IHSA STATE PREVIEW: O’Connor set to win fourth state title; Gomez, Warner aim for three

FEATURE PHOTO: GARY LARSEN / ILLINOIS MATMEN

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By ROB SHERRILL
Illinois Matmen

Three months of preliminaries are over. The weekend every Illinois high school wrestling fan has been looking forward to has arrived.

Starting Thursday afternoon, you’ll be watching the individual state championships inside wrestling’s most tradition-filled arena, the State Farm Center in Champaign.

Austin O’Connor (152) of St. Rita will be trying to become the state’s 16th four-time champion. If the University of North Carolina recruit is successful, he will be the first to accomplish the feat since 2015, and the first in big-class 3A since 2014. O’Connor (42-0) won his previous three titles at 106 pounds in 2014, at 132 in 2015 and at 145 last year.

Two other seniors, Austin Gomez (138) of Glenbard North in 3A and Jacob Warner (195) of Washington in 2A, will be trying to end their careers as three-time state champions. Iowa State University recruit Gomez (42-1), who has not lost to an Illinois opponent since his sophomore year, is projected to meet fellow senior Jaime Hernandez of Oak Park-River Forest in a state finals rematch of their Conant sectional semifinal bout, won 3-1 by Gomez. Warner (37-0), a University of Iowa recruit, is ranked No. 1 nationally at his weight class by WIN magazine.

The state’s defending 106-pound champions in 3A and 2A, respectively, junior Joey Melendez (41-4) of Montini and sophomore Travis Ford-Melton (36-3) of Marian Catholic, will meet far sooner than most would like – in the 3A quarterfinals at 113. What might have been the state’s only final matching defending champions was derailed when Melendez was pinned in the semifinals of the Downers Grove North sectional by Tommy Russell of St. Rita. Another Marian Catholic wrestler, senior Kordell Norfleet (39-0), will try to add a 3A title at 182 pounds to the 2A title he won at 170 as a junior.

Ten other wrestlers will try to win their second titles. In 3A, senior Michael McGee (39-0) of Plainfield East at 120, committed to Old Dominion University, and junior Real Woods (32-2) of Montini at 126 were 2015 champions. Both finished second last year. Senior Jason Renteria (36-2) of Oak Park-River Forest will try to add a 132-pound title to the 120-pound title he won as a junior.

In addition to Warner, 2A powerhouse Washington has two other returning champions, University of Missouri signee Dack Punke (37-2) at 120 and junior Tyler Delaware (30-6) at 126. Junior We Rachal (30-1) of Chicago Washington at 132 and senior Lenny Petersen (34-4) of Crystal Lake Central at 138 will try to repeat at the same weight classes they won last year.

Northern Illinois University recruit Nolan Baker (39-0) of Byron will try to cap his second straight unbeaten season in 1A at 145. Juniors Tyler Fleetwood (36-2) of Fulton at 120 and Chase Bittle (42-1) of Belleville Althoff at 126 also will try to repeat.

Following is a more in-depth look at the field in each class.

Class 3A

Three-time defending dual-team state champion Oak Park-River Forest advanced 10 wrestlers to the state tournament through the Conant sectional. But No. 1 Lockport, which has lost to the Huskies in the dual-team state semifinals the past two seasons, stole the sectional show by qualifying 12 wrestlers through the Normal Community sectional, the most for any school in any classification. The Huskies own the most big names, headed by University of Nebraska recruit Renteria, already a three-time state finalist, University of North Carolina recruit Hernandez (13-1), and junior state runnerup Anthony Madrigal (34-2) at 126. Madrigal owns three victories over Woods this year, two coming in the Walsh Ironman in Ohio in early December. Conant and Wheaton North backed up strong regular seasons by qualifying seven wrestlers each through the Conant sectional.

Senior two-time state placewinners Abdullah Assaf (24-2) at 132 and Trevell Timmons (36-4) at 160 lead Lockport. Senior Brandon Ramos (37-5) at 138 is a four-time state qualifier and sophomores Baylor Fernandes (36-8) at 145 and Ronald Tucker (26-2) at 285 also are returning to state. Providence, which finished second to Lockport in the regional, and O’Fallon each qualified five through the Normal University sectional. In all, 11 3A schools qualified at least five.

