Five to try to win third titles; Bittle, Braunagel try to extend records
By: Rob Sherrill
Three months of preliminaries are over. The weekend every Illinois high school wrestling fan has been looking forward to has arrived.
Starting Thursday afternoon, you’ll be watching the individual state championships inside wrestling’s most tradition-filled arena, the State Farm Center in Champaign.
Five seniors, Joey Melendez (120) and Real Woods of Montini in 3A, We Rachal (138) of Chicago Washington in 2A and Chase Bittle (126) of Belleville Althoff and Tyler Fleetwood (132) of Fulton, are trying for their third state championships. They are among 15 wrestlers who are trying to repeat as champions in 2018.
For the second straight year, Melendez will have to face fellow defending champion Travis Ford-Melton of Marian Catholic. The champions at 106 pounds in Classes 3A and 2A, respectively, in 2016, the two met in the 3A quarterfinals at 113 last year, with Melendez winning 4-3 en route to his second title, while Ford-Melton, a junior, finished third. For the second straight year, the two will be the only returning champions in the same weight class. A rematch this year, however, would take place in the finals. Rachal won the past two seasons at 132.
Bittle is back at the same weight class he won last year. The first wrestler in state history to pin his way to a title with four first-period pins a year ago, Bittle set the state’s career pin record in the quarterfinals of the Quincy Tournament Jan. 13. He enters his final state tournament with 142 career falls, 11 more than the previous record holder, Garrett Goebel of Montini, amassed from 2008-11.
Althoff teammates Danny and Zac Braunagel, both University of Illinois commitments, will try to repeat at 160 and 182, respectively. Danny Braunagel set a career record of his own in the very same round at the Quincy Tournament. He now has 70 technical falls in his career, eight more than the 62 scored by Rudy Yates of Carl Sandburg from 2012-15. With 33 this season, Braunagel is one away from the single-season record of 34 set by Nate Jozsa of Argenta-Oreana in 2014. In his finals win at the Vandalia sectional, Braunagel set the single-season points record with 876 – most of them coming on his 288 takedowns this season. Former Mount Zion standout Nathan McMillin held the previous record, scoring 874 points in 2001. Braunagel’s 2,587 career points broke a record also held by McMillin.
Eleven other wrestlers will try to win their second titles. Two are in 3A, seniors Will Lewan (152) of Montini, committed to the University of Michigan, and Anthony Cassioppi (285) of Rockton Hononegah, a University of Iowa signee. Cassioppi also pinned his way to a state title last season.
In 2A, senior Justin Cardani (113) of Champaign Centennial, a University of Illinois recruit, and junior Luke Luffman (220) of Urbana take unbeaten records into the state tournament. Senior Austin Macias (126) of Burlington Central, committed to Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, returns to the same weight class he won in 2017. Senior Tyler Delaware of Washington, who lost to Macias in last year’s final, is up a weight class at 132. Delaware was a 2016 state champion.
In 1A, senior Joey Bianchini (138) of IC Catholic is up four weight classes from last year’s state title weight of 113. Sophomore Cameron Johnson (120) of Aurora Christian is up two weight classes from last season, and junior Logan Lee (285) of Orion was the 220-pound champion last season.
The top-ranked wrestlers at 285 in 2A and 1A, junior Jace Punke of Washington and senior Keaton Fogler of Olympia, respectively, both moved up from 220 pounds late in the season to make their state title runs.
We can’t leave this season of our preview without mentioning that girls made history – in more ways than one. No girl had qualified for the state tournament since 2007, but this season a record two did, and both won sectional titles, also a first for a female wrestler.
Both are 106-pounders. Freshman Mia Palumbo of Richards won the 2A Hinsdale South sectional and senior Quiovany Santos of Dunbar prevailed at 1A Hope Academy.
Should either win a match at the State Farm Center, that would be another first. Caitlyn Chase of Glenbard North (2005) and Alli Ragan of Carbondale (2007), the only previous female qualifiers, were eliminated in first-round losses. Ragan was the Women’s World silver medalist in 2017.
Following is a more in-depth look at the field in each class.
Still looking for its first dual-team state title in 3A, Montini advanced 12 to the state tournament through the Hinsdale Central sectional, tops among all schools in Illinois. Nine wrestlers ranked No. 1 after the regional competed at Hinsdale Central, six of them Broncos. Montini advanced a wrestler to the State Farm Center at every weight class except 170 and 220. Marmion Academy, also competing at Hinsdale Central, advanced 10 to state, and Chicago Mount Carmel qualified seven – so more than half of the sectional’s state representation came from those three schools.
Six other schools advanced six or more to state. Oak Park-River Forest led the Elgin Larkin sectional, advancing nine to the State Farm Center. St. Charles East was next with seven qualifiers, and Glenbard North followed with six. Huntley edged the host school, 7-6, in qualifiers from the Barrington sectional, and defending dual-team state champion Lockport had six qualifiers to lead the Alton sectional.
