Photos by Becky LaMont / Illinois Matmen
Feature Photo: Lloyd Reynolds / Edwardsville

By MIKE GAROFOLA
Illinois Matmen

In the land of the giants – Evan Roper and Drew Gutknecht stood tall when it counted.

The Barrington junior (Roper) never let go of an early lead against Ben Stemmet – before closing out the talented Yorkville senior to record a well deserved late pin to advance into tonight’s semifinal round against Josh LaBarbera (36-8, Montini Catholic) who recently bumped from 195.

The aforementioned Gutknecht made bigger news this morning when he beat No. 1 Gio Jackson (Buffalo Grove, 38-2) who now falls into wrestle-backs in his attempt to claim a first ever state medal.

The Minooka senior, who did not qualify a year ago, takes on Kevin Zimmer (44-3) from Sandburg in his semifinal bout.

“We knew what we wanted to do with (Gio) he has great hips, he’s quick and can attack (but) we also had more film on him (of late) and that helped us prepare for my quarterfinal,” said Gutknecht, now. 36-5.

The story on Roper is quite a story in itself.

With only one varsity match under his belt in his career – that coming at dual-team sectionals against Libertyville last season – Roper, also a star linebacker, came into the spotlight early on with his pin over Stemmet.

That victory would immediately sent the Barrington junior to the top of the state polls – which he eventually gave away to Jackson, then Ryan Golnick (Jacobs) in the later stages of the season.

“(Roper) is so strong, yet he’s very athletic – he’s a great football player who also happens to wrestle, and each week we see him take another step forward,” says his head coach, Dave Udchik.

“That first win over Stemmet gave me a lot of confidence back then, and it’s carried on through the season (and) into today when I got up on him early with that 6-1 lead after the first period,” opined Roper.

Stemmets’ twin brother (Nick) put together a comprehensive six minute effort to defeat Daemyn Middlebrooks (OPRF) in his quarterfinal, and will now meet Isiah Pettigrew (Fremd, 36-2) in one of the 195-pound semifinals here inside State Farm Arena.

“Sometimes I find it hard to believe that Isiah began wrestling only as a sophomore – but when your around a young man like him (who) works and works, listens to your every word, and is such a great person for his age (it’s) really not a surprise to see the success he’s had thus far,” said Fremd head coach, Jeff Keske.

As expected, in a 3A weight class that is filled with so many stars – enough to light up the arena on its own – there’s bound to be a handful of surprise results to keep the crowd on the edge of its collective seats.

It all began at 106 pounds where No. 5 Joe Fernau (Montini Catholic, 32-9) upended No. 2 Charlie Farmer (42-2) of Moline, 3-1, robbing fans of a rematch of Farmer versus No. 1 Will Baysingar (Prospect, 45-0).

The freshmen Baysingar would defeat Farmer in the final of the Mudge-McMorrow Invite way back in November.

The hits kept coming at the lower weights when at 120 – top rated, and reigning 113 state champion, Colton Drousias (Mt. Carmel, 29-5) was sent into the back-draw by upstart Vincent Robinson of Marian Catholic.

The MC sophomore, whose older brother is Travis Melton-Ford, left little to the attacking imagination when he opened up a 6-3 advantage after two periods – then continued to extend his lead until the final whistle put an end to a well earned 11-6 decision.

“I learned a lot from Travis, but I want to be better than he ever was,” Robinson (26-3) said boldly after destroying the field at the East Suburban Catholic Conference tournament three weeks ago.

Next up for Robinson will be No. 3 Nain Vazquez (Montini Catholic, 35-11) tonight.

Want another surprise?

How about at 126 – where No. 4 Sam Spencer (Huntley) a three-time state qualifier, and 2018 state medal winner was sent out of the front draw by Jake Penzato of St. Charles East after a dominating effort that ended with the Saints junior recording a pin aat 3:48.

“What a turnaround of events for Jake – who after a dreadful tournament at the DuKane Conference tournament came to me with his tail between his legs, and looking for answers,” begins Saints head coach, Jason Potter.

“We had a chat at a kids tournament on (that) Sunday, and I told him if he’s interested, we can turn this thing around (but) it was up to him.”

Potter goes on to say that Penzato was in his office bright and early the next day (Monday) before school, and that’s when they went about getting his wrestling life back together.

“We watched hours of film, broke things down, and I really believe his win over Ian Huck (Geneva) at regionals, followed by a great effort to beat (Blake) McGee (DeKalb) in his regional final was HUGE,” continued Potter.

“From there, we’ve seen what we’ve always expected from Jake, and last week at sectionals, plus his first two matches here tell me here’s ready to go after a state medal, and even a state title.”

Penzato (27-7) has another superb opponent in his way tonight with No. 2 Mike Kaminski (Lockport, 41-4) while on the other side of this first class bracket, it will be the nationally ranked duo of Jake Rundell (OPRF, 40-1) versus Dylan Ragusin (Montini Catholic, 39-3) in what many, with all due respect to Kaminski-Penzato (figure) to be the state championship match.

No. 1 Joel Vandervere (Warren, 31-1) continued to roll through the competition at 138, as does Mikey Caliendo (Batavia, 39-1) at 145, where he next meet Mt. Carmel junior, Connor Gaynor.

As in 138, fans will be treated to an early state final at 152 pounds, at least according to recent state polls when No. 1 E’lan Heard (Libertyville, 28-1) steps into the center against No. 3 Joe Roberts (37-5) from Montini Catholic.

All those in the know are aware of the move from Ohio to Libertyville by Heard has provided its Hall-of-Fame head coach, Dale Eggert with another weapon in his lineup, while Roberts came over from Yorkville to Montini after three glorious season way out west.

Heard, who recorded his 22nd pin of the season on Thursday in his tournament opener – needed a full six minutes to go past Michael Kelly of Mt. Carmel in his 6-3 quarterfinal triumph.

Prior to this match, Heard had pinned his way through the Lake Couty and regional tournaments, and added two more at sectionals in between a tech-fall in his semifinal bout.

Antonio Torres / Waubonsie Valley
Antonio Torres / Waubonsie Valley

Nos. 1 and 2 Luke Rasmussen (Barrington, 43-0) and David Ferrante (Huntley, 44-2) continue on their collision course on Saturday at 170 pounds after cruising into their respective semifinal, and the University of Illinois-bound Luke Odom (48-1) from Edwardsville looks unstoppable at the bottom end of 160 pounds.

The three-time state qualifier, and two-time state medal winner (third) advanced following his 10-1 major decision over freshmen phenom Brayden Thompson (33-11) of Montini Catholic.

“It feels good to be 100% this season,” admitted Odom, who suffered a concussion here a year ago in his first round match – dashing his hopes of a chance at the big trophy.

“This is my last chance, and I’m looking to make the most of it,” continued the Tigers star.

Semifinals for all three classes will begin at 7:00 tonight.