By JARED BELL
Joey Melendez wasn’t missing this.
After the Montini wrestling team saw a 24-point lead disappear against Oak Park-River Forest in Saturday’s IHSA Class 3A Dual Team State Championship in Bloomington, Melendez – who’s wrestled the past five weeks with a broken bone in his ankle and missed Saturday’s first two state duals – stepped in and turned the tide.
With Montini – ranked No. 1 in the current GO EARN IT 3A team rankings – trailing No. 2 OPRF by two points, the senior Melendez switched the momentum with an 11-2 major decision to put Montini back on top.
Then senior Real Woods followed and finished off the night with a championship-winning pin to give the Broncos the state title with a 43-29 victory over the Huskies.
“It was the plan coming in – if they needed me I would go out there – but Izzy told me to be ready for the last one, for sure,” said Melendez, a two-time state champion and a North Carolina recruit who’s worn a walking boot when he’s not wrestling.
“I liked that it came down to me. It’s what you live for. You practice so hard and you want to be in those pressure moments. I wish it didn’t have to come down to that, but if there’s one spot you want to be in that’s it.”
The dramatic finish capped off a dramatic dual that gave Montini – who had UFC superstar Holly Holm on its side – its 14th state title, but its first 3A state title.
“It was what we expected,” Montini coach Israel Martinez said. “Oak Park is a really good team with a great coach and great history, so we knew they weren’t going down easy. Even though they didn’t have the quality of state tournament that we did, they have the quality of wrestlers we have. We knew it was going to be a fight and we knew they had nothing to lose.”
Saturday’s title dual showed that.
After Montini 145-pound junior Jake Stiles and 152-pound senior Will Lewan – a pair of state finalists – earned back-to-back falls to open the dual, the Broncos scored the match’s first 15 points and built a 27-3 lead six matches into the dual.
However, the Huskies came roaring back.
Starting at 220 pounds, OPRF won the next five matches, capped by 113-pound sophomore Josh Ogunsanya pinning state finalist Dylan Ragusin to pull OPRF to 27-23 and a pin by 120-pound sophomore Nico Bolivar to give the Huskies a 29-27 lead.
“It’s crazy and still kind of surreal,” OPRF Paul Collins said of the comeback. “This dual meet is the epitome of Huskie style. It wasn’t perfect, but we had a lot of guys push themselves, which was great to see.”
However, after the Huskies took the lead, Melendez bumped up to 126 pounds to earn the major decision and Woods – who won his third state title last weekend – picked up the fall at 132 to secure the Montini victory.
Following Woods’ win, OPRF forfeited the final match.
“It was great,” said Woods, a Stanford recruit. “You seal it up for your team and you seal it up for your (high school) career. Those two combinations are amazing.”
In the third-place match, Providence defeated Huntley 37-25.
Another year, another title for Washington.
After the Panthers won back-to-back 2A dual team state titles, the squad added yet another championship to its resume with a 59-12 victory over Cahokia to win its third-straight state title.
“It’s exciting for these guys,” said first-year coach Nick Miller, who was the top assistant on Washington’s last two state title teams. “This is a new group of kids, but we still have six guys who have been here before, so the change (in head coach) didn’t affect them. In the end, they knew what the standard was.”
Washington cruised past the field as it allowed just nine points in the semifinal victory over St. Rita and 12 points against Cahokia.
In the state-title-winning dual, Washington won five of the first six matches to build a 27-6 lead and won the final seven bouts. In all, the Panthers finished with seven falls against Cahokia.
“The motto we put together for the year is, ‘Consistency is king,’” Miller said. “We just wanted to be consistent. We don’t know what next year is going to hold, but the goal is to be back here.”
In the third-place match, St. Rita defeated Rochelle 40-25.
Two years ago, Aurora Christian didn’t have a program.
Now the Eagles are state champions.
In just its second year of existence, Aurora Christian rose to the top as it defeated Vandalia 48-18 to win its first-ever dual team state title.
“The biggest thing is I think we’re ahead of schedule,” Aurora Christian coach Justin Pearch said. “This is always something I visualized happening in our third or fourth year, but to be able to do it in two years is super exciting.”
After the Eagles defeated Lena-Winslow in Tuesday’s No. 1 vs. No. 2 sectional dual, Aurora Christian rolled past the competition Saturday.
After it defeated Chicago Hope 66-9, Aurora Christian topped Coal City 36-20 before cruising in the title match.
It was a great showing for Aurora Christian, who won a regional title last year in its first season but didn’t compete in the sectional after it had nine wrestlers – instead of the IHSA-mandated 10 – and wasn’t allowed to move on as a team. This year, the squad had just 13 kids.
“I think the bar is set pretty high now,” Pearch said.
In the third-place match, Coal City beat Althoff 36-34.
TWO FOR THE FAMILY
A pair of coaches and brother-in-laws had an extra-special night Saturday.
Montini’s Martinez and Aurora Christian’s Pearch each brought home state titles to their family.
“I couldn’t be prouder of him,” said Martinez, who introduced Pearch to his sister when he and Pearch were in college. “He’s an awesome guy and he’s a first-class guy, and that’s why I introduced him to my sister.”
Pearch is also a key figure in Martinez’s club program.
“Izzy has always been a great mentor to me, and before the finals he came over to me and his only words were, ‘Get it done,’” Pearch said. “That was it. He didn’t try to coach me through it.”
A SPECIAL SPECTATOR
In addition to its coaches and fans, Montini had an extra-special guest on its side Saturday – former UFC Bantamweight champion Holly Holm, the fighter who ended Ronda Rousey’s unbeaten streak.
While she didn’t do any coaching Saturday, Holm – who uses Martinez as her wrestling coach – sat on the Montini bench during Saturday’s finals and cheered on the Broncos.
“Holly is friends with the boys from training, so she decided to come down for their last meet of the year and give them some support,” Martinez said. “It’s pretty neat. The boys all love her and look at her like a sister.”