The question posed to Thomas Jackson was a simple one. How do you go from two wins on the junior varsity level to 26 on the varsity? And in the span of just one year?

The Evanston wrestler’s answer to that question was also simple: practice, practice, practice.

Evanston’s Thomas Jackson is the winner vs. Lakes during the Wildkits’ quad meet vs. Eisenhower, Lakes and Gary Comer high schools on Dec. 10. Credit: Michael Kellams

All that practice hasn’t made Jackson perfect. He’s still learning the wrestling basics, but that didn’t keep him from joining his teammates as sectional qualifiers coming out of the Class 3A regional tournament competition held Saturday at Niles West.

Jackson earned runner-up honors at 195 pounds, as did Marco Terrizzi (126), Eren Atac (132) and Jason McDermott (138), and all four ETHS standouts kept their seasons alive while advancing to the Class 3A Conant Sectional tournament. Competition will take place there next Friday and Saturday, with the top four finishers in each weight class qualifying for the Illinois High School Association state tournament.

It’s the first time since the 2012-13 season that the Wildkits haven’t claimed at least one individual champion at the regional level. As a team, Evanston placed fourth in the standings with 78 points in the eight-team field and trailed champion Maine South (274), Elk Grove Village (194.5) and Chicago Taft (127.5).

Jackson’s rise through the ranks has been meteoric to say the least. The junior grappler boosted his season won-loss record to an eye-catching 26-7 with wins against Christian Najjar of Niles West (fall in 1 minute, 44 seconds) and Mo Burt of Elk Grove (8-1 decision) before dropping a taut 7-6 decision to top-seeded Tommy Porrello of Maine South in the title bout Saturday.

Not bad for a former baseball player who missed out on his freshman season because of Covid and only got to compete in a couple of matches for Evanston’s junior varsity squad as a sophomore. 

“I did get in a couple of matches [winning both] at the conference JV tournament last year, but mostly I just practiced the whole season,” Jackson explained. “And since then I’ve just put in a lot of work, if not in the wrestling room, than in the weight room.

Evanston coach Rudy Salinas (right) gets his team ready for their next match during the Wildkits’ quad meet vs. Eisenhower, Lakes and Gary Comer high schools on, Dec. 10. Credit: Michael Kellams

“I’m still new to all of the rules, still learning the sport. Physically I’m out there, but I need to get stronger mentally, too. It’s like a game of chess out there. It’s all so new to me. The whole experience has been pretty awesome so far.”

At the suggestion of freshman coach Joe Villanueva, Jackson joined the wrestling program as a way to stay in shape for football, not uncommon for ETHS athletes. It’s his work ethic that stands out now, said head coach Rudy Salinas.

“He’s a good kid, and he’s such a hard worker,” Salinas said. “He’s so dedicated, so disciplined, so committed to the sport now and he deserves every accolade that he gets. He’s so coachable and whatever he digests, he just keeps taking it in.

“He was behind a couple of three-year starters [Sheldon Kinzer and David Sanchez] and he just couldn’t get on the mat before this year. Now he gets to compete for one more week at least. Now he’s teaching lessons out there – not just learning. I expect him to be one of our leaders next year.”

Jackson did learn one hard lesson in the finals Saturday. His lack of familiarity with mat rules led to a penalty point against him for stalling in the showdown with Porrello, and that made the difference in deciding the regional championship.

“I think I’ve been able to adapt pretty well to wrestling,” said the Kit junior. “I’ve gotten a lot better when I’m on the bottom – I’ve only been pinned once or twice this year – and I got a couple of escapes in the finals today, along with a takedown. I’m a little disappointed because I felt I could handle him. He’s a pretty good guy, but I lost a really close match to him in our dual meet. He was just able to ride me out at the end.”

Evanston’s Thomas Jackson is on top of things vs. Lakes during the Wildkits’ quad meet vs. Eisenhower, Lakes and Gary Comer high schools on Dec. 10. Credit: Michael Kellams

“He gave up a point for holding on too long [when the referee broke up a stalemate] and at that point I thought he was building momentum,” Salinas added. “That was the only difference between them.

“Not having a champion this year isn’t anything to celebrate, but we have to look forward to the sectional now. Hopefully, each one of them will do what they can to qualify for state.”

Terrizzi, who won a regional crown as a sophomore at 113 pounds a year ago, came up short in the finale against Maine South’s Luke Morrison in a battle between the top two seeds at 126. Terrizzi built a 4-0 lead, but was flipped and pinned by Morrison at the 2:32 mark. He’ll take a 27-7 record into sectional competition.

At 132, Atac split a pair of one-point decisions in the semifinals and finals. Now 27-14, the Evanston junior edged out Anthony Ochoa of Elk Grove 3-2 in the semis but couldn’t quite pull off a takedown in the final seconds of the championship bout versus Gavin Hoerr of Maine South in a 4-3 defeat.

McDermott’s title bid at 138 was also denied. The No. 1 seed with a 29-12 record, he was pinned by Elk Grove’s Niko Thanopoulos in 1:57. Thanopoulos reversed him with just 3 seconds left before the period ended, then stuck the Evanston senior.

Another Wildkit junior, Harper Papachristos, was pinned in 50 seconds in the third place match at 113 pounds by Tommy Lam of Mather. Only the top three finishers in each weight class punched a ticket to the sectional tournament.

Declan Glascott, seeded No. 2 at 145 pounds, lost a major decision (14-6) to Maine East’s Tim Kato in the semifinals and had to be placed in concussion protocol after the match. The senior had to forfeit his next match in the consolation bracket and couldn’t continue.

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