CHAMPAIGN — Roger Edwards could have been one of the first Centennial wrestlers to fill the void left by Justin Cardani.
When the now-Illinois sophomore graduated a Charger in 2018 — a pair of IHSA state championships in tow — the door was open for guys like Edwards to maintain and build upon Cardani’s historic efforts.
Considering Edwards already possessed two sectional berths in as many high school campaigns, it wasn’t a stretch to see Edwards making his way to state as a junior.
But while Centennial teammates Cam Nesbitt and Dontaice Roberson racked up five wins at the Twin City Meet on Dec. 21, 2018, Edwards was in pain.
Physical agony. The result of a dislocated left thumb in his first match of the night.
“I found out that even after injuries, even after you suffer them, as long as you work hard, you can get where you want to go,” Edwards said after posting a 1-1 record at last month’s Unity triangular with the Rockets and Danville. “Although I didn’t qualify for state after that, I still had that fire to come back and try to succeed.”
Edwards missed four weeks on the mat, courtesy his balky thumb.
He returned, however, to snag his third sectional trip, this one at 132 pounds after the previous efforts at 113 as a freshman and 132 as a sophomore.
Now, Edwards is a 145-pounder as a senior.“Roger’s at the right weight this season,” Chargers coach Ed Mears said. “He’s not cutting a ton of weight, and he’ll be fine.”
Edwards entered 2020 a modest 10-5, earning fifth place in the Lincoln Holiday Tournament’s 145 bracket to close out the previous calendar year.
Even if he’s not experiencing overwhelming success at this time, Edwards has seen gains.
“I’ve gotten stronger, and I’ve noticed that, over time, it’s just coming easier,” Edwards said. “… Especially when you are getting stronger, pounding the weights, and it shows.”
Before even entering his 12th-grade stint, Edwards used his final prep offseason to improve his chances of advancing to State Farm Center in February.
He attended an Urbana-based camp operated by Purler Wrestling Academy, which boasts on its website that it averages “over 125 state medalists each year” from its student body.
“It was … ran by someone who was a training partner with Jordan Burroughs, actually,” said Edwards, referencing a one-time Olympic and four-time world champion grappler in Burroughs. “He showed us a lot of stuff. It was a five-day camp. It was a nice workout. I enjoyed it.”
Edwards hit another snag, though, as Centennial’s practices got underway.
A bout with bronchitis had Edwards sidelined for part of November, making the early-December triangular at Tolono — the Chargers’ first duals of the 2019-2020 season — a good test for Edwards.
“I’m working on getting my endurance up,” Edwards said.
Another focal point for Edwards is “getting out on bottom” — escaping when his opponent holds dominant position on top. Mears agrees with that assessment.
“He’s got to win the third period,” Mears said. “He’s got to have the lungs. He’s got to work a little bit more on the bottom, but he looks very confident on his feet right now.”
Slipping out from bottom position could be a bit easier for Edwards moving forward thanks to his choice of training partner.
Junior Ryan Vasey is Centennial’s starting 170-pounder, and he also placed fifth at the Lincoln showcase.
“I like working with people heavier than me,” Edwards said, “so then, when I go out there, people will feel lighter than what I’m used to.”
Edwards’ motivation is straightforward at this stage. He owns one last shot at grabbing a state spot before exhausting his high school eligibility.
Beyond that, Edwards also has altered his mindset when it comes to other aspects of the sport.
“My past few seasons, I was always worried. I’m not trying to hurt an opponent,” Edwards said. “But, over time, you know if you’re doing everything right, it’s not going to happen. You won’t hurt anyone.
“As long as I come in and do what I’m supposed to do, and do it correctly and do it quick, then it’ll work out in my favor.”
Edwards and his Charger friends are less than two months from the start of the IHSA postseason schedule, with the Class 2A state tournament slated for Feb. 20-22.
Mears has high hopes for one of his three upperclassmen.
“He’s been a three-time sectional qualifier,” Mears said. “There’s only one more step.”
And Edwards maintains confidence that he can climb that one last step.
“I know for a fact I could be a (state) placer,” Edwards said. “I’ve just got to work on all the little things. That’s all I’m focused on for right now.”