Chad Hay leaned back and threw a glance into the air with a sigh of relief moments after sophomore Cormac Kane helped close out Notre Dame (18-8-0) and give No. 14-ranked Conant its biggest win of the wrestling season.
Kane's technical fall in the final match of the night gave Conant (17-4-0) a hard-fought 36-27 victory in the Class 3A dual-team sectional it hosted Tuesday. That sends the Cougars into the state quarterfinals Saturday in Bloomington, where Conant will face No. 7 Deerfield (24-2), a victor over Barrington at Rockford East.
"You know me -- I'll spend hours going over matchups and potential lineup switches, so going into tonight's dual I knew it would be a tight one where a couple of weight classes would decide the eventual outcome," said Hay, who is taking Conant downstate after a three-year absence.
The coach's long-time friend and former teammate at Illinois, Jason Potter, is St. Charles East's coch. The Saints saw their season end with a 35-21 loss to No. 2-ranked Oak Park-River Forest (20-3).
The reigning Class 3A state champions will face No. 5 Montini on Saturday morning at 11 a.m., the same time Conant begins at U.S. Cellular Coliseum in downtown Bloomington.
A big Tuesday night crowd watched the hosts open with a 9-0 lead after a decision from Eric Hominac (182, 33-9) and pin from senior Lee Fuller, who bumped up from 182 to 195.
"We beat Notre Dame earlier by twenty (36-16), but we knew it would be much closer tonight, with both teams moving guys around to hopefully get an advantage or some bonus points at certain weights," said Fuller (21-6).
But the Dons had plenty left in their gas tank, plus the motivation of trying to send retiring coach Augie Genovesi off in grand style. So with back-to-back pins at 220 and 285, plus a 4-2 win at 106 by Sean Crump, ND was in control at 15-9.
"Everyone on this team has improved so much since the first time we met Conant, so we knew it would be a battle right until the end -- which, unfortunately for us, came down to a couple of weights that ultimately did us in," said Genovesi, whose staff includes long-time Conant and Hoffman Estates head coaches Jim Cartwright and Bill Scully.
Alex Giuliano (113) provided the Cougars with a big 6-point victory with his pin at 2:30, followed up nicely by a 6-3 victory from junior Jeremy Conroy to give Conant the lead at 18-15.
Tyler Futris (33-8), one of seven state qualifiers on the Conant roster, pushed the advantage to 10 points (25-15) with a pin at 126. But Notre Dame wouldn't go away, and after victories at 132 and 138, the Cougars' lead was cut to 24-21.
"I knew when we started at 182 tonight, that it might come down to both me and Woz (Dan Wozniak) -- so I had to be ready to win one for us," said Conant senior Noah Davis, (24-14) whose takedown with 90 seconds remaining proved to be the difference in a 3-2 victory over Vince Spedale.
With the lead at 27-21, up stepped Wozniak (35-14). From his takedown in the opening moments of his bout with Sam Grillo, it was clear the senior was on a mission to succeed.
"I had beaten him three times this season, but tonight was different," said Wozniak. "So when the chance was there for me to add a few more points to our score with a major, it was all I could think of."
His 4-point victory gave the Cougars the lead at 31-21, and even with Notre Dame two-time state qualifier Josh Barzowski (160, 40-5) recording a pin, there was little doubt from Fuller, Davis and Wozniak about what their young teammate Kane would do after he checked into the scorer's table.
"Cormac has done so well in his first year on the varsity -- he's gotten us a lot of bonus points this year, and he is so tough on top -- so when he got the lead and kept building it, we all knew this one was going to be ours," said Wozniak.
"This is a great win for us tonight -- it's a great bunch of guys who are really close, and to see us get downstate after losing so many quality guys from last year says a lot about this team," said Hay.
On the other side of William N. Perry Gymnasium, Jason Potter's men were disciplined, dogged and fought hard against state power OPRF. But in the end, the Huskies had a little too much firepower than the Saints, who stayed close until their opponents brought out thir lineup's heavy artillery.
"All I can say is I am very proud of my guys tonight," said Potter. "Hey, that's the defending state champions and No. 2 team in the state. The chance of an upset was unlikely, but our guys, a few of them up with the varsity and others at different weights, left it all out on the mat. And in the end, that's all you can ask for."
With an eye on the future, Potter threw a few rookies against the Huskies, knowing the experience would be vital in their growth for next season and beyond.
Sophomore Justin Hull got the Saints on the board with a pin over Talvin Gibson to tie it at 6-6, and after a 8-2 victory from Chris Middlebrooks at 285 put OPRF back in front (9-6), senior Joe Ruffino's final match at East ended with the two-time state qualifier collecting his 40th win of the season in a 5-4 decision.
Lucson Schneider (126) and Louis Gordon (138) helped keep the Saints close (22-15) after their victories, but state runner-up Anthony Madrigal (38-3) and fifth-place state medalist Jaime Hernandez (18-3) put this one out of reach after each registered technical-fall victories.
Senior Max Hatch finished the Saints' season on a high note with a fall at 1:47 at 170 pounds.
"We were missing three starters, including state qualifier, Ben Anderson (36-7) with an elbow injury -- lost a couple of 1-pointers that could have gone either way with a call or two in our favor, and we never would lay down against a state power like Oak Park," said Potter. "I'd say it was a terrific night for St. Charles East wrestling, and one that will be a springboard to bigger and better things next season."