PHOTO BY BECKY LaMONT / ILLINOIS MATMEN
By ROB SHERRILL
At just about any level, winning state championships is nothing new for Austin O’Connor.
The St. Rita senior opened the championship finals with a command performance at the State Farm Center, posting a dominating 20-8 major decision over Cole Smith of Providence in the 152-pound final to complete a 46-0 season and become the state’s 16th four-time state champion.
O’Connor opened with three first-period takedowns, had seven in the match and finished with a takedown and three-point near fall. It was his fourth victory over Smith this season this season – a pin, two major decisions and an 11-4 victory in the Chicago Catholic League final.
O’Connor has now won nine state titles in a row. He entered his high school career coming off five consecutive IKWF state crowns.
Austin Gomez (138) of Glenbard North and Jacob Warner (195) of Washington also dominated in winning their third state titles in 3A and 2A, respectively. Gomez put on a takedown clinic against Kendall Coleman of Chicago Mount Carmel, building an 11-2 lead before turning Coleman with a bulldog bar for a pin at 3:45, the second of the tournament for the Iowa State University signee.
After reaching the finals with three first-period pins, Warner (41-0) capped his title run with a technical fall over Hunter Crowley of Mahomet-Seymour.
Warner and two-time state champion Dack Punke (120) led a performance that saw all nine Panthers who qualified for state take home medals, including two brother combinations. Tyler Delaware (126) and Blaize Punke (138) finished second for Washington, Christian Goin (106), Kyle Goin (152) and Jace Punke (220) third, Dalton Jensen (145) fifth and Zeke Hulet (113) sixth.
Lockport, which had never had more than four medalists in any previous state tournament, led all 3A schools with seven, led by senior state champion Trevell Timmons (160), who scored the tie-breaking takedown with 21 seconds remaining in a 3-2 victory over Nate Jimenez of Marmion Academy. Timmons beat Jimenez twice this season, both wins by one point.
Abdullah Assaf (132) gave Jason Renteria of Oak Park-River Forest a battle, even scoring the match’s final takedown in a 16-10 loss that gave Renteria, the first four-time state finalist in Huskies history, his second title. Anthony Molton (113), Baylor Fernandes (145) and Payton Fernandes (182) fourth, and Matt Ramos (106) and Ronald Tucker (285) fifth.
A pair of Montini wrestlers, Joey Melendez (113) and Real Woods (126), won their second state titles, and Will Lewan (145) also won. The Broncos, who extended their state record for consecutive state tournaments winning at least one individual title to 18, led 3A with its three champions, a total matched by Belleville Althoff in 1A.
Melendez scored an 11-2 major decision over previously-unbeaten Domenic Zaccone of Stagg, while Woods, also a 2A state champion in 2015, won his first 3A title, 1-0 over Anthony Madrigal of Oak Park-River Forest. A Woods escape at the start of the third period was the only point of the match. But Madrigal, who had beaten Woods three times since the start of the school year, nearly created an eerily similar finish to Woods’ loss to Louie Hayes of Carl Sandburg in 2016 with a pair of near-takedowns in the final 30 seconds.
Montini, Marmion Academy and Chicago Mount Carmel all had six placewinners and Oak Park-River Forest placed five.
Junior Chase Bittle (126) won his second title for Belleville Althoff, becoming the first wrestler in state history to pin his way to a title with four first-period pins. His pin of Jared Van Vleet of Stillman Valley at 1:18 of the final gave him four falls in a combined total of 4:46.
Althoff’s other two champions, Danny and Zac Braunagel, won at 152 and 170, respectively, becoming the first brothers to win titles in the same season since Mark and Matt McDonnell did so in 2012 for Morrison, also in 1A. Zac Braunagel scored a 7-2 victory over Matt Wenger of Dakota, the third straight year Wenger finished as a state runnerup.
That fate befell two 1A wrestlers. Trey Hild of Petersburg Porta lost 7-5 to Zac Blasioli of East Alton-Wood River in the 132-pound final. As a junior, however, Hild has a fourth chance in 2018.
Anthony Cassioppi (285) matched Bittle by pinning his way to the 3A title. But Cassioppi, who also got the finals with three first-period pins, was extended to the second period by Niko Ivanisevic (285) of Hinsdale Central. The pin in 2:36 enabled Cassioppi to complete his run to his title with four pins in 7:36.
Some other notes from around the state:
The 120-pound final gave fans of both wrestlers something to smile about. DeKalb freshman Fabian Lopez never stopped attacking Michael McGee of Plainfield East – but McGee was wrestling at another level. He scored takedowns and back points at will in putting together a technical fall to add to the state title he won in 2015. The Old Dominion University recruit was able to step over a Lopez shot for the five points that created the winning margin.
Their first match in a January dual meet created some controversy, but the rematch didn’t. David Riojas of Mount Carmel racked up three takedowns in a 9-4 victory over Johnny Mologousis of Lyons Township, the only loss of the season for the University of Illinois signee. Mologousis edged Riojas 5-4 last month when an apparent winning takedown with two seconds left was taken off the board after officials conferred.
The showdown at 182 matching undefeated Top 10 wrestlers nationally ended more lopsided than expected. Kordell Norfleet of Marian Catholic scored twice on shots by Jack jessen of Willowbrook, then added two more takedowns and a near-fall of his own in a 13-3 major decision. The other match between unbeatens, at 220, went to Matt Wroblewski of Prospect, who broke open a tight match with a second-period takedown and two more in the third against Diata Drayton of Marist in an 8-4 victory.
Local wrestling fans had plenty to celebrate, with first Urbana, then Champaign Centennial, crowning state champions. Sophomore Luke Luffman (220) of Urbana won his four matches by a combined 10 points, which looks more impressive given who the wins were against: 6-3 over fourth-place Colin Gussman of Kaneland, 5-1 over two-time state placewinner George Bessette of Antioch in the quarterfinals, 3-1 over third-place Punke in the semifinals and 1-0 over Scott Sierzega of Brother Rice for the title. Luffman has beaten Punke two other times in the past year – in fifth-place matches in the state tournament last year and the Cadet National Freestyle meet at Fargo, N.D. last summer. Junior Justin Cardani (45-0) of Centennial completed an unbeaten season at 106.
We Rachal (132) of Chicago Washington and Lenny Petersen (138) of Crystal Lake Central repeated at the same weight classes they won last year. In addition to Cardani and Warner, Trent Rakers (35-0) of Highland at 152, Jake Lanning (44-0) of Pontiac at 170, Cameron Caffey (41-0) of Carbondale also completed unbeaten seasons.
Trevor Edwards (113) of Mattoon has a national title to his credit – the NHSCA Junior Nationals title last spring – but finished his career without a state title after Joe Arroyo of Grayslake North rallied for a 5-4 finals victory, becoming his school’s first state champion.
In its first year as a program, Aurora Christian celebrated its first champion, with freshman Cameron Johnson (35-0) winning the title at 106. Johnson was one of five 1A wrestlers to complete unbeaten seasons. Two-time state champion Nolan Baker (43-0) of Byron was another. The Northern Illinois University signee pinned Lewis Robinson of Kewanee in 58 seconds to finish the championship final round, as well as his second straight unbeaten season. Baker won the final 89 matches of his high school career. The rest: Danny Braunagel (47-0), Niles Ager (42-0) of Rock Falls at 195 and Zac Muller (34-0) of Westmont at 285.
Despite being shut out of the the finals, Coal City and Lena-Winslow/Stockton still managed four placewinners – including three third-place finishers each – to tie them with Belleville Althoff for the most medalists.
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