By JARED BELL
As a young kid, Ethan Reel sat in the stands at a Washington wrestling dual and made a prophecy about the future.
“I’ve always been real close with the four Punke brothers, so as kids we always said, ‘When we get to high school, this team will be on the up rise,’” Reel said. “I remember thinking (at the time) that once we all got to high school this team could be unreal.
“And here we are.”
All these years later, Reel’s prediction has come true.
Seven years after Washington won its first-ever regional title, the Panthers have steadily evolved into one of the state’s — and nation’s — top wrestling teams.
Since the 2009-10 season, the Panthers have won six regional championships, advanced to the dual team state tournament the past two seasons with a chance to go again this year and have become the No. 1-ranked team in Class 2A.
It’s a long way from where Washington was.
“Washington never had a great team,” said ninth-year coach Bryan Medlin, a 1994 Washington alumnus. “We always had a few individuals poke around at the state tournament and do well here and there, but a lot of times we were consistently last in the Mid-Illini Conference Tournament. We gave up a bunch of forfeits and didn’t really have the numbers to compete yet.”
Now the Panthers not only have the numbers but the talent.
After the program sent 10 kids to state last season — and won three state titles and had three second-place finishers — Washington qualified 11 wrestlers for this weekend’s IHSA State Tournament, which starts Thursday, continues Friday and concludes Saturday at the University of Illinois’s State Farm Center in Champaign.
“I think what makes us so talented throughout is that we all buy in to one common idea,” said 106-pound senior Trey Keeley, who finished second at 2A 106 last season. “We all have the same mindset of making the most out of our time in the room and being the best that we can be, and we know that if we do that the team aspect will take care of itself.”
After earning a state medal at Washington and then wrestling in college, Medlin took over as the Washington coach nine seasons ago.
Along with assistant coach Nick Miller — a fellow Washington graduate — the two began to implement their own ways.
“We kept bouncing ideas off each other, and I think excitement started to develop in the school and our numbers increased,” Medlin recalls. “We started doing things that were a bit different than before.”
During the season, Washington had team-oriented events, including an early-season overnight sleepover/practice.
In the offseason, Medlin introduced and encouraged his kids to try other styles of wrestling like Greco and freestyle.
“The kids loved the international style and now the team may even like international style more,” Medlin said. “I think that excitement keeps them in the sport year-round and gives them something to talk about.”
While the Panthers continued to improve year by year, they still had to translate it to the mat, something that took time and experience.
“When I came in as a freshman, I think we were ranked sixth in the state, but we didn’t even win our regional,” Keeley said. “That year we lost to East Peoria and it kind of upset us. We just all soaked it in and used it as motivation going forward.”
The loss was a minor but important moment on the Panthers’ rise as it motivated the team, which the next year advanced to dual team state for the first time and last season earned the program’s first-ever team trophy when it finished second.
This year, the Panthers have risen to No. 1 in the rankings.
“Once the rankings came out and we were No. 1, it wasn’t so much a feeling of ‘How cool,’ but rather ‘OK, let’s get to work,’” Keeley said. “We knew that every team we wrestled was going to be shooting for us and that we’d be their Super Bowl.”
Not only has Washington embraced the No. 1 ranking, but the Panthers have continued to succeed.
“I think the biggest reason why we’re so successful is mostly due to our coaching,” said Reel, a two-time state medalist. “I’ve been around a lot of coaches, and I think coach Medlin and Miller are the real deal. I think they’re the best thing for us.
“We work hard in season, but during the offseason they open a lot of doors for us by taking us places and letting us wrestle other guys. A lot of our success is due to all of our coaches. We couldn’t be more blessed.”
All the hard work has paid off.
Prior to the 2009-10 season, the program had eight individual state medalists, but since Washington has had 13 wrestlers earn 20 state medals, including seven state titles and seven second-place finishes with more likely to come this weekend.
Once the team finishes its individual run, Washington will turn its focus to the team as the Panthers face No. 3 Lincoln-Way West on Feb. 23 at the 2A La Salle-Peru Sectional.
While everyone involved knows topping Lincoln-Way West won’t be easy, the squad is hoping to not only return to dual team state but win it.
“I have my own personal goals and obviously I want to win an individual state title,” Reel said. “But if I had to choose I would take a team state title over an individual state title. I love this team so much, so if I could share that moment with my teammates it’d be the best thing that could happen for us.”
Jared Bell can be reached at (815) 220-6938. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsJared.