With the vision of watching Batavia lift the championship trophy one year ago still etched firmly in its minds the St. Charles East wrestling team erased that memory forever when it carried off the big Upstate Eight Conference trophy Saturday afternoon at Larkin.
The Saints, who opened the second day of competition a takedown ahead of runner-up Glenbard East (105-103) opened a lead the Rams were unable to overcome, despite earning five individual champs to the four coach Jason Potter's Saints would grab.
"That second place finish last year was something we all promised wouldn't happen again this time around," said Potter, whose club failed to record its fifth consecutive conference championship last season.
"The effort to begin the tournament on Friday was very good, and it continued right from the start this morning but now we've got to get back in the room and fix a few things at some spots in advance of regionals in two weeks."
The Saints would outscore Glenbard East by 19 points (261-242), and third-place Batavia (179.5), with West Aurora (175.5) and Geneva (123) rounding out the top five when all was said and done.
"We fell a little short, but not because of a lack of effort," began Rams head coach Kevin Carlson, who watched Scott Szabo (138) win his second straight UEC crown, and his upper-weight trio of Alec Wolf (170), Jesus Lopez (220) and Brandon Raines (285, 31-4) do the same.
"Five individual champs is not a bad days work, as was our overall effort, which was clearly the best we've wrestled as a team thus far this season."
Should the Rams win three more duals next week, it will eclipse the program record for victories (25) in a season.
Glenbard East would win three of the four head-to-head bouts with the Saints in the semifinals to pull within 225-203 but when it was 249-219 following the 152 final, it was all but over.
Joe Ruffino (106, 34-0) and teammate Ben Anderson (113, 30-4) made their case with each showing an abundance of attacking skill which resulted in the Saints' duo winning easily to get the eventual champs off to a flying start.
"It was all about winning your match then going after bonus points each time you went out there this weekend," said the senior Ruffino, who won his second straight UEC crown.
"It was pretty clear what our focus was coming into the tournament, and although I was able to get pins in my first two matches, I wasn't able to get another one in my final," said the sophomore Anderson, who scored quick and often in his final with Reece Martin (29-3) of Glenbard East en route to his 9-3 victory.
Justin Benjamin (120, 28-4) would continued the Saints' mastery during the early exchanges with a hard-fought 4-3 decision against Nick Donovan (Glenbard East, 20-5), who was searching for his second UEC title of his career.
"Once again it was the guys at the lower end of our lineup that got us going on the right foot," said Potter.
West Aurora star and now two-time UEC champ Isaac Jacquez (32-2), who bumped up from 120 to dominate the field at 126 pounds, finished a brilliant two days of competition with a dazzling six minutes that ended with a 17-5 major of Lucson Schneider of St. Charles East.
"It's all about pushing a little harder each time I go out and get myself downstate where it's then going for a state title," said Jacquez, a three-time state qualifier and state medalist two years ago.
Steve Norman would follow-up Jacquez' performance later on with a 9-4 victory over Cody Glidwell to capture the 182-pound championship ring for the Blackhawks.
"I started going to Izzy Style wrestling during the offseason, and that, along with me getting my mental game together, plus the encouragement of my father, this season has gone very well for me so far," said the senior, who is now 32-7 after winning 24 last season.
The aforementioned Szabo (23-5) would win the first of five titles for the Rams on the day after his 5-3 win over Mike Donatelli (Geneva, 23-5), which he hopes will jump-start the last postseason of his career.
"I feel like I'm ready to make my mark when regionals begin in two weeks, and I want to do my best to help my team as well," said the four-year veteran.
Cole Martin (23-5) would take an injury forfeit at 152 after Chad Reynolds of St. Charles North suffered an injury during his gritty 6-4 decision over Angelo Poland (Elgin) in the semifinals.
Reynolds would miss time last year with a shoulder injury.
Sandwiched in between the Jacquez and Martin finals was the highly anticipated 132-pound final, featuring Larkin's Hugo Barraza (19-3), who beat No. 1 seed Kolbe O'Brien (St. Charles North, 30-1) in Friday's quarterfinals, then Justin Major of Batavia to advance to meet the athletic Louis Gordon (26-8) from St. Charles East.
The two had an intense, all-action first two periods, with Barraza getting in on his opponent several times, only to be shutout by Gordon, who would concede a first period takedown, plus a reversal at the start of the second period.
With things even at 4-4, a Barraza attempt near the edge at 4½ minutes found the Royals' star landing awkwardly on his elbow which, after attended to, saw Barraza's day abruptly end and having Gordon taking an injury default victory.
"It's not looking real good right now for Hugo," said a despondent Larkin head coach Mike Hodge, who fears the injury could end the career of his captain.
"If I could have 20 Hugo's in our program, it would be the best around. Right now, it's really hard to believe what happened out there to him."
Junior Alec Wolf (170, 19-7) gave the Glenbard East fans and Carlson shortness of breath after he roared out to a 8-0 first period lead, only to be put to his back by Nick Benson (29-7) of Batavia just seconds before the whistle sounded to end the period.
"I guess I got a little careless," admitted Wolf, who vowed to avenge a pin at the hands of Benson at the Berman Holiday Classic in late December.
Lopez (22-10) and Raines would join their Rams' mates atop the podium, Lopez with a pin over Cole Campbell of Geneva and Raines after his ultimate tiebreaker 3-1 decision against Josh Mayhew (20-9) of West Aurora.
I wrestled (Campbell) at frosh-soph and he was really good on the legs, but I didn't expect him to be that way at 220 pounds," said Lopez.
That Campbell advanced into the final is a testament to the will and desire of the Vikings' sophomore, who was out nearly the entire season with a broken nose, then an illness that limited him to just four matches coming into the tournament.
"Adversity breeds success, and except for the body-to-body work I missed being out, and not being wrestling fit, I was ready to go once I got back into the room," said Campbell.
Around the brackets, unseeded East Aurora senior Matt Young (18-4) would stun the field when he pinned his way to the 160-pound title, ending with a fall at 2:45 over top seed, Joe Posledni (33-4) of Batavia.
"I'm just hoping to do what my brother did two years ago," said Young, whose older brother Tim turned the 195-pound weight class upside down in Champaign when he won a state title there.
Trey Lally (25-2) won the lone UEC championship on the weekend for West Chicago, defeating Nick Dawson (21-7) of Bartlett, while Seth Winkle (21-6) did the same for defending champion Batavia.
"Since sixth-grade (Niko Derain, St. Charles East) has beaten me I would guess 8-10 times, and after I stunk up the joint at the Berman back in December, my coaches said we had from then until now to change, tweak and fix a few things in order to get ready for the state series," admitted Winkle, who was out with a broken nose for some time, and now competes with a mask.
Winkle used a takedown with 10 seconds remaining in regulation to secure his 5-2 victory over Derain, now 31-5.