Chalk it up to teenagers searching for something worthwhile to do following a year of quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic, or maybe it’s the unique culture created by the Evanston coaching staff ever since Rudy Salinas took over as head coach.

Whatever the reason, the wrestling practice room has never been this crowded at Evanston Township High School.

More than 120 hopefuls showed up for tryouts this year and most of them have stuck with it – including a record turnout of girls – entering the season-opening home quadrangular meet set for Tuesday against Lane Tech, Ida Crown Academy and Hope Academy.

Salinas’ biggest challenge? Finding enough exhibition bouts to keep busy those who don’t crack the starting lineup at the freshman, junior varsity or varsity levels.

“It’s the biggest turnout we’ve ever had,” said the ETHS coach. “I think it’s partly a yearning for them to be engaged in something after last year. We had probably 12 to 18 kids who couldn’t compete last year because of COVID, and now they’re not going to skip this year. And there are several sophomores and juniors who are out for the first time. We want to keep those numbers up and we’re hoping to keep them all safe this year.”

Salinas and his dedicated staff did their best to keep the sport alive and thriving at Evanston once the Illinois High School Association gave the OK for the sport to resume last April, even conducting some practices outside when there wasn’t snow on the ground. The Wildkits posted a 21-7 won-loss dual-meet record for a season that ended in June without an IHSA-sponsored state tournament.

The pandemic cost Salinas’ middle son, Ricardo, a chance to win an individual state championship as a senior. Now competing at Northern Illinois University, Ricardo won all 32 of his matches last spring and climbed to the top of the all-time list for career victories at Evanston with 166, seven more than his brother Rafael, a 2019 graduate.

“We were fortunate because it could have been a whole, empty year,” said coach Salinas. “There’s something to be said for the guys coming back who’ve still got a year of experience. I’ve watched some of the college and university programs that didn’t have that year, and you can tell they’re behind. For them, it’s almost like starting over completely.

“We were able to feed off even working outdoors. We think of it as having provided a service for the kids, for their sanity, their wellness, the ability for them to engage each other. We were able to keep our pulse – otherwise, we’d have become a fractured program.”

Salinas must replace eight graduated seniors, including Ricardo, but only four starters from that group. And no more than half of the starters in this year’s lineup figure to be seniors as the Wildkits resume a “normal” schedule of matches that will again include a Central Suburban League tournament and an IHSA postseason series.

The IHSA has restructured guidelines for the sport in an effort to counter the “mega dual” meets that cropped up to get around scheduling restrictions limiting the number of dates for wrestling. Now individuals can have no more than 45 bouts prior to the start of regional competition.

As a result, the dual meet format for Saturday’s invitational at Vernon Hills has switched to just a typical championship meet with individual weight brackets. The Wildkits will also compete in invitationals at Glenbrook South and Wheaton Warrenville South the last two weekends in December.

The Wildkits return three standouts who posted more than 20 wins last spring. Marco Terrizzi was an eye-opening 26-5 as a freshman competing at 106 pounds; Charlie Bolich will move up to 145 after winning 24 of 33 matches as a sophomore, mostly at 132; and senior Anthony Joyner provides experience, quickness and mat savvy at 195 pounds after compiling a 25-10 record last year.

Other grapplers to watch are senior heavyweight David Sanchez, senior Sheldon Kinzer at 220, and junior Jason McDermott at 132. Salinas will count on senior Sam Adeoye at 170 – “He has a lot of upside and looks as good as where he ended the season last year already,” according to the head coach – and the list of promising varsity newcomers include sophomore Manny Holloway at 120 and Chris Carra at 138.

The pandemic also forced the cancellation of the first scheduled IHSA state series for girls last year, but now they’ll finally get their turn. Evanston has had girls involved in the program since before Salinas’ tenure as head coach, but now there are 11 female hopefuls and the coach is scrambling to schedule as many dual meets as possible for them.

Girls have the option of competing against girls or boys – or both – during the regular season but will have to decide in February which state series they want to compete in. They’re not allowed to grapple in both sets of tourneys.

Evanston’s female contingent is led by junior Ariana Flores, who went 10-9 at 113 pounds for Evanston’s varsity last spring, and sophomore Priscilla Hartwell. The list of females includes five girls who are out for the sport for the first time.

Salinas welcomes them all.