When the state wrestling championship opens at the State Farm Center in Champaign Thursday with the Class 1A preliminary matches at noon, eight local wrestlers in 1A and five in 2A will be taking to the mat.
The group is led by three-time state qualifier Connor Eaton, a junior from West Frankfort, and Anna-Jonesboro freshman Arojae Hart.
Eaton, who quarterbacked the Redbird football team last fall to its second playoff berth in the last three years, is a three-time regional champ, a two-time sectional champ and the reigning fifth-place finisher at the 1A 170 lbs. weight class.
“The heart and the will to win will get you through anything. Even if you don’t have the technique and skill, if you have heart, you will win nearly every match,” Eaton said. “It’s an amazing feeling being one of the elite in your weight class and going to state my first three years. My freshman year I didn’t win my first match, but it was a great experience. Last year I won my first two matches to make it to the semis and then lost my next two to place fifth. It makes you feel good about yourself, knowing you’re up there in the top five of the state as a sophomore.”
Eaton has a 117-21 career record at 170 and comes in as the top-ranked wrestler with a 42-3 record. He will face first-time qualifier Andrew Whitman (29-11) a junior from El Paso Gridley, in his opening match.
Hart is living up to his pedigree as the younger brother to last year’s 1A 152 state champ Arieh Hart. Hart enters the state tournament with a 25-5 record after winning his first regional and sectional titles at the 1A 113 weight class. His sister, Amiyah, is also an alternate, in the 106-pound class.
“It’s exciting and I’ve very happy for myself going to state my first year,” Hart said. “I keep trying to take after my brother – he won regionals and sectionals before going to state, so I’m just trying to do the exact same thing he did, but winning it earlier. I went to the state meet the last two years to watch my brother his junior and senior year when he got second and first, but being a participant is a very big deal. I think I’m for the challenge and can handle myself up there.”
The freshman will face first-time state qualifier Ethan Matlock (29-9), a sophomore from LeRoy, in his first round.
Two-time state qualifier Aron Taylor leads the 2A contingent. The Carbondale junior finished sixth last year at 145 and comes in as the fourth-ranked wrestler at 152. He sports a 37-4 season record and a 105-28 career record. Taylor will face De La Salle senior Mateo Portillo (29-14).
“Aron’s four losses have all been to high state-ranked wrestlers, including the No. 1, so he’s right up there with the best in his weight class,” said Carbondale coach Dennis Ragan. “What Aron does best is win. He’s good at all areas, but if you have to pick one, he’s best on his feet.”
Taylor’s teammates — sophomore Luke Daly and senior Colin Bybee — are also competing. Daly is ranked eighth at 160 with a 35-9 record and will face Coal City freshman Ashton Harvey (36-11).
“Luke is very good on top, but I don’t have any second thoughts on putting him in any position,” Ragan said. “He can handle himself whether we decide to go takedowns or put him on bottom. That’s something he’s really improved this year. He’s very good on his feet and that’s how he’s won the second half of the season. He’s a well rounded wrestler — top, bottom, feet.”
Bybee is a first-year transfer from California where he played rugby and comes in unranked at 182 with a 24-18 record. Bybee drew fourth-ranked Ben Harvey (41-3), a sophomore from Rochelle.
“He’s improved tremendously over the season,” Ragan said. “He brings a real work ethic to the practice room and his matches. He brings a lot of fire.”
In 2A, Marion is sending two honorable mention wrestlers with another honorable mention wrestler waiting in the wings in case someone doesn’t make weight or can’t answer the bell.
Junior Gaige Owens (41-9) drew freshman Brock Hoyd (27-14) from Riverside at 120. Owens has a 109-28 career record at three different weight classes and is just two takedowns away from breaking the school record.
“Gaige wasn’t good on top and his defense wasn’t great at the start of the year, but he’s worked to hard to fill those holes in his skills,” said Marion coach Darren Lindsey. “He’s wrestled as many ranked wrestlers as anyone and I think he’s about as best we’ve ever had to go to state. He got about the best matchup as he could get.”
Freshman Nate Dampier (43-4) will face ninth-ranked Canton junior Dylan Grigsby (36-7) at 132. Dampier is a strong wrestler with 33 pins out of his 43 wins.
“Nate came in as a sleeper, but his first week he jumped out against a ranked senior from Highland and just mashed him, and he has continued to surprise me all year long,” Lindsey said.
Junior River Flute is an alternate at 170, and currently holds the school record for wins in a season with his 44-4 record.
In 1A Harrisburg, is sending senior twins Kyle and Kody Cavender for the second time in both of their careers. Kyle qualified as a freshman at 120, but has missed the last two years because of illness and injuries. Kody qualified a sophomore at 132.
Kyle is honorable mention at 138 with a 21-4 record and will face three-time state qualifier and third-ranked Aurora Christian junior Zeke Marshall (22-6), who finished fifth at 138 last year and fifth at 113 as a freshman.
“It’s been rough getting back to state,” Cavender said. “I won regionals my sophomore year, but I got sick and didn’t make it sectionals. My junior year I broke my leg, and this year starting out it was rough coming off a broken back from football. It’s been injury after injury, but I made it. I was a little worried when regionals came around because my back was giving me a few problems, but I knew if I practiced hard and had the mentality I good get past it and do good.”
Kody is honorable mention at 145 with a 35-6 record and will face two-time qualifier ninth-ranked LeRoy senior Carson Schaefer (34-8), who didn’t place at 138 last year.
“It’s great to see they both get a chance to get their together for the first time,” said Harrisburg coach Greg Langley. “Both are tough, hard-nosed kids, who work their rear ends off in practice.”
The other 1A state qualifiers will be making their first trip to the Big Show. Anna-Jonesboro senior Nate Kisat is honorable mention at 145 with a 20-4 record and has a tough task facing a four-time state qualifier, Clinton senior Christian Reynolds, who is ranked third (32-2).
“My goal has always been to place at state, so I’m excited to finally have made it despite having to deal with a stomach bug last week,” Kisat said. “For my career it’s been an injury at every turn, so it’s nice to be rewarded and I hope I won’t still be sick at state. I have been to state before, but only as an alternate my sophomore year. Last year I broke my collarbone, but I went anyway to watch Arieh.”
Benton sophomore Gabe Craig is ranked fifth at 285 with a 36-8 record and he will face Grant Park senior Joey Petrucci (29-5) in the first round.
“He’s had a great year,” said Benton coach and former Ranger three-time state qualifier Aaron Robinson. “He and our alternate fellow sophomore Peyton Swigonski have competed all over the state this year and have been tested, so we expect him and Peyton if he gets in to have a good showing.”
Pinckneyville junior Ryder Parson (25-4) is honorable mention at 120 and will face Ridgeview sophomore Cody Windle (37-5). Carterville senior Matt Jones (25-19) is unranked at 138 and will face seventh-ranked Caleb Alber from Dakota (31-11).
Joining Amiyah Hart in hoping for a second chance are three honorable mention wrestlers: Swigonski (34-6) at 132, Carterville senior Bailey Hicks (35-10) at 160 and Anna-Jonesboro senior Reid Morrison (33-11) at 195.