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Warriors belong on the awards podium, and Evanston hasn’t had many wrestlers in the history of the program who represent that winning spirit better than Ricardo Salinas.

And the best may be yet to come for the Evanston junior, who scored a 4th place finish at the Class 3A Illinois High School Association state individual tournament in the 170-pound weight class competition that concluded Saturday at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

The son of ETHS head wrestling coach Rudy Salinas earned his first state finals medal by winning 4 of 6 matches against the state’s elite grapplers and became only the second wrestler in ETHS history to earn 50 victories in a single season. He finished with a 50-5 won-loss mark, second only to the 53-0 chalked up by 220-pound state champion Ramin Abraham last year.

The younger Salinas has developed a knack for finding ways to win on the mat throughout his career and has climbed to 6th place all-time on the win list at Evanston. He needs only 26 more victories to surpass the current career leader, older brother Rafael Salinas.

“This weekend has been a phenomenal ride for us,” said Rudy Salinas after Ricardo claimed the program’s third straight medal at State. Abraham also placed 5th as a junior for the Wildkits.

“Ricardo is a competitor and he truly wears that warrior spirit. The greatest joy for me was having so many people tell me how much they enjoy watching him wrestle. The beautiful thing is that Ricardo is still a work in progress. He’s so well-rounded, with so many intangibles, and there’s not one move that he’s perfected yet. He’s still growing, still improving and he really loves — and enjoys — the sport.

“He’s following his big dreams, and that’s phenomenal for a parent to see and great for a coach to see, too.”

Salinas rose to the occasion in a grueling 3-day test after reaching Champaign for the second year in a row. He split his first two matches —a 6-1 victory over Carter Maggio of St. Charles East and a 3-2 loss to Antonio Torres of Waubonsie Valley — before storming through the back draw to eliminate Cooper Wettig of Montini (3-2), Damien Jones of Alton (8-2) and Bobby Gaylord of Chicago Marist (4-3).

Jordan Chisum of Zion-Benton topped Salinas by a 6-4 margin in the 3rd place bout on Saturday afternoon.

Salinas’ ability to cope with different styles and different attacks thrown at him by foes off paid dividends. The Evanston junior embraces that challenge and his reputation as more than just a one-trick competitor on the mat.

One move can be good enough to produce a state championship, but flexibility is important, too.

“Winning is fun, and so is the challenge of finding a way to win out there on your own,” Salinas said. “I just tried to have the same mindset as always for all of those matches there. It’s just another match, it’s business as usual. At that point (state tournament) every wrestler is wrestling for his entire season. I haven’t really had to grind out so many matches until I got to State.

“What I love about wrestling is the physicality, the strategy and being with my teammates. All the hard work I did this year was definitely worth it. My goal at the beginning of the year was to win a medal at State, and it felt great to finally achieve that goal.”

All 6 matches were close calls, and according to Coach Salinas, “the one consistent thing about this weekend was that Ricardo was in every match and had the opportunity to win it. He was really ready to go.

“We were looking forward to possibly getting to the semifinals , but it just didn’t happen. The two guys who made it to the finals (Luke Rasmussen of Barrington and David Ferrante of Huntley) recognized Ricardo as an up and coming junior and told him they were looking forward to meeting him. Talking to those guys, Ricardo was able to see himself as among the state’s elite.”

In the second round on Thursday, Waubonsie Valley’s Torres scored a takedown against Salinas in the second period and held on for a one-point win. “Ricardo got in on him with several shots, but he just was not able to finish them,” pointed out Coach Salinas.

“He had an incredible mindset the whole tournament, though, and not once did anyone on the coaching staff hear him say he was worried (about a certain matchup). And that was a deep weight class, a college level bracket, where all the guys were like gunslingers firing bullets at each other.”

Ricardo Salinas had some difficulty against Montini’s Wettig and settled for a 3-2 win that wasn’t really that close. Then, in the so-called “blood round” that separates medal winners from those sent to the sidelines, Salinas showed his father in the hallway of the State Farm Center just how ready he was despite the fact that he was shaking off fatigue and a bad cold.

“When I put my hands on him (practicing moves) while we were warming up, he threw me into the wall. And when that happened I knew he was ready, and I was overflowing with confidence that he’d win and be on that podium. It was a really great moment for me,” Coach Salinas said.

The 8-2 victory over Alton’s Jones took place Friday in front of several of Salinas’ teammates who were able to make the trip. “That was probably one of my better matches this season,” he noted. “I was tired and sore physically, but I wasn’t feeling any pressure. I felt ready to go mentally, that was the important thing. Even though I was tired I just told myself you’re fine, just go do it.”

In the consolation semifinals, Salinas had to out-wrestle and out-think his opponent from Marist. Gaylord, also a junior, refused to engage with Salinas and the ETHS standout scored his 4-3 victory without benefit of a single takedown.

“It was interesting,” said Coach Salinas. “The kid was quick, he came out firing and he got a takedown against Ricardo with his best move. But Ricardo was unrelenting with the tone and pace and tempo, and he had to convince the referee that the kid was not engaging him. That kid wasn’t staying in the circle.

“Ricardo scored 2 escapes and 2 stalling points. He stayed cool as a cucumber and showed he could adapt, but he really had to earn it.”

“That’s the first time I’ve ever won a match like that. It was crazy,” Ricardo added. “Usually getting the first takedown is really important at State, but I managed to win without one.”

Trailing Zion-Benton’s Chisum 4-2 in the final period, Salinas closed to within 4-3 but, trying to angle for a possible winning takedown, he “opened up too much” according to his coach and that gave Chisum an opportunity for a clinching takedown of his own.”

Coach Salinas credited the rest of his staff and oldest son Rafael for showing Ricardo the path to success in the sport.

“Rafael had a lot of success, set a lot of goals and he helped set the standard for Ricardo,” said Coach Salinas. “And Ricardo has the warrior spirit that rubs off on all of his teammates. I think he’s the ideal athlete, a soldier, and I wish I could clone him for all of the other weight classes.

“He set some higher goals and found the key to the lock to open another door and evolve this year. It comes down to embracing the daily grind and that’s what he did. He enjoys working hard, learning and putting in the time. His ultimate goal is to win, of course, but he looks to always have fun competing and he really enjoys the (wrestling) environment.”