By Patrick Z. McGavin

In the South Side Hyde Park neighborhood on the first Saturday in December, Mount Carmel had Montini on the ropes.

The Caravan hosted the Broncos as part of a stacked quad. Mount Carmel was coming off the Class 7A state football championship, and the roster was still in flux.

The Montini roster, was also very much a work in progress. The natural experimentation marking the early season was on full blast.

The dual began at 220 pounds, and Nik Misha and heavyweight Eliot Lewis started things off hot with a decision and pin for the 9-0 Mount Carmel lead.

After Connor Gaynor won by forfeit at 145 pounds, Mount Carmel held a seemingly insurmountable lead at 26-12.  Then bam, bam, bam, the lights went out.

Montini reeled off five straight victories. Senior Josh LaBarbera, a transfer from Metea Valley, beat Robert Bowman 9-3 at 195 pounds for the thrilling 32-26 Montini victory.

Montini is the gold standard. Mount Carmel is the chaser. The two have been rated 1-2 in the Class 3A team rankings all year.

That was the backdrop to the latest collision of the two best teams in the state. The platform shifted to the Catholic League conference championship at Providence Saturday.

That December dual meet functioned as a primer and a time machine, as a way to survey the future. But the song remained the same.

Montini won 10 individual championships in capturing the team title with 373 points. The Broncos also had a second, third and fourth-place finish.

Nine of the 14 titles involved a showdown involving Montini and Mount Carmel. After all, that is the way it should be, best up against the best with heightened stakes and a demanding format.

Seven of those showdowns ended up in favor of the Broncos. Mount Carmel had two individual champions and eight runners-up in finishing second at 322.5 points.

Represented by the 113-pound title of defending state champion Diego Sotelo, Marmion finished third with 225.5 points.

Fourth-place finisher Providence accounted for the other individual champion as sophomore heavyweight Ryan Boersma pinned Mount Carmel’s Jalen Grant to run his record to 35-1.

At 6-foot-6, Boersma is long and rangy and virtually impossible to get in on. Grant showed admirable toughness and strength in countering Boersma.

With the match deadlocked at 1-1 midway through the third period, Boersma seized his chance and threw Grant down on his back for the pin at 5:04.

“I have had some common opponents against him, and I have seen him wrestle before,” Boersma said. “I knew what to expect. I knew he was going to be strong in his upper body, and I had to be patient and wear him down and wait for my opportunity.”

Mount Carmel also had two third-place finishers and a fourth-place. Marmion added two second-place finishes, and four third-place performers, while Providence had two second and two third-place wrestlers.

But Montini shaped the narrative, and the gulf between Montini and the field has widened. The conference meet underscored the dominance, roster flexibility and versatility of the Broncos.

“They are on top right now, and we have a month to try and catch them,” Mount Carmel coach Alex Tsirtsis said. “There are a ton of close matches that is going to decide the state championship this year.”

The meet also featured more top-ranked wrestlers than any other in Illinois.

Five Catholic League wrestlers are currently ranked No. 1 in their weight class: Sotelo, Mount Carmel’s Colton Drousias (120) and Connor Gaynor (145), Montini’s Trevor Swier (182) and Boersma. Sotelo and Drousias are also returning state champions.

Four CCL wrestlers are ranked No. 2: Montini’s Dylan Ragusin (126), Mount Carmel’s Noah Mis (132), Montini’s Fidel Mayora (145) and Joe Roberts (152).

Montini sophomore Joe Fernau started things right by defeating Mount Carmel junior Noel Rosales 5-0. 

The two had split 1-1 in their previous matches this season. Fernau was driven by that memory.

“We wrestled in the dual at the start of the year, and I had a couple of good takedowns and I beat him there,” Fernau said. “At Ironman, I was able to get to his legs a lot, but I was not able to finish. 

“The game-changer today was I got to his legs and this time I finished.”

Ranked No. 5, Fernau improved his record to 27-8. The conference meets effectively launches the state series. Establishing momentum is crucial.

“You always go through ups and downs during the season,” he said. “I lost to a kid I should have beat a couple of weeks ago, and I kind of brought myself down. Lately, I have had a couple of confidence boosts.

“Just getting back on my feet and grinding and building, that is my focus. I feel like I am better now than I was all season.”

Drousias and Montini junior Nain Vazquez are practically sparring partners. The 120-pound championship marked the fourth time this season the two have confronted each other.

Vazquez stunned Drousias 4-2 in that early dual meet. The memory also sparked Drousias in his 3-1 victory Saturday.

Nothing ever stays the same. The best always have to adapt on the fly.

“We are so familiar with each other,” Drousias said. “Anybody can beat anybody on any given day. I knew what I had to do as far as attacking, and what I had to do in the match.

“That early match of the year when he beat me, that has stuck with me the whole season. That motivated me to go into every single match doing whatever I had to do to beat him so I never have that feeling again.”

Mis secured the Caravan’s other individual title with his 5-1 victory Montini junior Ethan Stiles at 132 pounds. He improved to 28-3.

“I just wanted to make sure there was no debate,” Mis said. “I was just out to prove that I was best kid in the bracket. I was aggressive the whole match.”

From there, Montini ostensibly ran the table. In almost every instance, the Broncos’ wrestlers were able to bend the moment to their will, dictate the tempo or establish a more dominant rhythm.

Dylan Ragusin interrupted the Marmion and Mount Carmel runs with a dominant run at 126 pounds. He pinned Marmion sophomore Tyler Perry in 1:49.

Braden Stauffenberg (138), Fidel Mayora (145), Joe Roberts (152), Brayden Thompson (160), Cooper Wettig (170). Swier (182), Nathan Wemstrom (195) and LaBarbera (220) punctuated the superb team performance.

The frightening part for the rest of the Class 3A field is that Montini is getting better. In the marquee title at 145 pounds, Mayora avenged an earlier defeat against Gaynor with the 2-1 victory.

Past performance is not always predictive of future results. Nothing ever quite stays the same. Mount Carmel is a great team in its right. 

Now they are forced to play catch up.

“We have to get better every single day over the next month,” Tsirtsis said. “A couple of matches we wrestled really well. What was unfortunate is that we wrestled poorly on the bottom. 

“We practice on it all the time, and the kids know what to do. That is not acceptable.”

Every Montini wrestler has a different style or mode of working. Swier epitomized drive, power and remarkable consistency by wreaking havoc on the field at 182 pounds. 

Showcasing a staggering blend of athleticism, speed and power, he secured a pin against De La Salle senior Mikhel Teverbaugh in just 39 seconds. His record is now 31-6.

“I just wanted to wrestle very clear and direct, and not try anything special,” Swier said. “I wanted to be aggressive and be able to get to my attacks in the first period.”

LaBarbera sealed the comeback in the December dual meet. He completed the Montini run with the tactical and hard fought 1-0 victory over Mount Carmel’s Nik Mishka that improved his record to 30-8.

“My style is really about being calm, cool and collected,” LaBarbera said. “I can be explosive when I need to be. My main focus is maintaining my composure and never overreacting to anything that might happen out there.

“Especially at 220 pounds, not many kids in the country let alone the state are able to keep my pace. I know if I can pushing, pushing, pushing, kids are going to get tried and that is where they make mistakes and I am going to capitalize.”

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