstate for the second consecutive season after bouncing No. 6 Edwardsville (28-1) from the unbeaten ranks last Tuesday at the Mahomet-Seymour sectional. State runner-up Joey Nelson (44-7) and teammates Bryce Gorman (44-7) and Brian Ditchman (42-12) are responsible for much of the success of the seventh-ranked Knights, but there's terrific depth of quality in this lineup.
11 a.m.: Conant (19-2-0) vs. Oak Park-River Forest (23-1-0)
This is the classic David versus Goliath setup, with the top-rated Huskies taking on the MSL champions, who have not been able to crack the top 20 all season long, even after winning conference and regional crowns before surprising the No. 5 rated squad from Glenbard North (27-26) to earn a sixth visit for the program downstate. It's the first downstate coaching trip for Hay, now in his fifth season with the Cougars.
"We were still in Cloud 9 around here," said Hay. "It's kind of crazy to look back at the very beginning at the starting lineup we threw out there, then fast forward to these past couple of weekends when we came back to win the MSL tournament, then regionals before beating a team like Glenbard North with all of its winning tradition, and to see how just how far we've come this season."
The Cougars cannot match the star-power of OPRF, of course -- there isn't a club in the state who can. But what they lack in glitz, they make up for with tremendous grit, which has kept them in every dual meet and tournament, and has allowed them to close out their opponents in the end.
"We know OPRF is the premier team in this state, but we're going to go out there in our quarterfinal and wrestle like we have all season -- as hard as we can," said LaBarbera. "And with the best effort each of us is able to give, then just see where we're at in the end."
Two-time state medalist Bobby Alexander (132, 40-4), who was third last weekend in Champaign, anchors the bottom half of the Conant lineup. Budding stars Peisker (113, 32-9) and fellow sophomore Danny Madonia (120, 35-5) get things rolling at the start. The heart of the lineup -- Karapanos (145, 29-10), Rose (152, 31-8) and Andress (160, 35-10) -- are there to provide the bridge to the Cougars' big men, Andrew Zerfas (195, 26-12), Michael Meier (220, 21-2) and LaBarbera (27-10).
OPRF's lineup is like a who's who of top talent in the state, if not nation. The Huskies are led by 2014 state champions Walter White Jr. (138), Larry Early III (145), Kamal Bay (160) and Davonte Mahomes (170), who is No. 10 in national polls and headed to Michigan next fall.
11 a.m.: Liberytville (21-2-0) vs. Hononegah (26-3-0)
When this current marvelous group of state-qualifying seniors -- Steve Polakowski, Kayne MacCallum, Austin Koziol, Kevin Barbian and Chris McDermand -- were freshmen, the Wildcats, then led by Matt Bystol, orchestrated an Elite Eight appearance.
"You had a sense this bunch which are now seniors would be something special, even when they were in middle school, so it's great to see them get downstate," said Libertyville coach Dale Eggert following the Cats' 31-20 victory over Barrington in Tuesday's sectional.
This will be a rematch from an early season matchup which had the Indians getting a 33-26 victory. That turned out to be just one of just two losses Eggert' team suffered during a sensational season in which the Hall of Fame coach reached 500 career. Libertyville had four state medalists last weekend and has earned a 7th trip to the dual-team state tournament in program history.
The Wildcats held Barrington to just a pair of bonus points victories in their sectional matchup. That kind of tactical ability will serve them well against Hononegah, which has several highly skilled competitors. Among them are state runners-up Fernie Silva (145, 45-5) and Tyler Demoss (170, 43-6) and a host of others, including state qualifier Zach Benkovich (38-9) at 160 pounds.
After a four-year run from 2005 thru 2008, the Indians have been absent from the team state finals. But this season they have rolled over their competition, scoring 60-plus points on five occasions. And Rockton Hononegah has lost only once all year to a team from Illinois -- OPRF, naturally.
-- Mike Garofola