When Ryan Cumbee explained to me what his goals were about transforming Joliet Catholic Academy’s wrestling program, I listened closely.
Having watched the Providence Catholic standout on the mat and in the coach’s chair, I realized all too well that this is a guy who doesn’t promise things that he can’t deliver.
As his first season with the Hilltoppers wraps up, it’s safe to say that Cumbee has been true to his promises. JCA greatly toughened its schedule and enjoyed its best dual-meet season in some time. And then it received a bonus to the progress that’s been made last Saturday.
That’s when the Hilltoppers left the Class 2A Sycamore Sectional with two state qualifiers, who are both freshmen. DJ Hamiti won the title at 106 pounds, while Jack Finnegan advanced at 113.
Having two state qualifiers who are only freshmen would be good news for any program, but that’s especially so for a program such as JCA, which has struggled in the sport for many years.
“Things are falling right in line with my expectations,” Cumbee said. “I’m excited about these two guys getting there as freshmen. They’re going to gain some invaluable experience and are going to see some things as freshmen that some people don’t get to see as juniors or seniors. This is a learning experience for them, and everything that they’re going through are things that they’ll have out of the way by the time they’re sophomores, juniors and seniors.
“The beauty of the sport is that you can be fantastic at wrestling, but if you don’t have the confidence and belief, you can fall apart on the big stage. It’s important that they’re getting that knowledge and understanding how to conduct themselves and stay composed in these situations. They’ve been on the big stage before, so this is another tournament for them.”
Hamiti enters the weekend as the favorite in the 106 bracket after recording first-period pins over two of the state’s best to capture the sectional title and improve to 38-4. He hopes to become the school’s second state champion, with the other being heavyweight Pat Mudron in 1967.
“It’s been a good season so far,” Hamiti said. “I feel like the tournaments I won were pretty tough, so I feel very confident and think that I can do really good there. I wanted to win as many matches as I could, and we had a tough schedule, so if I lost, then I learned from the mistakes in the matches and came back stronger from it. I wrestled high school kids when I was in kid’s club, and it was good preparation for this. I knew I had to get ready to build myself up for bigger and stronger kids. I didn’t think I would win as many times right off the bat.”
While most expected Hamiti to be competing this week, his training partner, Finnegan, was more of a long shot. He’s 32-7 and is hoping to help the Hilltoppers finish with two medalists for the second time in program history, the other time coming in 1966, when Tom Creamens and Mudron were all-staters.
“This is a huge accomplishment as a freshman,” Finnegan said. “State was a goal at the beginning of the year, and I’m looking forward to it, and hopefully I’ll get on the podium. Whatever I don’t accomplish this year will be my goal for next year. I’ve made huge improvements, especially on my feet, since I wasn’t the best at it. I knew DJ from being around kid’s wrestling, but I met him this year, and we’ve become good friends.”
Lemont looks for big things in Class 2A
Although coach John St. Clair’s Indians fell in a tough regional and will miss out on their usual trip to the dual-team finals, they advanced eight individuals to state, and many have a good opportunity to get on the awards stand.
Drew Nash (39-4), Alex Oruna (28-6) and Apollo Gothard (34-6) all won sectional titles, while 2017 runner-up Kyle Schickel (37-4) and Grant LaDuke (27-7) both took second place. Paul McGrath (20-5), Kyle Zator (37-12) and Ryan Dickson (28-8) are Lemont’s other qualifiers.
Baldridge hopes third time’s the charm
Morris senior Cody Baldridge brings a 38-0 record to Champaign and not only is looking for a third straight trip to the Class 2A finals but also his first championship. His main challengers figure to be Richmond-Burton’s Jaden Glauser (33-0) and Urbana’s Arnold Fox (39-1).
6 seek medals in Class 1A meet
In a sign of just how challenging the Olympia Sectional was, only six individuals from the area were able to qualify, with four of those being from Coal City. Leading the way for coach Mark Masters’ Coalers are 2017 runner-up Alex Friddle (32-1), Ryan Wasielewski (42-4), Daniel Jezik (39-6) and Connor Huston (36-10). Jack Narine (40-8) is Wilmington’s lone qualifier, and Peotone’s Paul Keane (34-1), a 2017 runner-up, hopes to get back to the top of the awards stand, where he was a staple during a historic Illinois Elementary School Association career.
Plainfield’s Baker passes at age 88
When you talk about area wrestling coaches who established a strong foundation for future success with their program, you certainly have to talk about Tom Baker at Plainfield.
He taught at Plainfield High School for 34 years, and for 25 of those years, he was the Wildcats’ wrestling coach, starting a program in 1960 that has been one of the area’s most consistent. He coached Mike Zbacnik, who succeeded him as the program’s coach.
Tom and his wife, Charlotte, were married for 61 years. He was a member of the original class that was inducted into the Plainfield High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999.
The memorial visitation for Tom will be from 3 to 8 p.m. Friday at Overman-Jones Funeral Home & Cremation Services, 15219 S. Joliet Road in Plainfield. The visitation will continue from 10 a.m. until the 11 a.m. memorial service Saturday at Plainfield United Methodist Church, 15114 S. Illinois St. in Plainfield.