Mount Carmel tops the field at 3A dual team state finals

By Mike Garofola for the IWCOA

Since the 2009 season when the IHSA rebranded the dual team state series into a three-class affair, Mount Carmel has advanced four times into the final weekend of the season. The Caravan came home with a pair of state trophies, including a state title in 2022 and a second place finish in 2020 for coach Alex Tsirtsis.

The Caravan lost a thriller a year ago to eventual state champion St. Charles East in its dual team state quarterfinal, but with 11 back from that team the chances to return to Bloomington appeared all but certain should good health follow the club throughout the 2023-24 campaign.

Mount Carmel got it done, in a 59-6 win over Yorkville that gave the program its fifth team state title in program history.

The Caravan got the postseason off to a flying start when it rolled to 110-point victory at the Chicago Catholic League tournament, and followed up with a resounding 62-point victory over state powers Marist and Sandburg to win the Marist regional title.

“(That) weekend when we won the regional at Marist, to me signaled that our team was ready to put forth all of its energy and commitment into the final couple of weeks of the season in order to see us come out here tonight and win the 3A state title,” said Caravan senior, Eddie Enright, who would finish his sensational career at 43-4.

“I knew from the first day we had it in us to get to this dual team final. We have a great coaching staff and terrific room of guys who push each other everyday we go into the room, but we also knew we had to come out and perform when each of us was called upon.”

“We do have a great bunch of guys on this team,” Tsirtsis said. “But it always comes down to leadership, and the seniors we have, have been terrific. So even though I’m so happy right now for the team, and program, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am for the seniors who have truly led the way this season.”

“We had to come out of a regional that was just loaded with talent, with two great teams in Marist and Sandburg, so when we got ourselves out of that regional, I knew we could get ourselves here and then see what happens.”

For Yorkville (22-5-0) and head coach Jake Oster, this year’s finish gave them the third second- place finish in program history, sixth trophy overall, and second straight for Oster who a year ago would guide the Foxes to a fourth-place finish at Grossinger Motors Arena in Bloomington.

“It’s been a very good year for us,” Oster said. “We won our own regional, sent twelve to sectionals and six to state, and saw some of our guys fill-in along the way to provide the type of depth needed in order to compete, and get ourselves here this weekend.” 

Oster returns all but two from his lineup next year.

This dual-team tournament would be defined by an eight-team bracket that was heavily tilted with the top three-ranked teams in the state all on the top half of the bracket, along with another top-10 team in No. 7 Hononegah (15-4-0).

“When I saw the brackets, I knew it would be a real grind right from the start with us facing Hononegah,” St. Charles East coach Jason Potter said. “And we were without one of our big hammers (Tyler Guerra).”

Guerra was injured at the individual state tournament in Champaign.

2023 team state champion St. Charles East who entered the tournament as the No. 1-ranked team in the state, ahead of No. 2 Joliet Catholic and No. 3 Mount Carmel.

“The way the brackets fell meant that two great teams would be going home empty handed, either us or Hononegah, and Joliet Catholic or Mount Carmel, and with all due respect to the rest of a great field down here, that’s really too bad,” Potter said.

Potters’ men broke open a tight, tense contest with Hononegah when junior Payton Lee registered a pin at 132 to draw the Saints three points closer (18-15) to start a 16-point run fueled by Ben Davino, Jayden Colon and Gavin Connolly to give the reigning state champs a 31-18 advantage.

“I was looking for my pinch head-lock, and when it was there, I finished it off,” said Lee.

Two matches after a major decision victory from Connolly, junior Anthony Gutierrez secured victory with a pin at 165 to make it 37-23 and an eventual 40-29 result.

Hononegah will return all but three starters next year, including the dynamic freshmen trio of Rocco Cassioppi, Bruno Cassioppi, and Brody Sendele, and their combined 134-12 overall records.

“With (Guerra) out it meant we all had to step up and do our job, and get as many bonus points as we could,” Gutierrez said. Gutierrez (42-12) was one of six Saints who medaled at state, which included his fourth-place finish in Champaign at 165 pounds.

On the adjacent mat, the Caravan outlasted Joliet Catholic Academy 33-26 in their quarterfinal to advance.

“There were a lot of great teams in this 3A bracket, and we knew it would be a difficult road when we saw we opened with Mount Carmel,” JCA coach Ryan Cumbee said. “This is a tough sport that challenges you both mentally and physically, especially when you get down here.

“Tonight, Mount Carmel was the better team, one of the best in the country, so congrats to Alex and his young men.

“Despite this loss, we’ve had a tremendous season of growth and success. We’ve set the bar high here at Joliet Catholic, and it will remain that way when we get back at it again next season. We’ll have a terrific core group of guys back.”

The Hilltoppers, of course, must say goodbye to their brilliant heavyweight, Dillan Johnson, a four-time state champion who is on his way to Wisconsin in the fall.

“Dillan set the bar for this team, and I know the guys coming back will take so much from what he brought into the room,” Cumbee said. “We’ve been very fortunate to have him with us these past four seasons.”

The other half of the bracket saw Naperville Central race out to a 23-6 advantage before Yorkville stormed back to claim the next 30 points en route to a 36-20 triumph.

Naperville Central (20-7-0) would enjoy a wonderful season under head coach Noah Fitzenreider, who in his ninth year in charge led his club to a perfect 5-0-0 record to win the DuPage Valley Conference crown, and the East Aurora regional title, where it sent all 14 of its men into the Hinsdale Central sectional.

The Redhawks big men, Nico Besteiro (31-8) and William Erbeck (38-5) would lead the way, with Besteiro bringing home a sixth-place state medal at 215 pounds.

This was the third dual-team state appearance for Central in its history.

