There are few moments in high school athletics more exciting than when a senior finally gets rewarded for their hard work by earning their first trip to the state finals.
At Saturday’s Class 3A Alton Sectional, nine area wrestlers overcame the challenges at one of the state’s best sectionals to cap their final seasons in the sport by qualifying for the IHSA finals in Champaign for the first time in their careers.
Both of Joliet West’s qualifiers, Eric Davis-Smith and Jonathan Pullen, will make their first state appearance as seniors, along with two of Lincoln-Way West’s five qualifiers. Five other area teams also will have a newcomer to this weekend’s finals at the University of Illinois.
Pullen owns a 41-4 record after falling 5-3 in overtime to O’Fallon’s Jack Bond in the 170-pound title match at Alton. He earned his way with a semifinal win over Lincoln-Way West’s Kyle Quinn.
“It was either win that or go to the blood round, and you don’t want to be in that,” Pullen said. “So I went out and wrestled the best that I could and came out with the win. It’s a special feeling after four years to finally make it my senior year. It feels pretty great.”
Davis-Smith (31-11) had to go a different route after falling in the 126-pound semifinals. In the consolation semifinals, he won, 10-4, against Lincoln-Way West’s Payton Geigner, who qualified for state last year.
“It was very hard since there was a lot of preparation, but it was worth it,” Davis-Smith said. “I’ve been trying to do this for a while, so it was a long time coming. So to finally get to do it feels really good. I was making simple mistakes, but fixed those, and that’s why I made it.”
Six Lincoln-Way West wrestlers entered the consolation semifinals, the so called blood round, needing wins to advance. Five of them, including seniors Jimmie Olds and Nick Skentzos, will be making their state debut.
Olds (37-7) bounced back from a semifinal loss to the 220-pound champion, Plainfield North’s unbeaten Matt Hennessey. But he pinned Providence’s Logan Anderson, another senior who was ranked second in the state before placing fourth.
“We all knew that once we were in the blood round that we would have a bunch of tough matches,” Olds said. “But coach (Brian) Glynn said that we win tough matches because of how we practice. I’m going to love it since I wanted to have another week with my guys.”
Skentzos (35-14) lost 1-0 in the 285 semifinals to Lincoln-Way East’s Devin O’Rourke, another senior who will make his state debut. He followed with a 6-2 win and took third.
“The ultimate goal was just to make it to state and it was really good to get five of us there,” Skentzos said. “This is great since this is the main goal that you have. Now the next goal is to try to do better.”
O’Rourke (26-3), the Northwestern-bound football player who decided to cap his career in the sport this season, is pleased after qualifying for the first time. He missed out on another clash with Homewood-Flossmoor’s Jeff Griffin in the 285 finals due to an injury default.
“I’m excited about next week because it’s everything that I’ve been working for,” O’Rourke said. “And it’s the first time making it, so it will be fun. And Nick (Mihajlovich) will also be going after winning the sectional and having a great tournament.”
A third local heavyweight, Plainfield East’s Artese Gregory (32-7) is also capping his senior year with a first state visit. After losing to Griffin in the semifinals, he beat Yorkville’s Keenan Ness to advance before settling for fourth.
“I’m very excited,” Gregory said. “State was my goal at the beginning of the year, but it seemed like my three years of experience wasn’t going to get me there. I wish my parents were here but I know my mom was following on Trackwesting and she’s so proud of me.”
Devontae Davis (29-7) joined sectional champs Dylan Amico and Hennessey as Plainfield North qualifiers. He really had his work cut out to qualify after falling in the 195 quarterfinals. But he won his next three, including a pin in the consolation semis, before placing fourth.
“It’s going to be a great week since I’ve never been to state until now,” Davis said. “I’m truly proud of all of my teammates for trying to get to state. All of the hard work has really paid off. If I didn’t have my coaches and teammates, I wouldn’t even be here.”
For two area seniors who suffered injuries prior to the season, it was just a matter ow whether or not they could back in time. But Plainfield Central’s Tom Gustafson (18-4) and Lockport’s Yousif Salah (15-9) performed when it counted and will make their state debuts.
Gustafson, who got injured in football, saw one slip away in the 220 semifinals against Edwardsville’s Josh Anderson but bounced back to win by technical fall over Yorkville’s Brady Fisher and then finished third in the state’s toughest sectional at that weight class.
“It’s definitely very sweet that I made it out,” Gustafson said. “My goal this season was to get through the sectional. Definitely anyone could have gotten through this sectional, it was just whatever kid showed up to wrestle.”
Salah got hurt in a car accident and had to take time off to recuperate, not only gets to make his first state trip but also compete with the team in the dual series. After losing to champ Mihajlovich on the 182 semifinals, he won a 7-1 decision and then finished fourth.
“This feels really good,” Salah said. “I’ve been training super hard these last couple of weeks with (Matt) Bartley and Brad Johnson, who did a lot for me, so I just have to keep believing. I want to thank my coaches and my parents for all of their support.”