By JARED BELL
Illinois Matmen

Danny Pucino spread the word.

Leading into Jan. 8’s dual, the 138-pound senior at Libertyville encouraged his fellow classmates to attend the showdown against rival Warren – and specifically to see his No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup.

“Wrestling doesn’t get as many fans as football or basketball,” Pucino said, “but on that night, everyone was there.”

Facing a rival school located less than eight miles away, Pucino put on a show for the fans.

Squaring off against friend and Northwestern recruit Joel Vandervere – at the time ranked No. 1 in the Class 3A 138 GO EARN IT rankings – Pucino, an Illinois commit who was ranked No. 2 at 138, fell behind early but came on strong late as he picked up an 11-8 decision.

For his victory, Pucino moved up to the No. 1 ranking and was voted as this week’s FCA Wrestling Wrestler of the Week – a week after Vandervere won the award.

“At school, Danny was telling everyone, ‘Hey, No. 1 is wrestling No. 2 tonight. You’ve got to come,’” Libertyville coach Dale Eggert said. “That takes a lot of guts because he’s No. 2 and, facing No. 1, he could lose. But he knew what a big moment it could be for the fans and he was willing to put himself out there for it and promote a great match.”

It turned out to be quite the thriller.

Vandervere took a 4-0 lead early, but Pucino had three third-period takedowns including getting back points on the third takedown to overcome the deficit.

“When I fell behind, our gym got a little quiet,” Pucino said, “so I just said, ‘OK, if I’m going to lose then I’m going to lose by letting them have some excitement while they’re here.’ I turned on the jets and when I started scoring the crowd got loud.”

The victory was the first of five potential matches between the two Big Ten Conference signees as they could meet at the Lake County Championship and all three rounds of the postseason.

It’d only be fitting if that happened since the two friends have known each other since they were young, have been to each other’s houses and have traveled to tournaments together.

“We’ve grown up as pretty good friends, and I would always train with him,” Pucino said. “We would always spar and last year over the summer I would go to his house to train. We didn’t wrestle live a lot in the offseason because of injuries, but we did a lot of drilling.”

While Pucino has had a standout season, he had an early wakeup call.

Facing Jacobs senior Jake Harrier in the season-opening Barrington Invitational, Harrier beat Pucino 8-6 OT in the title match.

“Danny had the lead, but Harrier came back, took the match into overtime and then got the overtime takedown,” Eggert said. “That loss has really helped him because I don’t see him sitting on any leads anymore. As painful as it was, in the grand scheme, it was really a good thing for him.”

That renewed urgency showed as Pucino avenged the loss by beating Harrier 9-5 in the semifinals at the Dvorak and then topping Vandervere last week.

Pucino is hoping to avoid last year’s postseason heartbreak. A three-time state qualifier and a two-time state medalist, Pucino lost in last year’s 3A 132-pound state title match.

“My goal is to win that state title, and I’m going to do everything that I possibly can to get that goal,” Pucino said. “The worse thing that could happen is for me not to train my hardest and not do everything that I can and fall short. I’m going to give it my all.”

Just like he and Libertyville did during this week’s FCA Wrestler of the Week poll.

Squaring off against Ottawa’s Luke Fleming in a two-man race, Pucino won the closest WOW poll ever as he finished with 51 percent of the vote and only 15 more votes than Fleming, who led the voting late Tuesday night before Pucino surged ahead overnight and into Wednesday morning.

“Everyone kept telling me where I was and I kept following it,” said Pucino, whose teammates started practice Tuesday by all voting for him. “(On Tuesday night), I was getting beat, but my mom shared it on Facebook and Libertyville Athletics shared it, too. All of a sudden, it ended up pulling ahead. It was pretty cool.”

2019-20 FCA Wrestlers of the Week:
1/5: Joel Vandervere rallies to win Cheesehead
12/29: Ryan Boersma earns top heavyweight spot
12/15: Nicholas Renteria wins loaded bracket at Reaper Classic