Photo by Jeff Pape of WrestlingGear.com
By JARED BELL
Austin Gomez was heartbroken.
After starting last season unbeaten and advancing to a Class 3A sectional semifinal, the Glenbard North wrestler’s dream of being a sectional champion ended prematurely with an overtime loss in the semifinals.
“It was frustrating and after that match I was pretty upset,” Gomez said. “But I had to regroup right away because I still had to win one more match to qualify for state.”
Despite being disappointed, Gomez bounced back as he won back-to-back matches to advance to state for the second time.
Then, after the work was done, he realized something — he lost a match, not the chance at a state title.
While the third-place finish was not what Gomez envisioned, the sectional defeat wasn’t the end of his season.
It was just a minor road bump.
A week later, Gomez navigated a tough 3A 113-pound bracket as he won four matches in three days and avenged his sectional loss in the state championship match to claim his first state title.
“After that loss, I was so motivated,” said Gomez, now a junior and the No. 1-ranked 3A wrestler at 126 pounds. “The following week of practice, my coaches said they’ve never seen me practice like that because I was so focused. I wanted that state title so bad.”
Gomez’s postseason further proved something — winning a sectional title isn’t a requirement for winning a state title.
Over the last four seasons, 22 wrestlers won a state title without winning a sectional, or 13.1 percent. (See bottom of article for a listing of these wrestlers)
Last season, Gomez was one of four wrestlers who did so as Marist’s Jake Ford won the 3A 285-pound state championship, Geneseo’s Hunter Grau won the 2A 138-pound state title and Mercer County’s Quinton Ball won the 1A 285-pound title.
Together, the group continued to prove it’s more important to get out of sectionals than to win it.
“Nobody wants to lose in the sectional, but it’s not the end of the world if you do,” said the senior Ball, who lost in overtime in this year’s and last year’s sectional title match. “In our local area, of the last five state champions — including myself and Hunter — none of us have a sectional title.
“It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, ‘If you win the sectional, you’re going to win state,’ but if you do lose it definitely helps you reevaluate and assess you as a wrestler and your practice habits.”
Sometimes a loss in the sectional can be beneficial long term.
“It never gets easier after the sectional, so I just had to bounce back from the loss,” said the senior Grau, who is now the No. 1-ranked 2A wrestler at 145 pounds. “The thing that was running through my mind was just to set the pace during my matches at state.”
A loss at the sectional can help refocus, re-energize and propel.
“My dad always tells me that losing that match was the best thing that could’ve happened to me,” Ball said. “It showed me that even if you’re on top there’s somebody else coming for you who is going to try to knock you down.”
At state, both Gomez and Grau earned revenge as each avenged their loss from the sectional as Gomez won by a 4-3 decision, while Grau prevailed by a 5-3 sudden victory.
Turns out, the sectional defeat gave both an opportunity to get a scouting report on the competition.
“The loss gave me an opportunity to see what it took to compete at that level,” Grau said. “I had to not get upset and just bounce back. It was the best feeling ever when I won the state title.”
Ball, however, didn’t have to avenge his sectional loss as he won a state title without a rematch.
“I would have loved to get a chance at redemption at the state tournament, but no matter who I faced I had it in my mind before the match that I had it won,” Ball said. “I knew whoever was going to face me that I was going to take it to him for six minutes and leave it all out there.”
Nearly a year removed from their state titles, Gomez, Grau and Ball all qualified for this weekend’s state tournament — Ford graduated — as Gomez and Grau will enter as sectional champions.
While the path to a state title should be easier, it’s not a guarantee as all three proved last year.
“It’s really hard to tell if I would not have won (a state title) if I had won a sectional title,” Gomez said, “but that loss probably helped me. I hadn’t lost all year, and it made me refocus and regroup.”
Jared Bell can be reached at (815) 220-6938. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsJared.
Below is a list of State Champions that were NOT Sectional Champions over the past four seasons.
Jake Ford, Marist -285 pounds, third at sectional
Austin Gomez, Glenbard North -113 pounds, third at sectional
Hunter Grau, Geneseo -138 pounds, second at sectional
Quinton Ball, Mercer County -285 pounds, second at sectional
Adarios Jones, Moline -285 pounds, second at sectional
Kenny Baldridge, Morris -132 pounds, third at sectional
Alex Mardsen, Crystal Lake Central -195 pounds, second at sectional
Nate Magiera, Wacounda -220 pounds, second at sectional
Caleb Micho, Rockford Lutheran -126 pounds, third at sectional
C.J. Brucki, Sandburg -160 pounds, second at sectional
Danny Swan, Oak Forest -106 pounds, second at sectional
B.J. McGhee, Rock Island -120 pounds, third at sectional
Cameron Kennedy, Richmond-Burton -126 seconds, second at sectional
Randall Taborn, Springfield -132 pounds, second at sectional
Kris Williams, Thornton -106 pounds, second at sectional
Kevin Moylan, Stagg -145 pounds, third at sectional
Josh Marchok, Schaumburg -220 pounds, second at sectional
Austin Culton, Sycamore -152 pounds, second at sectional
Brandon Briggs, North Boone -106 pounds, second at sectional
Nelson Baker, Byron -113 pounds, fourth at sectional
Brian Bahrs, Newman -152 pounds, third at sectional
R.J. Troye, Newman -182 pounds, second at sectional