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Two grapplers who didn’t even make the starting lineup a year ago set the tone Saturday for Evanston’s wrestling team.
Junior Malik Pratt and senior Raven Ahrens both won titles in their respective weight classes at the Notre Dame Regional tournament as the Wildkits qualified eight individuals overall for next week’s Leyden Sectional.
Pratt ruled the 145-pound division while Ahrens captured top honors at 170, leading Evanston to an overall second place finish as a team in the 10-team field.
Joining the duo as automatic qualifiers for the sectional with top three finishes were sophomore David Rivera-Kohr, 2nd at 113; junior James Marshall-Davis, 2nd at 126; junior Ben Morton, 2nd at 132; senior Carldrail Cannon, 3rd at 182; junior Arrhian Monroe, 3rd at 195; and sophomore Anthony Morris, 3rd at 285.
Host Notre Dame piled up 224 points to earn the team championship and a berth in the dual meet state tournament series that goes to each regional winner. Evanston placed second with 151 points and the young Wildkits — head coach Rudy Salinas entered only two seniors in the tourney — gained valuable experience.
Only Rivera-Kohr had qualified for the sectional prior to Saturday’s test, as almost to a man the Kits rose to the occasion.
“That’s a really good showing for us, and right now we’re happy,” Salinas said. “We’ve had so much growth as a team this year. Now the juniors know they’re pretty good, and they’ve still got another year to grow. We have at least half a dozen kids who have improved tremendously this year. These kids have great work ethic and great character, and now they’re believers. They can set the bar as high as they want to next year.”
Pratt outscored Taft’s Ben Garland 13-4 in the 145 finale while Ahrens used a third period escape to defeat Niles North’s Calvin Rosenburgh 3-2 at 170, avenging a regular season loss to the Viking wrestler.
Pratt’s commitment to improve in the off-season was apparent by the way he dominated on Saturday. He raised his record to 34-4 overall with a fall and two major decisions, including the title match where he racked up five takedowns versus Garland.
“It just feels fantastic!” Pratt exclaimed after his trip to the medal stand. “It’s a great feeling. I worked every morning and every night this summer to try to become a great wrestler. I didn’t have a great season last year (just 7-5), but the coaches all told me that they saw something in me. Now I just stick to the basics and listen to my coaches. And the results have been fantastic.
“The first day of the season I looked at myself in the mirror and said ‘you’re gonna be a champion.’ Today is just the first step.”
“Malik went through a few lessons as a sophomore that, let’s face it, broke him a little,” Salinas added. “Today is really a testament to the work that he’s put in, to the commitment that he’s made. He still has a lot of work to do, but now he sees it.”
Ahrens was another Kit who showed perseverance, finally breaking into the starting lineup as a senior. After splitting two regular season matches with Rosenburgh, he held the upper hand in the match that mattered most and improved to 35-11 on the season.
“Coming into the tournament I knew I could do some damage, but I never thought I could be a regional champion,” Ahrens admitted. “I faced him (Rosenburgh) twice before and both matches were low-scoring, so I knew every point would count. He plays good defense.
“This is my first year as a varsity starter and one of the differences between JV and varsity is that every point counts on the varsity. In practice I’m always looking to keep points, to savor them. And practicing with Kyle Buchanan (as a junior) definitely made the jump to varsity a lot easier. He beat me up all the time, and now I have the responsibility to beat up on the others.”
“Those two kids know each other so well and it just came down to execution today,” said Salinas. “Raven’s been one of our leaders all year, and he didn’t overdo it and he didn’t hold back in the finals. He just came out and executed.”
Rivera-Kohr settled for second at 113, dropping a 6-1 decision to Notre Dame’s Jimmy Gallardo in the title matchup. Another Notre Dame wrestler defeated Marshall-Davis at 126, as Jake Barzowski pinned the ETHS standout (32-3 overall) in 56 seconds.
At 132, Morton stayed with Lane Tech’s Danny Carlson for half the match before the unbeaten Carlson pulled away for a 7-1 triumph. Morton advances with a sterling 26-4 record.
Cannon clinched a sectional trip by tripping Niles West’s Brian Stranz 5-3 in the third place match at 182. Monroe, up next for ETHS at 195, decisioned Carlos Diaz of Niles West 6-2, and Morris capped a solid performance overall by stopping Mather’s Oscar Suarez 11-2 in his third place bout.
Near misses for the Wildkits were fourth place finishers Cedric Logan at 152 and Austin Klopfer at 138, who each fell one win short of advancing.