Connor Eaton was a period away from winning the first individual state championship in West Frankfort wrestling history.
There was only one problem: Eaton had nothing in the tank. The figurative fuel light was blinking. There was nothing he could do about it, except go out there and make it through two minutes without something bad happening.
When Dakota’s Andrew Wenzel rallied for a 7-5 decision in the 170-pound Class 1A title match, Eaton knew why he lost right away.
“I went out there guns blazing and was gassed,” Eaton said. “If I had it to do over again, I’d probably feel him out and figure out what I had to do to get past his defense.”
Barring injury or some other unforeseen happening, Eaton will get the chance to do it over next year. As it is, his 45-4 record and second place finish in Champaign was good enough to earn him the Southern Illinoisan Prep Wrestler of the Year.
It’s the fourth time a Redbird has claimed the award, but the first since Aaron and Austin Phemister shared it in 2005-06. And Eaton won it in a way no West Frankfort wrestler has, notching a school record for most wins and almost standing atop the podium.
Minutes after Eaton barely came up short, coach Rick Arrington walked up to him in the tunnel of State Farm Center to ask him to come to the podium.
“The first words out of his mouth were, ‘I’m sorry.’ He had zero things to be sorry for,” Arrington said. “It speaks to his personality. He’s the most mentally sound kid I’ve ever been around.”
It’s what one would expect from a kid who’s become the face of Redbird sports. The star quarterback of the football team, Eaton is also the star center fielder of the baseball team. In fact, Eaton launched a walkoff three-run homer in West Frankfort’s season-opening 5-3 win Tuesday over Carbondale.
All the qualities which help Eaton succeed in team sports – quickness, speed, strength, savvy – enable him to star when it’s one-on-one time on the mat with an opponent. The 6-foot-0 Eaton, who first wrestled in second grade, likes the responsibility of controlling his fate.
“You can’t blame anything else if you lose,” he said. “Any loss you have, you have to take it in and learn from it. You try to make progress throughout the season.”
Arrington, who coached Eaton for the first time at 10 years old, has run the Redbirds’ program since 2010. He’s coached other outstanding wrestlers in nine years, but says he’s never had one like Eaton.
Arrington raves about Eaton’s work ethic and credits his time in football – Eaton didn’t start playing that sport until ninth grade – with making him a better leader.
“He works as hard or harder than any kid I’ve ever coached,” Arrington said. “He’s always getting better. He’s locked in.”
It’s not hard to look at Eaton’s blend of skills and intangibles and see him being a good college athlete in any of his three sports. That decision hasn’t been made yet, and probably won’t get made until he weighs the offers and figures out the best deal.
In the 1983 movie All the Right Moves, Stefan Djordjevic – Tom Cruise’s character – tells a college coach that he would like to trade football for an education. That’s the way Eaton is looking at the next chapter of his life.
“Education is more important than any sport you’ll play,” he said. “Being able to play a sport and show what you have to scouts and maybe have the opportunity to excel in a career … it excites me. I’m ready for the future.”
But first, there’s a baseball season to play, and then one more year of high school.
And maybe then, enough fuel in the tank to become a state champion wrestler.