The more you work at something, the better you become at it.
That has most definitely been the case for the Elgin wrestling trio of Zach McCullough, Jeffrey Morrow and Ritchie Santana.
Immersed in the sport since they were young children, the trio is enjoying tremendous success this season, sporting a combined 70-5 mark heading into today's Upstate Eight Conference River Division tournament at Batavia.
McCullough, a junior, is 24-1 and a No. 2 seed in the tournament at 113 pounds only because his one loss came against a St. Charles East foe. McCullough is ranked 12th in Class 3A by Illinois Matmen and has won tournament titles at Hoffman Estates and Kaneland.
Morrow, also a junior, is 23-2 overall and is the top seed at 106 pounds, while Santana, a senior, is 23-2 and the top seed at 195 pounds. Morrow is currently ranked 12th in Class 3A by Illinois Matmen and has two tournament titles to his credit this year, according to the site. Santana is listed in the Illinois Matmen honorable mention rankings at 195 in Class 3A. He took second at Hoffman Estates and won his division at Kaneland.
"The biggest part is all three of them started wrestling when they were youngsters," says Elgin coach Tom Stewart, who has been in the program for 14 years and wrestled at EHS (1971 graduate). "It's a tough sport. When most guys come to Elgin, the first chance they have to wrestle is in high school. These three have been on the mat many times over the years and by the time they got here, they had already worked all the bugs out and focused on honing their skills and getting much better."
McCullough would be a contender for the comeback of the year award if such an honor was awarded. He missed the majority of his sophomore year with a broken wrist.
"I wanted to change a lot about what I was doing," he said. "Being out that long, I realized I had to work harder to get back to where everybody else was."
Stewart calls McCullough "Mr. Aggressive."
"He's a pretty good takedown artist," the coach says. "When he gets in control he likes to run the legs. He works the legs well. His best move is getting people on the mat turned over either by running the legs or getting a good pinning combo off the legs."
McCullough, who has been wrestling for 11 years and formerly competed in the Dundee Highlanders youth program, notes his aggressive demeanor on the mat is something he's worked on over the last year.
"I used to be a lot more tentative," he says. "There are a lot of good guys out there. You have to try and do what they are doing. I've changed my mindset about that."
McCullough says he's tried other sports throughout the years, but wrestling kept popping up on his radar. "I've always loved wrestling," he said. "I've always come back to wrestling. I can't describe it. It's something I've always liked."
Morrow, who missed going to state last year by one match, has been wrestling for 13 years and started in the Crystal Lake Wizards youth program.
The junior has been hard at work improving his footwork this season.
"I'm very quick on my feet," Morrow said. "I worked a lot over the summer on my feet and getting in better positions for takedowns. I wanted to be a lot quicker on my feet. I wrestled a lot of freestyle and Greco. Freestyle helped me see where my body is so I can take my shots. I've been working on finishing my takedowns and getting people down and keeping them down so I can get back points."
Morrow enjoys the individuality of the sport.
"It's you and your opponent out there," he said. "You have coaches, but you decide what you are doing out there and how to take advantage of it."
Stewart notes Morrow, a conference runner-up in 2012, has been taken down only once this season.
"Jeff is a takedown artist," Stewart said. "He is so quick on his feet and is so tough to take down. He's very quick and very aggressive and his very good balance. He's only been put on his back once this season."
Santana has been wrestling for 9 years and started in the Dundee-Crown Chargers youth program.
"Ritchie is a steady wrestler who doesn't let the match get to him," said Stewart, whose older brothers Ed (Class of 1957), Albert (1962) and Bob (1968) also wrestled at Elgin. "In the first part of matches, he'll try to get a takedown, but he's a wrestler that doesn't need a takedown. Once he gets on the mat he's in full control. He's a very good wrestler. He has two losses and one of them was by 1 point. He should be in contention for a conference championship."
Santana says age has been a driving factor for him this season.
"It's my senior season," he explained. "That really hit me and it has allowed me to kick things into high gear. I'm keeping my goals in mind. It's my last year in high school and I really want to finish things off well and leave a mark for Elgin. I'm practicing harder and staying more consistent and being more aggressive on the mat. All my hard work is starting to pay off and I'm starting to see the results."
The trio is thrilled by not only its individual successes, but the successes of the entire Maroons team. Elgin is 12-6 in dual matches this year and recently finished second at the Kaneland tournament.
"All of us have had a really good year," said Santana, who placed third in conference at 182 last year and qualified for the sectional. "We've all been able to come together. I think the coaching staff has changed three times since I've been here, but coach Stewart has been here the longest. Having him in the room is good. We all work well together."
Stewart likes the progress he's seen this year.
"We're coming off a second-place finish at Kaneland," he said. "Guys throughout the lineup have helped score points this year. We've had an outstanding season. It's been years since that's happened at Elgin."