To no one’s surprise, Evanston and Notre Dame turned a 10-team regional wrestling tournament into a dual meet Saturday at Beardsley Gym.
The real surprise came in the manner in which the host Wildkits dominated the final round and captured their first Class 3A regional team title since 2007, burying Notre Dame in an avalanche of 13 sectional qualifiers and piling up 243.5 points to 194.5 for the runnerup Dons.
Evanston advanced 13 individuals out of a possible 14 weight classes, a staggering (and historic) feat for any program regardless of the competition. That total included regional champions David Rivera-Kohr (120 pounds), James Marshall-Davis (132), Malik Pratt (152) and Zach Warhus (182), who will lead Evanston’s pack to next weekend’s Glenbard North Sectional for individuals.
The Wildkits will also have an opportunity to tack onto their single-season school record for dual meet victories in that Illinois High School Association tournament series at the Niles West Sectional on Feb. 24, joining regional champions Oak Park-River Forest and Glenbard North, the top two ranked teams in the state. First place teams at each regional automatically qualify for the dual meet tourney series.
Saturday, coach Rudy Salinas’ squad swept the first four head-to-head matches with the Dons with team points and qualifying spots on the line, and the Wildkits never looked back, winning 5 of 6 in the final round against the defending regional champs.
“I actually thought the momentum swung our way when our 145-pounder (Austin Klopfer) beat their kid (Josh Barzowski, by a 7-2 decision) in the consolation semis,” Salinas said. “We got the momentum and we carried it over from there.
“To start the medal round the way we did with 8 straight wins was just incredible! This is a great culmination, especially for the seniors, although we do have higher goals. But this was a huge stepping stone for us, one that we haven’t reached in the last 5 or 6 years. It’s sentimental, too, because it’s a rare opportunity for us to compete and win in Beardsley Gym instead of in our fieldhouse, where we usually wrestle.”
Champions Rivera-Kohr, Marshall-Davis and Pratt have been the team’s headliners all season, combining for 102 victories during the regular season. And they didn’t disappoint Saturday in their title bouts, as Rivera-Kohr whipped Notre Dame’s Andy Poniatowski 12-2 for a major decision; Marshall-Davis pinned Notre Dame’s Michael Valdez in 2 minutes, 57 seconds; and Pratt won via forfeit over an opponent from Taft who couldn’t compete because of an unexpected death in his family.
But it was Warhus, who has flown under that mat radar despite compiling an eye-catching 32-7 won-loss record entering the regional.
He added to his resume with falls in both of his matches, nailing Niles North’s Obi Iheme in 1:29 to earn the right to ascend to the top of an awards podium for the first time in his wrestling career.
The senior didn’t even make the starting lineup for ETHS at last year’s regional, stuck behind graduated standout Raven Ahrens (an eventual regional champ himself) at 170 pounds. But his hard work and perseverance paid off in a big way on Saturday.
“Zach had a rough start to his year and I bet 60 percent of his losses came in those first two weeks,” Salinas pointed out. “Last year he was a role player for us, but he could have stepped in except there were seniors ahead of him at 170 and 182. This year he just put it all together and decided he was going to have a phenomenal senior year.
“Zach’s not flashy out there. He just puts his nose to the grindstone and breaks his opponents down physically. He has freakish strength. His style is unorthodox, and his highlight film wouldn’t be the most dynamic, but all he does is win.”
“When I was a freshman I was just garbage, same thing as a sophomore,” Warhus said. “All of the coaches here have really helped me become a much better wrestler. They really helped me grow. I’m so excited to go to the sectional, and I’m really happy to help the team go forward like this.
“This is just the best feeling! I’ve satisfied a lot of the goals I’ve set over the last 2 weeks, winning 30 matches and being the No. 1 seed for the regional. This is the first time I’ve ever gotten to the top of that (awards) podium. And qualifying for the sectional was another big goal for me, too.
“Last year I was scared to death of ever taking shots out there and I was only a defensive wrestler. Now I’ve got a lot more confidence, especially when I’m on top, but that only came after working hard in practice.”
Two other Wildkits, Izzy Fox at 160 and heavyweight Lamont Davenport, advanced after losing in their respective championship matches. Fox, a freshman, lost an 8-6 decision to Niles North’s Andrew Hoegen after scoring first period falls in his first two matches. Fox will take a sterling 38-8 won-loss record into the sectional.
Davenport, a junior, was pinned by Notre Dame’s Frank Pavlik in 1:05 at 285.
Earning third place finishes with clutch wins in their final matches were sophomore Chris Rivera, 8-2 over Notre Dame’s Nick Valle at 106; senior Derek Hunter, 9-7 over Lane Tech’s Kaiden Friedrich at 113; senior Jonathan Silencioux, 3-2 over Taft’s Chris Camacho at 126; senior Ben Morton, fall in 0:54 against Taft’s Dominic Rangel at 138; senior Klopfer, fall in 2:58 against Niles West’s David Apple at 145; sophomore Brandon Bias, fall in 3:12 against Notre Dame’s Gabe Clancy at 195; and junior Anthony Morris, who won via disqualification after taking the lead in the final seconds against Notre Dame’s Niko Portikalis at 220. Portikalis threw a punch in frustration and was immediately disqualified.