Stevenson’s Moving Parts Win Regional.. Set a School Record in Process

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS • Over the past six seasons, Stevenson has been in the hunt for a 3A regional title; unfortunately, three separate teams have been the proverbial thorn in the side for the Patriots. For three seasons, it was Deerfield, with titles won by seven points in 2015, and a one point victory in 2016. In 2018, it was Prospect. And, over the past two seasons, it has been Barrington—and last year, with Stevenson hosting the regional, Barrington won by a difference of 7.5 points.

Monday in Arlington Heights, the Patriots felt like it was finally their time to grab the title, and that is exactly what they did. When the tournament ended, the difference in the team race was 8.5 points, but this time it was in favor of the Patriots. In addition to the team title, the team had eleven sectional qualifiers, and that set a school record.

“Our kids wrestled really well,” Head Coach Shane Cook said excitedly. “We were really thrilled. We’ve taken second in the regional the past six years—six years in a row. To be knocking on the door like that and to finally break through, especially in a crazy year like this one, was really special—it is just a tribute to the entire Stevenson family with how hard our kids work and the commitment of our wrestlers and coaching staff.”

The difference for Stevenson came in the semifinals. They would advance six wrestlers to the finals, three more than Barrington—winning two head-to-head match-ups—and three more than Prospect. From that point forward, the team score separation was simply too much for any team to overcome.

However, it was more than just winning close matches, Stevenson had half its team commit to dropping a weight class in order to construct a stronger tournament team.

“Those semifinals were huge for us,” Cook explained, “and there were a lot of motivating factors. First of all, we had seven guys that all dropped a weight class for the regional that had been wrestling up all season. So, for those seven guys to make that collective commitment, knowing that it would be best for us to have our strongest team—and for some of them it didn’t necessarily mean it was the best move for them, individually. But, for them to make that commitment to each other was something that motivated us all day long.

“One of those drops,” Cook continued, “was Lorenzo Frezza who dropped to 120 pounds after wrestling 126 all season. He did it for the team, and he did it knowing he was going to run into Will Baysingar—and Baysingar would make winning an individual title very hard. He probably would have won it at 126, but for him to recognize that and still make that commitment; well, that was really special on his part. That was a motivating factor as well.”

As in any close team race, there are always a variety of factors that go into a team win—it is never just one person; however, sometimes, one person can make the difference. The Patriots had that difference- maker in 195-pounder Jacob Whiting.

“Up until last weekend,” Cook shared about his line-up, “Whiting was playing on our state championship water polo team. He had been out the entire season and for him to be back in the lineup was a shot of life for us.”

Whiting would end up placing second in the regional, but he would win by a fall in 1:22 during his quarterfinal match against Ethan Medina of Lake Zurich, and then win by a 13-0 major decision in his semifinal bout against Stefanos Lahanis of Glenbrook South. His presence and team point total ultimately played a significant role in the team morale and the team race.

The other three runner-up finishers for Cook’s squad were Kei Yamato (126), Thomas Schoolman (145), and Ari Guzman (160). In third place, Arad Peregoudov (138) was the lone place-winner.

“Our two captains are Yamato and Peregoudov,” Cook said, “and those two have really—all of our senior class have endured something that none of us ever have—and they continued to be strong leaders and put the program and their teammates first. They have just been a positive force in our program throughout quarantine and now throughout the season. I am proud of them.”

There were also some nice surprises for Stevenson. “There were a lot of close ones where guys came through for us,” Cook explained, “but Thomas Schoolman at 145 pounds, for him to make it to the finals—he’s a sophomore and he’s still learning, he’s still growing, he’s had a lot of challenging weekends to where he was getting beat up a little bit—him staying the course and having a positive attitude has been great. He came in as the third seed and picked up some big bonus points for us in the semifinals with a fall. It was really big for us.”

And with all of the moving parts and surprises, there was one more piece to Cook’s puzzle that, in the end, became one of the pieces that locked everything else into place. And when that piece is a big man walking alongside everyone else, there is just something different about the make-up of a team.

“Our heavyweight, Keegan Houlihan, let himself get too big over quarantine,” Cook said of his returning state qualifier. “He was up to 360 pounds at one point. Now, he is 6’4” and a monster of a man, big and broad-shouldered, so it’s not like he was terribly sloppy. But he made a commitment to the team and ended up chipping away at his weight all season long and being disciplined and dedicated to his nutrition plan. The first time he made weight was at the regional, and that was another motivating factor for the guys having him alongside them. He was a little bit rusty, and we didn’t expect him to be at his best, but he took fourth and everything about him being there was meaningful.”

