David Rivera-Kohr, Jaalen Banner and Chris Rivera have each accounted for some of the winningest seasons in Evanston wrestling history for the 2015-16 season.
And they’re not finished yet.
All three Wildkits eclipsed the 40-win victory plateau this season and they’ll all ride that momentum to the Illinois High School Association Class 3A state tournament next weekend in Champaign after earning third place finishes in their respective weight classes at the Conant Sectional.
Rivera-Kohr bounced back from his only defeat of the season to earn third place at 126 pounds, while Rivera stormed to four straight victories at 106 in a grueling test Saturday and Banner won four of five matches at 182.
It marked the second straight year that the ETHS program will send three qualifiers to Champaign. Rivera-Kohr qualified for the second year in a row, although not in the fashion he wanted to.
Competing in the tournament’s toughest weight division, the senior standout saw his winning string snapped in the semifinals with a 16-6 loss to Austin Gomez of Glenbard North, last year’s state champion at 113 pounds. But Rivera-Kohr rebounded with triumphs over Anthony Rubino of St. Charles East (5-4) and then beat Wesam Alabed of Leyden for the second time in two days, taking the 3rd place match by a 7-3 margin.
Coming back from that defeat posed more of a mental challenge than a physical challenge for Rivera-Kohr, who actually was in control in both matches even though the final scores were close.
“I’ve really been working on my mental game this year, and I knew I had to bounce back,” Rivera-Kohr said. “I don’t think about losing and I went out there expecting to win. Every match is a fresh start for me, and I always wrestle to win.
“Anyone who saw that match knows it was closer than a major. I am a little disappointed he did that to me, but now I know I can go with him. I know I can beat him. I know I can win the state championship.
“Obviously since he beat me, he’s the best I’ve faced this year. He’s more fast than he is strong, and if I had not played to his strength, been more patient and not wrestled super offensive like he did, it might have been different. If there’s a next time against him, I’ll do better. Anyone is beatable, and I know I can beat him. The state championship is still my goal.”
“What David found out today is that he can manufacture takedowns against the No. 1 ranked wrestler, and he can get escapes against the No. 1 ranked wrestler,” pointed out Evanston coach Rudy Salinas. “If we put a few strategic things in place, next time he can win. We were definitely happy with his first four minutes against Gomez. He was only down 7-5 at one point in the third period.
“I think David was able to take that loss in stride today. He had an opportunity to be great today and he’ll try to be great again next week. I think he can win the state championship.”
Rivera, a junior, raised his season record to 42-5 by clipping Alex Giuliano of Conant 9-7 in the consolation semifinals to clinch an automatic state berth, then blanking Andrew Baysingar of Prospect 8-0 in the 3rd place bout. He dropped into the consolation rounds with a 7-3 loss to St. Charles Easts’s Joe Ruffino in the semis on Friday night.
“I just wanted to recover from that loss and win the next 3. I was focused today,” Rivera said. “The preparation I got this week couldn’t have been better. The coaches really pushed me in practice this week so I could make this happen, and I’m very excited to be able to qualify for State. My goal next week? To win State. That’s always been my goal.”
“I think getting that first pin today against Glenbard North was the key for him,” said Salinas. “After that loss he figured out some offensive formula against some of the lankier kids he faced. We always criticize him for being a great practice wrestler — he’s a killer in the practice room — and then when he gets out on the mat (in competition) he’s cautious and second guesses himself.
“But this is his breakout year. He’s so mild-mannered, like Clark Kent, but today he put on his cape, took off his glasses and became Superman! If that sticks, it’d be great for him. Next week will be a reboot for him and anything can happen at The Show (state finals).”
Banner’s remarkable success continued a year after he was unable to crack the starting lineup, partly due to injury and partly because of Evanston’s depth at his weight class. The senior refused to dwell on his second round loss (via technical fall) to Schaumburg’s Tony Vezzetti and Saturday reeled off consecutive victories against Jesse Hernandez of Leyden (fall in 2 minutes, 34 seconds), Trey Lally of West Chicago (4-2 in overtime), Zack Crosby of South Elgin (forfeit due to earlier injury) and Jack Vesevick of Glenbard West (8-7).
In the 3rd place match versus Vesevick, Banner owned a 4-2 advantage after two periods and fought off the Glenbard West grappler, who three times cut the deficit to a single point.
Banner’s free pass through the consolation semis because of Crosby’s injury left the ETHS wrestler with mixed emotions.
“At first I didn’t really feel like I’d worked for it, winning like that,” he remarked. “But because I won that 3rd place match, people can’t say I got a free ride now.
“The kid I lost to (Vezzetti) really stuck it to me, I’m not gonna lie. But the coaches and everybody else told me to keep my head up, and all I ever say is don’t give up, just keep moving. Now it feels awesome, amazing. This was my goal from Day 1 and it was worth the wait. God has a plan for everyone, and stuff happens for a reason. What happened last year helped me get to where I am today.”
Evanston’s five other sectional qualifiers all fell short in their bids to advance.
Freshman Dylan Kull went 0-2 at 120 pounds; twin brother Kameron Kull went 0-2 at 138; sophomore Izzy Fox went 1-2 at 160; sophomore Kevin Washington went 1-2 at 195, with one of the defeats in the ultimate tiebreaker in overtime; and junior Brandon Bias went 1-2 at 220, with his season also ending in an ultimate tiebreaker defeat to John Serio of Schaumburg.