When this quarterfinal was being contested, so was the Oak Park and River Forest vs. Libertyville dual, a tightly-played affair that ended in favor of Libertyville when senior Charlie Clark dashed the hopes of the Huskies (14-3-0) who drew close (27-24) after a David Ogunsanya (39-11) major decision victory at 157 pounds.

Clark would be the bridge to pins from Matt Kubas (40-3) and Caleb Baczek (36-9) who would guarantee a second state trophy in the long and highly-successful career of Dale Eggert.

“We knew our draw was more favorable than the other side, but we still had to come in here tonight and be at our best in order to move on, and the guys did just that,” said Eggert, after his club beat the Huskies 45-24.

“The top half of the bracket was really tough, but it didn’t mean we could take OPRF or anyone else lightly,” Libertyville senior Owen McGrory said. “So I thought we wrestled really well to stay in front of them throughout the match and got some big wins from Orion (Moran, 132), Will Carney (144) and Charlie (Clark) at 165 to put us in control.” 

McGrory (45-3) placed fourth a week ago at individual state and was recently named Academic All-State by the IHSA.

Paul Collins’ men from OPRF appear back on the road to success after a couple of down years preceded by a memorable run that saw the Huskies win three consecutive 3A state titles, in addition to a pair of second place trophies in 2018 and 2019.

Collins’ big three of: Zev Koransky (126, 37-8), Joseph Knackstedt (138, 37-10) and the aforementioned Ogunsanya are all back, as are most of the Huskies lineup from their match with Libertyville.

Saturday’s semifinal of Mount Carmel versus St. Charles East was the Saturday morning breakfast special, and it did not disappoint.

The Caravan would strike first with wins at 285 and 106 to open up a 7-0 advantage, but after a forfeit to Dom Munaretto (50-3) to make it 7-6, the Caravan earned the next 13 points with a pin from three-time state champion Seth Mendoza (126, 46-2) sandwiched between victories by Justin Williamson (120) and Damian Recendez (132) to make it a 20-6 lead.

The Saints (21-1-0) would roar back with pins from Ben Davino (54-0) and Jayden Colon (44-5) to bring their club within five at 20-15, but the Caravan had a little too much firepower still available with Eddie Enright, and state champion Colin Kelly (175, 47-1) still in reserve.

Pins from Enright and Kelly increased the Caravan lead to 35-21 before Gutierrez and heavyweight Brandon Swartz finished strong to see the final score at 35-30.

“Two great teams – Alex runs a class program at Mount Carmel – so we knew we had a tough task in front of us, especially without Guerra in our lineup,” Potter said. “We needed to have a couple 

matches go our way, and they didn’t, but congrats to Alex and his guys.”

Yorkville would book its place in the finals after conceding early victories from Libertyville’s Jake Shaffer, Luke Berktold and Orion Moran before Dominic Recchia would start an avalanche of points from the Foxes, who won the next 20 points to make the score 27-16 with three matches remaining.

Matt Kubas registered a major decision victory at 175, but junior Luke Zook would cancel the Kubas win with a hard fought 5-3 decision over Caleb Baczek to keep the Foxes in control at 30-20, and an eventual 30-25 final.

“All of my wrestling life one of my biggest goals was to obviously win a state title, but to also help my team get to dual-team state and to win a state title,” began Zook (51-7), fourth last year in Champaign and fifth a week ago.

“Mount Carmel was a great team, but to go home with second place overall is a great accomplishment for all of us.”

St. Charles East would later defeat Libertyville 37-22 at about the same time the Caravan sent off Yorkville to claim the top prize.

“The group of seniors have, and will continue to have a massive impact on our program here at St. Charles East,” began Jason Potter.

“They have taken a good program, and showed it how to be a great one. They went from talented wrestlers focused on individual careers, to amazing wrestlers who were part of a program. Their impact on our program goes beyond wins and losses,”

The Saints will bid farewell four-time state champion Ben Davino, Tyler Guerra, Jayden Colon, Gavin Connolly, Brody Murray, and Brandon Swartz.

“Being here at St. Charles East has been better than I could have imagined,” Davino said. “The memories I’ll take from here are amazing, and aside from being around a great bunch of teammates who have become part of my family, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have the best head coach there is in coach Potter.”

Davino will wrestle at Ohio State next year.

Eggert will miss a magnificent group of Libertyville seniors as well, with eight headed to graduation this May, beginning with Berktold, Antonio Kelly, Moran, Anthony Kelly, Carney, Clark, and ending with Kubas and McGrory.

“It was a great season for us, the biggest surprise just being how successful we were,” said Eggert, who just finished up his 37th year with a record of 13-3-0.

“We knew we had four returning state qualifiers (Berktold, Kubas, Baczek, McGrory) that would make us respectable, but being so thin in the lower weights did not seem like team championships would be in the cards.”

The Wildcats would defeat league power, and rival Warren by 14 points to win its own regional.

“For me, I fell short of my goal of winning a state title, but for this team, it was just an amazing year, and one that I’ll never forget,” said Kubas, who ended his season on a high note with a 3-2 victory over Brody Murray (St. Charles East) in a rematch of the third-place state contest that Murray won.

Mount Carmel would celebrate 31 victories in Champaign, collect seven state medals, with Mendoza and Colin Kelly leading the way with their state championship wins.

“We ran the gauntlet against some unbelievable opponents to get here, and once again with Joliet Catholic, then Jason Potters’ guys before our final with Yorkville,” began Tsirtsis.

“These guys were ready to go right from the onset of the season, and it was their work ethic, and continued hard work that brought them here, and to put them in position to compete for a state title. As I said before, I cannot be more proud of any of the guys on our roster for what they have been able to achieve.”

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