Marmion Academy and Chicago Mount Carmel, the latter a 2A school last year, each qualified eight to lead the Downers Grove North sectional, with Montini advancing seven. Though they’re the lightest of the sectional’s Big Three on numbers, the Broncos boast the most pure power. State champions Melendez and Woods, top-ranked junior Will Lewan (36-2) at 145, and freshmen Dylan Ragusin (40-3) at 106 and Fidel Mayora (40-3) at 132 are all legitimate title threats. Should at least one of them make the top step of the awards stand, Montini will have crowned an individual state champion for the 18th consecutive year, extending one of the program’s many state records.

Mount Carmel returns the most medalists of any 3A school – five – with two, seniors Kaleb Guzior (36-12) at 126 and David Riojas (33-6) at 170, having placed in 3A. Junior Kendall Coleman (37-6) at 138 and seniors Yahya Thomas (31-4) at 145 and Jack Mulay (30-14) at 160 were 2A placewinners a year ago. A pair of placewinners, senior Anthony Cheloni (43-5) at 138 and junior Nate Jimenez (36-6) at 170, lead Marmion Academy’s group. Though only four Carl Sandburg wrestlers survived that loaded sectional, Princeton University commitment Patrick Brucki (40-1) is the title favorite at 195.

Huntley backed up its surprise regional win at Jacobs by leading the balanced Barrington sectional with five individual qualifiers, a total matched by Deerfield.

The 138-pound class includes six returning state placewinners. Gomez and Hernandez lead the way, but Gomez could meet Cheloni in the quarterfinals – and two-time placewinner Jimmy McAuliffe of Reavis in the semifinals. In the other bracket, Coleman and sophomore Donnell Washington of Marian Catholic, a 2A finalist last year, meet in the first round, with Hernandez taking on the winner next – in the quarterfinals. There are five returning placewinners at 120 and 126, with the 160-pound class featuring four returning medalists.

Two weight classes, 182 and 220, feature three undefeated wrestlers each. At 182, in addition to Norfleet, junior Jack Jessen (47-0) of Willowbrook is a two-time placewinner and senior D.J. Penick (35-0) of Highland Park also is a returning medalist. Jessen and Penick are set to meet in the semifinals. The 220-pound class could be the strongest in its history, with senior medalists Diata Drayton (40-0) of Marist and Matt Wroblewski (31-0) of Prospect, who enters the state tournament unbeaten for the second straight year, along with senior Blake Zalapi (10-0) of Rockton Hononegah. Drayton and Zalapi are headed for a semifinal match.

In all, the 2017 field includes 13 undefeated wrestlers, nearly double last year’s total of eight. Other unbeatens are senior Alex Mitchell (20-0) of Libertyville at 106, sophomore Domenic Zaccone (36-0) of Stagg at 113, University of Illinois signee Johnny Mologousis (42-0) of Lyons Township at 170, senior Andrew Demos (40-0) of Warren at 195, and junior Anthony Cassioppi (44-0) of Rockton Hononegah, ranked No. 3 nationally at 285 by WIN.

Class 2A

Three of this classification’s leaders in 2016, Lincoln-Way West (enrollment growth) and Chicago Mount Carmel and Marian Catholic (success factor), moved up to 3A for 2017. The two state champions and 11 state placewinners those three schools took with them – nearly one-quarter of the 46 returning 2A medalists – left a sizable void that was filled mostly by Washington. The defending dual-team state champion led all 2A schools with nine individual qualifiers from the loaded Sterling sectional. A surprising second was a school making its first appearance in a classification below the state’s largest: Brother Rice, which qualified eight from the Thornridge sectional. A dozen 2A schools accumulated five state qualifiers or more.

Following Brother Rice in state representation from Thornridge: Lemont and Oak Forest, with seven qualifiers each, and DeLaSalle and Riverside-Brookfield, with five each. Put together, 57 percent of the sectional’s state qualifiers (32 of their 56) come from just those five schools.

