Adrian Bytyqi had one of the best seats in the house last year as an alternate at the Illinois High School Association state wrestling finals in Champaign.
But Bytyqi would prefer not to be a spectator as a senior. He wants to be on the mat as a qualifier.
A determined Bytyqi helped spark the Evanston wrestling team to the championship of the Vernon Hills Invitational dual meet tournament on Saturday, even though he suffered his first loss of the season to top-ranked Jack Jensen of Willowbrook at 182 pounds. The Wildkits ruled for the second time in four years after sweeping all 10 duals in the two-day test, including romps over Loyola Academy (64-12), Taft (48-33), Round Lake (54-20), Vernon Hills (54-25) and two-time defending tourney champion Willowbrook (66-12).
Now 13-0 on the season, coach Rudy Salinas’ squad capitalized on opponents’ forfeits in almost every match as some foes struggled to fill out the 13 weight classes. Unbeaten Van Rutter (195 pounds) and once-beaten grapplers like Bytyqi, Rafael Salinas (160), Ricardo Salinas (152) and Dylan Kull (132) keyed a balanced effort by the tourney champs.
Jensen, a two-time state runnerup in the past and ranked No. 1 in the state by the Illinois Coaches and Officials Association website, stuck Bytyqi in the first period of a finale that turned out to be anti-climactic after the Kits had already clinched the team crown.
The ETHS senior hopes the best is yet to come for him this year after his fourth place sectional finish at 182 earned him alternate status at Champaign. He finished an under-the-radar 27-6 as a junior and did get an up-close view of the Downstate mats watching and rooting for teammate Ramin Abraham, a qualifier at 220.
Now it could be Bytyqi’s turn.
“Since last year I’ve really been a lot more hungry,” Bytyqi said. “Being an alternate has really pushed me and motivated me to do more. I usually come into the season rusty and try to ease into things, but this season I’m more motivated. I know I need to lead by example, as a senior, and there are a lot of guys (teammates) who look up to me.
“I feel comfortable as a leader, even though you have to hold yourself accountable along with the team. You can’t make any excuses out there or you’ll be letting your team down. Sometimes I tend to stress out within myself if I’m not the kind of guy that others can follow.
“I still need to improve when it comes to putting pressure on when I’m on top. Today I got that tech fall (19-3 over Round Lake’s Angel Encarnacion), but I really wanted a pin to get more team points. It didn’t make any difference in that match, but one extra point or pin can make a big difference when you’re wrestling against somebody like a New Trier. I want to get into the mindset where I’m scoring as many points as I can for my team.”
As a junior Bytyqi competed at three different weight classes, trading places with Rutter and Izzy Fox anywhere from 160 to 195. Now he’s more likely to have a solidified role at 170, although an early-season knee injury that knocked Fox out of the lineup could have an impact if he doesn’t get back to 100 percent.
“Adrian put in a lot of hard work, slowly made progress and cleaned some things up,” Salinas praised. “He has a good mentality now as a senior. He’s always contributed and has always fought hard to establish himself in the lineup, and as one of the captains he’s probably our most vocal leader on the team. He’s a step-up kind of a guy and he’s played a big role for us so far.
“Leaders in wrestling have to rub off on the other guys, and their character and their work ethic has to be contagious. That’s what gains followers and makes the others aspire to be like him.”
Evanston’s drubbing of Round Lake, which had earlier lost by a point to Woodstock North, gave the Kits a two-game edge in the standings to open the Saturday afternoon session. Bytyqi’s tech fall combined with falls by Rafael Salinas, Ulysses Alva at 170, Quintrell Gary at 220 and Abraham at 285 to produce the one-sided result.
Neither host Vernon Hills nor Willowbrook presented a more serious challenge to conclude the successful trip.
“It’s always nice to win an event like this, but it’s a long year,” noted the ETHS coach. “We had a lot of new guys who got experience for the first time at a varsity tournament, and they had some highs and some lows. If we can build off of this performance, then that’s where our focus should be. We’ll still take it one week at a time.”