NAPERVILLE • One point separated the top two teams at the Naperville North 3A Super Regional on Sunday. And, in wrestling, one team point can be earned or lost in a variety of ways and in some of the quickest moments. Once those final team scores are announced, generally, those singular moments are sometimes looked back on as either big moments, or as lost opportunities.
For the Red Hawks of Naperville Central, according to Head Coach Noah Fitzenreider, the team was not even aware of how close the team score was until the tournament had ended. In fact, he was helping clean up the gymnasium when he heard the news.
“It was a little crazy,” Fitzenreider admitted. “I was helping clean up when they announced us as the team champions. I was already excited—even more excited— about the guys getting through [to the sectional] than about the team trophy because our goal—what we talked about the past couple of weeks— was getting fourteen guys through.”
Overall, Naperville Central advances ten wrestlers into next week’s I.W.C.O.A. Sectional Championships. As a team, by placing in the top four, they have also qualified for the I.W.C.O.A. Dual Team State Series in two weeks.
As for how his team was able to bring it all together in such a difficult year, he said, very simply, “We have great seniors and they did a lot to really help these younger guys get ready for this.”
The Red Hawks only had two seniors that wrestled in the regional, and neither one of them qualified for the sectional; however, their impact all season and in the room and speaking with the younger guys has had a profound impact on what their teammates have been able to accomplish. “We are a
really close-knit team,” Fitzenreider said, “and we preach a lot about team. Everybody is in every match and everyone gets excited when someone wins. They are all good friends and they put in the time and effort together, so it feels good when their teammates are successful.
“Throughout the year,” Fitzenreider continued, “[the seniors] in the program understood what the end of the year looked like and helped the younger guys understand it. Since we are pretty young as a team, which means we had a lot of kids who didn’t know what regionals looked like, our seniors, even the seniors who didn’t wrestle, helped the younger guys learn that this is about getting to the next week.”
Two of those seniors, Anthony Pendolino at 145 pounds, and Austin Longmire at 200, each missed qualifying by one match. “It is tough when your seniors don’t advance,” Fitzenreider said, “but they were still leaders and into everyone’s matches. Austin is one of those kids that just did everything right. And him not making it out didn’t really matter because he ended the year the right way, he stuck with it, and he just does everything the right way. The outcome wasn’t necessarily what he wanted it to be, but everything else was perfect.”
As for where the Red Hawks who did find individual success, it came highlighted by three champions. The first of the three was Ayden Lutes, a junior at 152 pounds. In the finals, he defeated Jaden Morgan of Marmion Academy with an 8-6 decision.
“He is an All-American kid,” Fitzenreider commented about Lutes. “He is a great student, he is involved in a couple different activities, and he is one of the hardest workers we’ve ever had come through the program. He has gotten better and better every single time he comes into the room. At the regional was the most impressed I have been with his wrestling so far—he is at the right weight and he is starting to put things together. He set big goals early on that I think is helping him progress. We are looking forward to how he finishes.”
The next champion, Antonio Torres, took the crown at 170 pounds. In his first two matches, he was a winner by technical fall and by a major decision. In the finals, he received a forfeit from LaGrange.
“Torres wrestled phenomenally,” Fitzenreider said. “These were his first matches of the year. He goes to our school, he’s always been a very good wrestler, and we’re excited he gets to wrestle a post season right now. He’s an awesome teammate, and he is one of those very special talents that will go far in not only wrestling, but even after that.”
David Pirozhnik was final individual title winner for the Red Hawks at 195 pounds. In his opening matches, he won by scoring two falls, and, in the finals, he took an 11-5 decision over Gavin McCormick of Naperville North.
“David started wrestling, I think, as a freshman,” Fitzenreider recalled, “and he’s really gotten his wrestling life together in the last two years. This year we saw a big change in him; he found his confidence. I think that since his first varsity win, he wants nothing more than to be a state qualifier and a state place-winner. He’s one of those kids that could probably beat any kid in the state at any point—he is very exciting to watch.”
Rounding out the qualifiers for Naperville Central were third-place finishers Ty Martin (106), Ethan Olson (120), Tommy Porter (132), and Nick Antonietti (285), as well as fourth-place finisher Ethan Sentman (113), fifth-place winner Patrick Geiger (126), and sixth-place medalist Haaris Khan (182).
Moving forward, the Red Hawks will look to tighten up their wrestling as the top four wrestlers in each weight class at Saturday’s sectional will determine who qualifies for the state championships.
“Our focus moving forward is winning tough matches,” Fitzenreider said. “It is something we focus on every year, and it amplifies at the end. We were on the positive side and the negative side of this last week, but we have to win those now. Everyone has a goal of wrestling in the state tournament. Some might have goals of being a state champion or even earning a medal, but to do that they have to win close matches and keep moving forward in their individual bracket.”
One point behind Naperville Central in the team race was a very strong Downers Grove South team that had twelve sectional qualifiers, the most of any school to come out of their regional.
“We brought a full line-up and I was pretty excited about it,” Downers Grove South Head Coach Sean Lovelace said. “We’ve had a full line-up all year, which has been a challenging year, and we had to bring a few younger wrestlers up to fill some spots due to some circumstances. I knew we had some kids who could wrestle, I just wasn’t sure where they were at exactly experience-wise. So, for a lot of those guys to get through, it was phenomenal.”