Washington’s Punke brothers set a record when all four claimed state medals last season, and three, Dack, junior Blaize (14-2) at 138 and sophomore Jace (33-6) at 220, return for a shot at additional hardware. Brothers have not won state titles in the same year since 2011, when Mark and Matt McDonnell won 1A titles for Morrison. The feat has yet to be accomplished in 2A.

Delaware, Warner and senior Kyle Goin (29-6) at 152 give the Panthers six returning medalists, the most of any school in any classification – and more than the five total qualifiers advanced by the second-best schools by number in the Sterling sectional, Bloomington and Kaneland. It’s the second straight year Washington has returned six medalists to the State Farm Center.

Crystal Lake Central led the Wauconda sectional with seven state qualifiers, but the host school also impressed, advancing six to Champaign. Harvard qualified five. Carbondale led the southern Illinois sectional at Mahomet-Seymour for the second consecutive year, qualifying five.

There are 10 undefeated 2A wrestlers, one more than last season. Unfortunately, in the only weight class that includes two unbeatens, 195 pounds, Warner and freshman Jacob Kaminski (19-0) of Fenwick would meet in the semifinals. At 152, senior placewinner Trent Rakers (31-0) of Highland enters the state meet unbeaten for the second straight year. The only reason his potential finals opponent, senior Demauris Smith-Terhune (32-1) of Rantoul, won’t enter unbeaten for the second year in a row as well is that the two met in the Mahomet-Seymour sectional final, with Rakers winning a 4-2 decision.

Mattoon has two unbeaten wrestlers, senior medalist Trevor Edwards (25-0) at 113 and junior Garrette Branson (31-0) at 220. Also unbeaten: Justin Cardani (41-0) of Champaign Centennial at 106, placewinners Hassan Johnson (5-0) of Brother Rice at 120 and Mikie Hartnett (29-0) of Morton at 145, all juniors, and Jake Lanning (40-0) of Pontiac at 170, Cameron Caffey (37-0) of Carbondale at 182, and James Valentino (35-0) of St. Viator at 285, all seniors. Lanning and Caffey are two-time medalists. Johnson, a 3A placewinner in 2016, saw his first competition in the regional.

The deepest weight classes are 126 and 145, each with five returning placewinners, and 120, which has four. Eight of the top 10 wrestlers in the GEI Wrestling Apparel/illinoismatmen.com rankings at 126 competed in the Sterling sectional, including the top four, making it the deepest weight in any sectional in any classification. Three of the top four, state finalists Austin Macias (32-2) of Burlington Central and Ethan Harsted (33-3) of Ottawa, advanced, as did Delaware. All three are juniors. Hartnett is part of a 145-pound bracket that includes two other state finalists, seniors Egan Berta (31-3) of Lemont and Gavin Sutton (39-3) of Richmond-Burton. Berta and Sutton could meet in the semifinals.

Class 1A

It’s inconceivable that any qualification system could prevent Coal City, whose 11 individual state qualifiers – tops in the 1A classification and second only to 3A Lockport overall in Illinois – along with a 10-0 dual-meet record against the 1A top 25, five of them regional champions (including a 43-21 win over the champion of its own regional, just eight days prior), from competing for the dual-team state title. Sadly, that’s what the system in place, the most flawed in American high school sports, has saddled us with. The team that finished ahead of the Coalers in its own regional, Wilmington, acquitted itself well at the Coal City sectional, with eight individual qualifiers. Hope Academy advanced five, a total matched or exceeded by nine 1A schools.

Making the year doubly unusual, and not in a good way, is the fact that the individual regionals eliminated both the state’s top-ranked team and its four-time defending dual-team state champion, Dakota. The Indians finished second in the Winnebago regional to Lena-Winslow/Stockton, though the blow was softened somewhat by the Pantherhawks also prevailing in a dual meet nine days prior to the regional. Lena-Winslow/Stockton led the Byron sectional with nine individual qualifiers, Dakota checking in with five. Clinton, which finished just one-half point behind champion Olympia in the Deer Creek-Mackinaw regional, edged the Spartans, 6-5 for the most qualifiers in the Clinton sectional, while Vandalia led its own sectional with seven qualifiers. Belleville Althoff advanced five.

