By MIKE CLARK
For Montini, it was never about winning every match.
Instead, it was about getting ready to win every possible match in February in Champaign and Bloomington.
The Broncos, who are Illinois Matmen’s Team of the Decade for 2010-19, have succeeded beyond all expectations — other than possibly their own.
Montini won the Class 2A title in 2010 under Mike Bukovsky, who then turned over the head coaching duties to alum Israel Martinez. The Broncos won five more 2A championships before being bumped up to 3A.
In their first year in the highest class, the Broncos lost 30-29 to west suburban rival Marmion in the state quarterfinals. A year later, they dropped the 3A final 33-30 to Lockport. Then they closed out the decade with two more titles in 3A.
In all that time, Montini had just one undefeated season — 21-0 in 2011-12 — and only a single undefeated individual champ — Jake Stiles last season.
It might seem to be a contradiction that someone as fiercely competitive as Martinez is so accepting that there will be losses along the way to the ultimate goal of a state championship.
“We like to say ‘team first,'” Martinez said. “If (the focus) was individual, a lot of things would get in the way.”
Instead, he said, there’s “a lot less selfishness, a lot less caring about me, me, me.
“If our focus is on the team, it’s about improvement and getting better and then you know when you lose you’re getting better. You’re never going to be scared to lose. Losses don’t break us, they get us better.”
A good example of that philosophy in action was the senior season of heavyweight Garrett Goebel, who was 57-1 in 2008 to finish with 201 career wins. That’s a state record he shares with Stephen Robertson, who wrestled at Niles West and Montini.
Bukovsky jokes that he drove 400 miles to the Clash in Minnesota to find a wrestler who could beat Goebel. That loss kept Goebel from an unbeaten season, but sharpened his focus and helped motivate him like similar results have done to other Broncos stars over the years.
The desire to wrestle the best competition, wherever it could be found, dates back to Bukovsky’s early days as coach. In 1994, he took over a program that had won one regional in 35 years and whose goal was to compete with the 1A powers of the day: Sandwich, Plano and Lisle among others.
The Broncos advanced to state in 1995, won their first trophy in ’96, taking third, and won their first title, in Class A, in 2000. They captured six more championships that decade for Bukovsky, four more in Class A and then two in 2A under the three-class format.
All along the way, Bukovsky was making the schedule tougher. The Broncos were the first Class A team to compete in the Dvorak, Illinois’ top in-season tournament, and headed out of state to the Ironman, the Clash and the Cheesehead, among other events.
“What I used to tell our guys — this was the backbone of our philosophy — if you wrestle our schedule, you will not see anybody better in the state series.” Bukovsky said.
Martinez has continued that policy, just one of many ways he’s followed the path blazed by Bukovsky.
“I was under coach Bu for a couple years,” Martinez said. “He taught me that coaching wasn’t about coaching moves. He taught me that coaching was a lot more than wrestling, and if I wanted to run a successful program, I needed 100 percent dedication to do that — long hours, no vacation, total sacrifice.”
The bar was raised when Montini moved up to 3A and Martinez realized he needed to do even more than before.
“(Class) 3A was another level of competition,” he said. “It took us a year to get our team mentally ready to head into that kind of event.”
That mirrored Martinez’s own evolution as a coach.
“When I first started coaching at Montini, I watched Bu coach these guys way different than I would ever coach them at that point in my life,” Martinez said. “I was a wrestler, not a coach.
“I got to watch coach Bu do this amazing thing he called coaching. I got to understand the sport of wrestling way different than I ever did before in my life.”
When he saw Bukovsky’s drive, Martinez knew what he needed — and wanted — to do.
“I envisioned if I worked just as hard as coach Bu to get this team to the top, I’m going to be the guy I want to be.”
Today, with the Broncos ranked in the top five nationally and gearing up for another state title run, Martinez is the guy he wants to be and the Broncos are the team he wants them to be.