Ricardo Salinas could’ve taken an easier way out and dropped down a weight class prior to the start of postseason wrestling competition.

But the Evanston junior knows that when the going gets tough, the tough rise to the occasion and go to Champaign.

Competing in the toughest sectional for 170-pounders in the state of Illinois, Salinas earned a runnerup finish at the Barrington Sectional tournament Saturday and clinched a return trip to the Illinois High School Association state finals in Champaign next weekend.

Salinas, who also qualified as a sophomore at 160 pounds, was the lone Wildkit among the 7 competing to keep his season alive. He survived a gauntlet that included 3 of the top 4 170-pounders in Class 3A, according to rankings by the website Illinoismatmen.com, losing to No. 2 ranked Luke Rasmussen of Barrington 5-2 in the title bout.

Salinas, now 46-3 on the season, briefly considered dropping down a weight class back in January when the IHSA revealed postseason assignments. But after a quick consultation with his father and head coach, Rudy Salinas, Ricardo didn’t dodge the challenge ahead of him.

He opened tourney action Friday by pinning Dan Hull of Lake Zurich in 70 seconds, then scored a 3-2 triumph in the semifinals over No. 4 ranked Chase Baczek of Libertyville to punch a return ticket to State.

“There was no second guessing about a different weight class. This is the road he wanted to travel,” said Coach Salinas. “He put the work in to achieve his goal and I’m really proud of the work ethic and dedication he’s shown this season. As a dad, I’ve never been so anxious for him because the excitement was just ridiculous here and they were all state caliber matches (at 170).

“I couldn’t ask for a better athlete or a better son. He’s been extremely focused and disciplined all season. He didn’t flinch when we found out his path, he just said I’m good at 170. He said he’d get out of the sectional and he was completely confident in his (own) ability).”

“It was a very tough sectional,” Ricardo Salinas added. “I knew it would be a challenge, but I also knew that I was up for it. I wasn’t intimidated, just aware of how good the other guys are. The only response when you look at something like that is to work harder to get yourself ready for it.

“I always try to take it one match at a time and I just focus on wrestling my best, not on the wins or losses. It feels extra good this year because the sectional was so tough. Now my sights are set on the podium and a placement (at State).”

Rasmussen proved he’d learned some lessons from his past history matching up against Salinas, which included a win over the ETHS grappler at last year’s state tournament and a loss to Salinas during the freestyle state competition this past summer. The unbeaten (40-0) Rasmussen had an answer for everything the Wildkit standout threw at him and was only the second opponent to take Salinas down this season.

Only a takedown with 3 seconds remaining got Salinas on the scoreboard.

“Today, he was better than me,” admitted the younger Salinas. “A week from now? We’ll see. My stuff wasn’t working today until I finally figured out a way to get to his legs a little too late.”

“Give credit to Luke, because he’s always been a quality wrestler and he was prepared for Ricardo today,” said Coach Salinas. “He had the answers for Ricardo’s attacks and he was better than Ricardo today. We’ll get a fresh start next week.”

Salinas’ 3-2 triumph over Libertyville’s Baczek — who was eliminated in the wrestlebacks — wasn’t as close as the scoreboard indicated. Baczek was able to fend off most of Salinas’ shots early in the match, but couldn’t generate any offense himself.

“I really wasn’t worried about Ricardo in the semis, because fighting him off is a lot different than countering him,” pointed out the ETHS head coach. “Ricardo picked his shots and fired bullets until one of them hit. He was very methodical, and I thought he controlled the match.”

The Evanston junior will have to make his second trip to Champaign with different headgear. His worn-out gear broke during the title match, causing a brief delay, and he’ll have to find another fit for the tests ahead of him in Champaign.

“I’ve had that head gear for so long I have an emotional attachment to it,” he laughed. “I’m probably going to have to get haircut before I go down there, too. There’ll be 100 percent changes for me going this year. I’ve had that head gear for at least a year, maybe two, but it’s definitely beat up at this point.”

Just like most of Salinas’ foes.

Also representing Evanston at the sectional showdown were junior Nathan Mann, 0-2 at 120 pounds; junior Nathan Straus, 0-2 at 152; senior Max Morton, 1-2 at 160; senior Anjual Joyner, 0-2 at 182; junior Charlie Fox, 0-2 at 220; and junior Valery Jean-Jacques, 1-2 at 285.

Mann finished fourth at the regional but earned a bid as an alternate. He’s one of 5 returning starters who the Wildkits can build around next season.

“I jumped the gun being very optimistic at the start of the season and I set our (team) goals too high,” said the Evanston coach. “But we finished 29-8 (in dual meets) and that’s a great season. I’m very proud of our kids and they’ve already got a foot on next year’s path with the experience they got at the sectional. I think the future is very promising.”

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...