By GARY LARSEN
Illinois Matmen

Montini’s Real Woods has been in the Grand March in Champaign in each of his first two years in high school. Like every state finalist, he enjoyed being on the floor for the annual spotlight introduction.

“It’s a great experience. It reminds me a lot of Tulsa nationals back when I was a little kid,” Woods said. “It’s awesome. In the tunnel I try to stay calm but there’s a lot of anxiety to deal with. And I wrestle best when I stay calm.

“My worst matches have come when I’ve gone into them with too much nervous energy. When you’re too nervous or tense, you can wrestle too cautious and not open up enough. This year I’ve gotten my best handle on that.”

Woods won a 2A title at 106 his freshman year and placed second in 3A at 113 last season. He’s currently ranked second at 126 in Illinois Matmen’s Go Earn It Wrestling Apparel Class 3A rankings, behind Oak Park and River Forest’s Tony Madrigal.

Woods (32-2) finished fourth at Ohio’s Ironman tournament to start the year and won titles in every tournament he entered thereafter. He followed titles at the Cheesehead and the Chicago Catholic League tournament with Class 3A regional and sectional titles.

None of that matters now.

Woods’ attempt to reach the state title mat this year begins with Thursday’s match in Champaign against Collinsville’s Jevon Pargo (45-6). The winner of that match would take on the winner between Rolling Meadows’ Jackson Kohlberg (37-4) and New Trier’s Jack Tangen (33-6).

Win two matches and you’re in the semifinals downstate but as every wrestler will tell you, talking about that amounts to putting the cart well before the horse. And that’s something wrestlers never want to do.

“I respect every opponent I face,” Woods said. “It’s a mistake to look past anyone and I won’t ever do it.”

Not that Woods wouldn’t love to find himself on the 3A title mat on Saturday, shaking hands with Madrigal, who is on the opposite side of the bracket at 126.

Madrigal (34-2) handed Woods his only two regular-season losses this year, both at Ohio’s Walsh Ironman in early December, first via 8-4 decision and then 5-3 in overtime.

Although Woods grew up in New Mexico and didn’t move to Illinois until his freshman year at Montini, he and Madrigal have history.

“We’ve actually been wrestling since we were little kids, at Tulsa nationals and Kickoff and stuff. So we’ve been at it for years,” Woods said.

“He’s got really good leg defense and he’s one of the tougher opponents to ride. I’ve been successful my entire career riding guys and he’s one of the tougher guys to ride.

“He has beaten me twice but to me, that can work to my advantage because you learn a lot more from a loss than from a victory. I’ve continued to improve since losing to him.”

Woods was dominant at this year’s Downers Grove North sectional meet, posting a tech fall and a pin before winning by tech fall on the title mat against Lyons’ Zach Villareal. He also burned through the competition at the Lyons regional, posting two pins and a tech fall.

“My neutral game has gotten a lot better since I got to Montini,” Woods said. “(Coach Israel Martinez) is real good in neutral and we work at it every day, doing different things that I didn’t know before I got into that (practice) room. It expanded my knowledge of the sport.

“It’s non-stop in that room. You don’t have a choice but to get better throughout the year.

“As the year progressed there have been positions that I needed to get better on. I have great coaches, they set the scheme, and I just try to get it done. We all buy in and that reflects in the results.”

Poised to make a run at a third state finals appearance in three years, Woods cites the age-old truisms of wrestling in explaining his success.

“It’s all the clichés – hard work, dedication – all the clichés are true,” Woods said. “You have to embrace them and buy into them. It’s that simple.”