Overall, the Mustangs had three finalists, but only came away with one champion. “Only having one champion was a bit disappointing,” Lovelace said of the final round. “We felt we had a few other guys who could have competed for titles, but it was a pretty solid regional with the teams that were there.”
The lone champion came by way of Donnie Fields at 113 pounds. He would earn two-hard fought victories in his opening matches, a 6-3 decision over Ethan Sentman of Naperville Central, and a 7-6 win in the semifinals over Oak Park-River Forest’s Cooper Lacey. In the finals, Fields shutout West Aurora’s Robby Wyland, 3-0.
“Donnie is our most improved kid,” Lovelace said. “He was on our freshman team last season and was really good. And, as soon as we could get together for the season, he was onboard. He’s a unique kid—he’s also involved in competitive dance—and he is super athletic and funky in certain positions. He is a really strong competitor and we couldn’t be happier with his performance. I figured he would be in the mix, but for him to come away as our only champion was pretty outstanding.”
Other finalists for Downers South were Anthony Sanchez at 126 pounds, and Luke Swan at 132.
“Sanchez is a senior,” Lovelace said with a sense of pride in his voice, “and he and our other senior in the line-up, Reet Bhasin at 145 who took third, are the hardest workers in our room. Sanchez is an awesome kid who made the finals but lost to a really good kid who was a place-winner last year. And Bhasin had one of the biggest matches of the day. In the match to get him to qualify for sectionals, he had to wrestle Adil Lohandwala from Downers North who majored him at our dual. He turned it around and
beat him 5-1 on Sunday and everything clicked for him in that match. He’s put more time than anyone in our room to put himself in that spot. So that was great to see.”
In speaking about his other finalist, Luke Swan, Lovelace exclaimed, “Swan is a stud! His season ended last year in late January with an injury, and maybe the extra time off was good for him healing- wise. But he has had a really good year only losing twice to some tough opponents, and he also had some big wins for us this season as well. We knew his weight class would be tough, and beating Tommy Porter from Naperville Central was a big win because Porter is a very good wrestler with high wrestling intelligence. In the finals, he lost to [Connor] Nagela of Oak Park-River Forest in a close 7-5 match. So, I expect him to be in some tight matches and pull through this weekend.”
At 152 pounds, the Mustangs were pleasantly surprised with the efforts of one of their freshmen. “RJ Samuels took third and he was a nice surprise,” Lovelace explained. “He was on our freshman and junior varsity team all year—he didn’t lose a match on either one. He actually wrestled in a challenge match for the weight and lost 8-7 in overtime. However, during that match, the other wrestler was injured and, instead of risking further injury because it was not improving, we gave RJ the shot. So, he lost the challenge match and came in and took third place—that was pretty impressive.”
Overall, Downers Grove South had a strong season and this tournament was simply a testament to their efforts and the work the team had put in during this non-traditional year.
“We had a lot of really good, consistent performances all year from our guys,” Lovelace said of his team. “Jimmy Nguyen at 138 is a stud who got caught in a few bad positions, but battled back and took third. Will Schueller (170) took third, he’s a stud for us. Noah Rapinchuk (195), took third, he is a stud for us—all three of these guys are juniors and getting better. Our heavyweight, Semaj Croswell, who took fourth, is really strong and soaking it up—and he really doesn’t even know how to wrestle yet—we are looking forward to his growth. So, we have had a nice season so far and we are staying in matches and doing all we can to move forward. I am excited for this weekend—this is what we all train for.”
Also placing for Downers South was fourth-place medalist, Tyre Davis (120), and sixth-place finishers Matt Lapacek (160) and Hunter Peterson (220).
As for the regional as a whole, Lovelace explained how “it had a regional atmosphere where coaches were going nuts and yelling, and the semifinal matches had the intensity—it was great, it sure felt like a state series. It felt like a winter season and it was just good, hard, intense wrestling.”
Lovelace also acknowledged that even though there are some things that may not be perfect, “This has been an awesome experience for the kids, and without the I.W.C.O.A. stepping up, this would have been much less of a season.”
This regional, and all of the regionals, could not have happened without the tireless efforts of a number of people, particularly those associated with the I.W.C.O.A. One of those men who has had a heavy hand in putting this state series together is Naperville Central assistant coach, Rob Porter.
Fitzenreider had nothing but praise for Porter. “Rob is a Hall of Fame coach,” Fitzenreider commented, “—just a fantastic coach—and he does everything you could possibly want a coach to do. And people might not realize that without Rob Porter this year, we don’t have a state series of any kind. Without Rob Porter, last Saturday was the end of the season.
“I remember a couple months ago when they decided there was no state series, the first thing Rob said to me was, ‘No, we’re going to have one. I’ll figure it out.’ He works all day long, and that is not even an exaggeration, setting things up, figuring things out, and solving problems. The first thing he has in mind is getting kids opportunities to wrestle.
“I hope people appreciate the time Rob and the others have put into this. Rob did this for one reason, and that is because he is a giant advocate for the student-athlete. He wants kids, any kid on any team, to have an opportunity to wrestle. The I.W.C.O.A. deserves a lot of credit. When something had to get done, they stepped up. At the end of the day, it’s all about the kids and them having opportunities to be successful. There needs to be a culminating event because it is meaningful for the kids. And that’s thegreatest piece about this—the I.W.C.O.A. had high school kids in mind when they put this together, and that’s what this sport and coaching in high school is all about.”
• TC LIFONTI / tclifonti.com
CONTRIBUTING WRITER FOR ILLINOIS MATMEN