Stevenson’s lone champion was number-four ranked Cole Rhemrev at 132 pounds. The junior scored a 7-2 decision over Scott Busse of Lake Zurich to remain perfect on the season. The remaining three qualifiers were fifth-place finishers Shawn Tokmovtsev (152) and Jair Diaz (182), and sixth-place finisher Allan Kantor (113).

As for what brought Stevenson together, Cook felt it was the work and time his guys put in together. “I think this has all been a testament to how hard these kids have worked throughout the entire past year and a half since we went into quarantine,” Cook said. “Some of our kids just stayed the course and kept training the entire school year, even when we were remote and the wrestling team was shut down. We were training on Zoom. I teach physical education and we have an early-bird class that starts at 7:00 a.m. and meets three days per week—almost the entire team is enrolled in that class. So, we were training together doing all body weight exercises, push-ups, and I think we did more burpees than anybody could ever want to do.

“And that is a credit to the kids just believing and sticking together and working hard,” Cook continued. “They did not let the quarantine situation distract them from their individual and our team goals. The efforts they put in since the end of last season, keep their focus and stay encouraged in a very difficult situation—for them to stay encouraged through it all was something that drove us through Monday and made this possible.”

Monday’s regional was the second day of the I.W.C.O.A.’s regional championships—and like many other coaches and wrestlers and fans, Cook was nothing but appreciative for their efforts to make this state series possible.

“We are blessed to have the I.W.C.O.A.,” Cook explained, “and we know that they had an incredible task in front of them to put this together. We are just thrilled that they did it, and, with as many moving parts as there are across the state, they were able to put this week and the following weeks together—it’s been really special for our kids. If any organization or group was going to come together and do something positive for kids, it’s going to be the Illinois wrestling community, and the I.W.C.O.A. has been at the front of all of that. We are just blessed to have them.”

Two tremendous programs, Barrington and Prospect, well coached and littered with tough wrestlers, would finish second and third, respectively, at the regional. Barrington’s three champions were Jon Fier (145), Jack Hartman (182), and the number-one ranked 220-pounder, Evan Roper.

“Overall, we wrestled well,” Barrington Head Coach Dave Udchik said of his team. “We had three champions and eleven qualifiers, but Stevenson just had a great semifinal round and they went up by about fifty on us. We chipped away, and got it to eight, but that was as close as we could get.”

Barrington would have two wrestlers place third, Charlie Jones (126) and Marko Hennin (170). “Had we had a few more thirds or something else went our way,” Udchik commented, “we may have won the tournament. Roper did what he does at 220. He is a monster and he is going to be tough to beat. Hartman wrestled really well, he did what we expected him to do, but Fier was the big surprise. He has an average record and really did a great job winning the regional.”

Placing third as a team, Prospect would also earn three champions. Head Coach Tom Whalen believed that “We had a lot of young guys out there battling and had some hard-fought matches. I was impressed with where some of these guys are at—we had no seniors in our line-up—but we figured out we have a long way to go to compete with the better teams in the state.”

Individual champions for the Knights were Tom Miller (113), number-one ranked Will Baysingar (120), and number-four ranked Damien Puma (138).

“I expected, and those guys expected to win,” Whalen said, “and Baysingar separated himself from everyone else—I think he showed today that he is the best wrestler at his weight in the state, maybe even in the Midwest. Miller won his first championship today and wrestled really well, and Puma finally stepped forward and found a way to win close matches at the end against good wrestlers.

“But,” Whalen interjected, “we were surprised with the effort of freshman Connon Munn at 145 pounds. He has only been in the lineup the second half of the season, and he dropped his championship semifinal match in overtime, and turned around and won the fifth-place match in overtime. He wrestled pretty outstanding for a kid with limited varsity experience this year.”

For the most part, Prospect’s veterans knew how to approach the regional and they would earn bonus points when possible. However, with his younger wrestlers, Whalen spoke to how there is much room for their growth and understanding of tournament wrestling.

“Our District allowed a very limited schedule this year, and it hurt us,” Whalen said. “So, when we got into battles with other teams who may have had more of a season, we weren’t as prepared as we could have been.”

Overall, Prospect would advance eight wrestlers to this weekend’s sectional, and both Whalen and Udchik would echo what Cook had stated about the I.W.C.O.A. and their gratefulness for a state series and the opportunity to wrestle these next few weeks.

• TC LIFONTI / tclifonti.com
CONTRIBUTING WRITER FOR ILLINOIS MATMEN

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