Lewan scored a late takedown to edge West Point Prep Markus Hartman of Barrington, 3-1 in the 145-pound final in 2017. The two could advance to what would be the only state final rematch, this year at 152. Hartman (43-0) is one of just eight undefeated 3A wrestlers. The others are senior Dane Durlacher (41-0) of Mundelein at 106, Hofstra University commitment Holden Heller (14-0) of Marian Catholic at 138, senior Patrick Ryan (44-0) of New Trier at 145, junior Abe Assad (43-0) of Glenbard North at 170, Northwestern University recruit Jack Jessen (47-0) of Willowbrook at 182, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville commitment Matt Hennessey (220) of Plainfield North and Cassioppi (40-0).
Two-time defending dual-team state champion Washington and St. Rita, competing below the state’s largest classification for the first time in program history, each advanced nine state qualifiers to lead all 2A schools. Washington’s total led all schools in the Sycamore sectional, while St. Rita placed the Hinsdale South sectional. Lemont was just behind the Mustangs, qualifying eight at Hinsdale South, and Oak Forest was next with six qualifiers. Marian Central Catholic qualified six to lead the Grayslake Central sectional, while Cahokia paced the Lincoln sectional, also qualifying six.
Five other 2A wrestlers join state champions Cardani and Luffman in bringing unbeaten records to the State Farm Center. Luffman could meet senior Seamus O’Donnell (20-0) of Crystal Lake Central in a finals battle of unbeatens. A similar matchup could take place at 182 between senior Cody Baldridge (38-0) of Morris, a two-time state finalist, and sophomore Jaden Glauser (33-0) of Richmond-Burton, a 3A state placewinner at McHenry as a freshman.
The other unbeatens are juniors Kooper Loehr (40-0) of Mount Zion at 120 and Riley Palm (37-0) of Carmel at 138.
Washington’s Punke brothers have set records with four state medals in 2016 and three more last season. But senior Blaize (145) and junior Jace (285) could become the first members of the family to win titles in the same season – and they could be the first in the classification to do so.
As is the case in the other two classifications, 2A is strongest from 120-152. The 152-pound class includes six returning state placewinners, the most of any weight class in any classification, while the 120-pound class includes five placewinners and 132 and 138 four each.
We mentioned that Jace Punke moved up to 285 from 220 in midseason. Another wrestler who did so was senior state placewinner Brayan Reyes of Springfield Lanphier. His “reward?” A first-round matchup against Punke.
In just its second year as a program, Aurora Christian led all 1A teams by qualifying 10 wrestlers through the loaded Oregon sectional. By contrast, top-ranked Lena-Winslow/Stockton, the defending state champion, advanced four – less than half that number. Next in line was Hope Academy, which advanced eight state qualifiers through its own sectional, followed by Lisle (seven) and Walther Christian (six). Belleville Althoff and Litchfield, which fought to the finish in the regional before the Crusaders finally prevailed each qualified seven to lead the Vandalia sectional, with the host school checking in with six.
The Olympia sectional, the only one of the state’s 12 sectionals not to have a school with at least six state qualifiers, was led by Clinton and Prairie Central, with five each. Four other schools advanced four.
Like the other classifications, 1A is loaded from 120-152 – and also has the state’s deepest heavyweight pool, now led by newcomer Fogler. Three weight classes – 132, 138 and 285 – each contain five state placewinners, and 120, 126, 145, 152 and 160 contain four each.
In fact, two-time state champion Fleetwood faces an uphill battle to win his third title. Should he get past Heyworth’s Andrew Sims and Fithian Oakwood’s Ren Dazey to reach the sectionals, he’d face Air Force Academy recruit Jared Van Vleet of Stillman Valley – and that’s just to get to the finals. At 138, a pair of senior state placewinners, Hunter Luke of Lena-Winslow/Stockton and Collin Davidson of Litchfield, meet in the first round.
The most intriguing sectional rematch appears to be at 145, where a pair of returning finalists, seniors Trey Hild of Petersburg Porta and Zach Haley of Quincy Notre Dame, appear set to meet for the second straight week. Haley won 11-9 in overtime in the Olympia sectional final, the first career state series loss for Hild prior to the state final. Three-time finalist Hild was the runnerup at 132 last season, Haley at 138.
Just three 1A wrestlers enter the State Farm Center unbeaten, just a third of the number of the previous two seasons. Two of them, however, are the same weight class. Danny Braunagel (50-0) and fellow senior Garrett Passmore (47-0) of Erie/Prophetstown, also dominant this season, are on a heavyweight collision course. Senior Drew Hoselton (43-0) of Prairie Central is favored to win at 170.
So don’t let anyone tell you how easy 1A is. The state’s smallest classification has more weight classes that are stacked and packed than either 2A or 3A.
Rob Sherrill is the author of Tales From the Mat: Illinois High School Wrestling at 75. He is the administrator of the GEI/iwcoa.net state individual and team rankings. He has covered wrestling in Illinois for nearly 40 years for a variety of publications, including the Chicago Sun-Times, and has published The Illinois Best Weekly for 34 seasons. Also a high school wrestling analyst at the national level, Sherrill is the National High School Editor for WIN magazine. His newest publication, Beyond Tales From the Mat, can be ordered at www.centermatpress.com.