NAPERVILLE • Everything Head Coach Jason Potter and his staff has done this year was with the intention of improving his team’s wrestling throughout the course of the season, and being able to perform at their best when it mattered. On Sunday in Naperville at their 3A Super Regional, it mattered—and they performed.
“It was a unique year,” Potter said of this season, “so we had to rehaul the entire schedule. In that, we were pretty intentional on what we scheduled and where we scheduled meets. We knew how we wanted to start and wrap it up, so we are seeing that now. We are peaking at the right time and wrestling well. In the short amount of time we had, we knew we needed to be specific and intentional on what positions we would need to work hard on, and this weekend it paid off.”
With the team title, St. Charles East also qualifies for the I.W.C.O.A. Dual Team State Championships in three weeks, and that too was part of the Fighting Saints’ plan.
“We trained all season with this in mind and treated this thing like it is the real deal—we don’t care about the initials,” Potter said regarding the shortened season and that the I.W.C.O.A. has their name on the state series. “We have been gearing up for it and the kids were ready to go. Just like any other regional, we were looking to try and get as many bonus points as possible and feed off the momentum. The kids did a really good job rallying together and it was a fun experience. The kids were really on yesterday.”
The Saints only entered thirteen wrestlers into the tournament, they did not have an entrant at 106 pounds, and each wrestler made his way into a championship match—be it the championship or the consolation finals. A fairly impressive feat considering this was the first tournament of the year, especially for the freshmen in the lineup who had not been exposed to a high school tournament until Sunday.
Potter believed the team “performed well for it being our first individual tournament. Quite a few of them had done some preseason tournaments, and that helped them. But we have quite a few underclassmen in our lineup—we are starting four freshmen—and it was their first experience with the
morning weigh-in of a tournament and that routine; so, that was unique to them. I was happy with how they performed on it, but it was definitely something we were conscious of going into it.”
And not only was this the first tournament of the season, it was also the qualifier—there was nothing to chance. Potter spoke to how he and his staff tried to prepare his guys. “The day before the tournament,” Potter explained, “we mocked our training to simulate [the regional]. When they would have weighed in, when they would have warmed up, and when they would have wrestled to get them that feel. Since the season was all duals, no one really woke up and had a morning weigh-in where they had to get going and compete. So, we wanted to get them ready for that—and I am happy we did because we came right out of the gates and maybe went 15-1 in our first 16 matches. They were ready to go.”
At 113 pounds, standout Ben Davino won in a highly anticipated match-up against returning state medalist Ben Aranda of Dekalb with a 5-2 decision. The match proved to be everything St. Charles East fans were expecting, and Davino looked to have controlled the match and the pace throughout.
“Devino continued to perform well,” Potter said of this undefeated freshman who is ranked number nine nationally by MatScouts. “The match between him and Aranda was exciting. It was kind of a marquee match on the day, so when he went out there and set the tone for the day, the rest of our team rallied behind him and elevated their wrestling—that was kind of cool to see.”
With momentum now in St. Charles East’s favor, Jake Penzato continued the excitement with a fall in the 120-pound finals over Dekalb’s Jacob Luce. Penzato pinned his previous two opponents as well; thus, he maximized his individual effort earning 28 team points, the most possible by any one wrestler.
Max Sztuk would claim a championship at 145 over conference opponent Cael Andrews of Batavia, and Body Murry, a freshman in his first competition of the season, captured a title at 152 pounds with an 8-7 decision over Alex Young of Elgin Larkin.
“Probably the biggest surprise for the people who don’t know him,” Potter said, “is Brody Murry. He has been out of our line-up all season. He got hurt and had surgery in the pre-season. He was a bit slower getting back than we would have liked, but we were just being safe. With the abbreviated season we just wanted to be careful with him. In the last couple of weeks, he had shown that he was ready to go and we knew he was talented, but he had yet to be high school and, more-so, varsity tested. It was a good showing on his part. He went out there and scored a couple of falls and won it. So, getting a champ with a 0-0 record is a good sign for things to come.”
Other finalists for the Fighting Saints earning runner-up honors were Ethan Penzato (126), Elijah Chiaro (160), Jimmy Nettavong (220), and Austin Barrett (285).
With the success of having eight finalists, Potter felt that the dual season prepared them, as well as his entire team, for what they experienced in those more closely contested matches.
“I think the schedule we built with as many solid teams as we could put our kids in some situations where maybe they lost an overtime match earlier in the year or were maybe in some fifty-fifty positions and came up short, I think them being there and learning how to work through those situations was beneficial [on Sunday]. I think we were 5-1 in those types of matches that came down to the wire. I think our kids were prepped for that. They didn’t panic and they just wrestled through it and performed under the pressure.”
In the third-place matches, Max Stieb (132) won by fall in 1:34 over Felix Zavala of Chicago Lane, Anthony Chiaro (182) defeated Dukane conference opponent John Schmidt of Geneva with a 6-2 decision, and senior Diego Sanchez (195) earned a fall in 3:00 over Elgin Larkin’s Hector Flores. Also advancing to the sectional and placing fourth were Charles Fialka (145) and Brandon Swartz (170).
In a season where seniors have sacrificed a great deal, Coach Potter made a point in talking about one of his senior success stories. “Diego Sanchez is a senior for us at 195 pounds,” Potter said, “and he only has about a year and a half of wrestling experience, but the kid shows some incredible heart. He lost his semifinal bout in sudden victory—and he finds himself in those tough matches all the time—and at first, he was deflated that he came up short. But I explained to him, and I think it goes to show his intensity and his heart and grit—how unbelievable it is—because he is outmatched ninety-percent of the time he is on the mat as far as experience and wrestling background goes, but he just works incredibly hard and refuses to quit on any position.
“Him coming back and taking third showed what we already knew about him, as well as his ability to stay focused; he even came back with some falls in the wrestle backs. He is a good example of a kid in any program who might not have the most experience in the room, but if you outwork everybody and you don’t quit on anything, then good things can happen. It is good to see him find some success.”
With all of St. Charles East success on Sunday, there are still things to tighten up heading into the sectional where the competition gets better and the payout is greater. This Sunday, the top four wrestlers from each weight class will qualify for the I.W.C.O.A. Individual State Championships next week.
In regard to the season and the regionals and the state series itself, Potter was very complimentary to the members of the I.W.C.O.A. who made last weekend and the following weekends possible.
“We are just thrilled that the I.W.C.O.A. put this state series on,” Potter said. “And I am glad the other coaches around the state took it seriously and really pushed their kids to do it. I thought it was a good turn out—I know people were panicked about it—but overall, it was a good turnout and this will allow us to put on a legitimate state tournament to get these kids an opportunity. So, we are grateful for all of it and everyone who has made this possible right now and moving forward. These next few weeks should be exciting.”
• TC LIFONTI / tclifonti.com
CONTRIBUTING WRITER FOR ILLINOIS MATMEN