Five weight classes – 120, 126, 132, 152 and 170 – each include four returning placewinners. State champions Fleetwood (120) and Bittle (126) headline their weight classes, but neither is a prohibitive favorite. Fleetwood gained confidence with an 11-8 victory over Aurora Christian freshman Noah Villarreal (30-3) in the Byron sectional semifinals. Fleetwood went on to win the sectional title and earned a draw opposite Villarreal and the other three returning medalists, senior Jake Hiles (27-1) of Coal City, junior Josh Schrank (35-4) of Rockford Lutheran and sophomore Tanner Swain (41-4) of Vandalia. Bittle faces a semifinal bout against two-time placewinner Stone Engle (39-2) of Mercer County, with two-time placewinner Jared Van Vleet (38-1) of Stillman Valley, 2015 finalist Collin Davidson (18-3) of Litchfield or unbeaten Brett Hammel (27-0) of West Hancock waiting in the final. All three are juniors.

Weight classes that appear ruled by heavy favorites: 132, by junior Trey Hild (41-0) of Petersburg Porta, already a two-time state finalist; 145, by defending state champion Baker; 152, by junior Danny Braunagel (43-0) of Belleville Althoff; 195, by senior Niles Ager (38-0) of Rock Falls; and 285, by senior Zach Muller (33-0) of Westmont. Muller, a St. Cloud State University signee, was a 3A placewinner last year at Downers Grove South.

There are nine unbeaten 1A wrestlers, the same number as last season. In addition to Hammel, Hild, Baker, Braunagel, Ager and Muller, freshman Cameron Johnson (31-0) of Aurora Christian at 106, senior Trevor Bulington (39-0) of LeRoy/Tri-Valley at 152 and junior Drew Hoselton (43-0) of Prairie Central enter the state meet unbeaten. Bulington, a three-time state qualifier, makes 152 the only weight class with multiple unbeatens. He could meet Braunagel in the final.

A pair of East Alton-Wood River seniors also accomplished firsts. Drew Sobol (41-2) became the first wrestler to qualify for state four times at its lowest weight class, 106. Sobol was a state medalist last season. Zac Blasioli (32-1) became the first to qualify at a weight three classes lower than the previous season. Blasioli, who placed at 160 as a freshman, was at 152 the previous two seasons, earning a second state medal in 2016. He will be at 132 this weekend.

Back-to-back finals classics could take place at 160 and 170. Hoselton edged senior state finalist Josh McKinney (35-3) of Midwest Central/Havana, 3-2 in the Clinton sectional final. At 170, three-time placewinner Matt Wenger (41-1) of Dakota, the Dvorak Tournament champion, could meet junior Zac Braunagel (42-1) of Belleville Althoff, Danny’s brother, in what would be their first meeting.

Also worth watching is 220, where the contenders are all underclassmen: Maverick McPeek (39-3) of Dakota, the Dvorak runnerup, state placewinners Keaton Fogler (39-2) of Olympia and Cody Miller (42-2) of Bismarck-Henning, Collin Schmidt (32-5) of Rockridge and Kyle Hammer (31-7) of Clinton, all juniors, along with sophomore Logan Lee (37-3) of Orion. Great quarterfinals could see Fogler meeting Lee and McPeek meeting Hammer.

Rob Sherrill is the author of Tales From the Mat: Illinois High School Wrestling at 75. A frequent contributor to the Illinois Matmen web site, he is the administrator of the GEI/illinoismatmen.com state rankings. He has covered wrestling in Illinois for nearly 40 years for a variety of publications, including the Chicago Sun-Times, and has published The Illinois Best Weekly for 33 seasons. Also a high school wrestling analyst at the national level, Sherrill is the National High School Editor for WIN magazine. His newest publication, Beyond Tales From the Mat, will be released this spring.

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