Photo Credit: Alan Pickerill
By JARED BELL
The Coal City wrestling team doesn’t talk about Dakota.
Not in practice, not at meets and not on the bus.
However, it doesn’t mean the four-time defending Class 1A state champion isn’t on the Coalers’ mind.
“We don’t really talk too much about Dakota,” 113-pound sophomore Alex Friddle said. “But it is in the back of our head that we’ve lost to them two years in a row.”
In each of the past two postseasons, the Coalers’ state title quest has ended thanks to Dakota as in 2015 Coal City lost to the Indians 56-16 in the 1A state semifinals and last year fell 31-30 in the 1A state title match.
Even though the Coalers are not focused on Dakota, they do think about it from time to time.
“Dakota is the king until somebody can beat them,” Coal City coach Mark Masters said. “They’re the team to beat.”
However, over the past few weeks, Coal City has shown it’s ready to challenge the Indians’ reign.
After the Coalers – ranked No. 2 in the current Illinois Matmen GO EARN IT Wrestling Apparel Rankings – won Abe’s Rumble, they doubled down by winning a loaded Lyle King Princeton Invitational and finishing ahead of second-place Dakota – ranked No. 1 in 1A – by 27 points.
“This year, we think it’s our year,” 120-pound senior Jake Hiles said. “We’ve been wrestling really well and have beaten a couple of good teams already. Hopefully, we can come out on top at the end of the season.”
Challenging the “kings” of 1A is all part of Coal City’s ascension.
Always able to produce state champions, the Coalers were unable to compete as a team as they lacked the depth needed.
However, over the past few years, Coal City’s numbers have grown and so have the trophies.
“Not a whole lot has changed other than getting numbers,” Masters said of the key to his team’s recent success. “We’ve always had talent and have always had state champs, but we never had the numbers to fill a lineup.
“We had a good group of kids come through a few years ago, and it just started building. We just kept getting better and better, and the expectations – which have always been high – have been pushed a little higher.”
Two years ago, the Coalers broke through the regional roadblock as they won the program’s first regional in 15 years. That season, Coal City advanced to dual team state and finished third.
Last season, the squad repeated the effort as it won back-to-back regionals for the first time since the late 1990s, advanced to state and placed second.
However, each year, Dakota ultimately stood in the way.
“It’d be really nice to beat them this year since we’ve lost to them the last two years,” Hiles said. “We kind of have a rivalry with them – they are really, really good wrestlers – so it’d be sweet to beat them.”
However, Masters has made certain that his kids understand that despite Coal City’s recent success they haven’t won anything yet.
“We keep reminding the kids, ‘Hey guys, you haven’t done anything. We don’t hold a state title trophy,’” Masters said. “Until you get to the top, you have to stay humble.
“I’d love to see our kids hoist that state championship trophy. If it happens great, but if not then we’re going to keep working until we get one.”
If Coal City does win, it’d be the first dual team state title in program history.
“I don’t really care who we beat,” Masters said. “These kids don’t care who they beat either as long as it’d mean a state title. It doesn’t matter if it’s Dakota, Vandalia, Auburn, Lena-Winslow or someone else. If we get a chance to hoist that trophy, we don’t care who we face.”
Jared Bell can be reached at (815) 220-6938. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsJared.