CHAMPAIGN – The 16 Joliet-area wrestlers who competed in Friday's semifinal round of the IHSA Individual Finals at the University of Illinois' State Farm Center understood all too well that there was very little separating them and their opponents as to who would move on to take part in Saturday evening's championship matches.
That was primarily due the fact that 10 of the 16 semifinal matches that they were competing in featured two individuals who were both ranked among the top-four at their weight.
Not surprisingly, while there were many great stories involving those who assured themselves of being in the Grand March, there was a similar amount of disappointment as many area athletes saw their title hopes dashed in heartbreaking fashion.
Of the eight that won semifinal matches, only two had to go down to the wire to secure their victories. But of the eight who came up short in that round, six fell by two points or less.
The area's eight semifinal winners had all finished on the awards stand in the past, including five who assured themselves of at least a third state medal. But two two-time medalists, who are former state champs, need to get a win on Saturday to capture another medal.
Coal City's Alex Friddle earned his fourth medal and moved to 48-0 after claiming a 9-0 victory over Rock Island's Victor Guzman at 132 in Class 2A. The Coalers senior, who took second place last year, meets Washington's Ezekiel Hulet in the title match.
"This is the epitome of high school wrestling and all season long this is what you're working for," Friddle said. "It's a long three days so you have to prepare mentally and just get after it. I'm taking a new approach to it since I don't worry as much any more and have fun with it and enjoy the atmosphere."
Lemont's Kyle Schickel advanced to his third-straight 2A title match after winning 7-3 over Springfield's Jacques Stewart at 138. The Indians junior, who is 43-4, is seeking his first title when he faces Carmel's Riley Palm in a clash of the top two at that weight class.
"They say that the third time's the charm and hopefully that comes true tomorrow," Schickel said. "This is my third time here and I'm used to it so I had no nerves going on the mat and it's just another tournament. I just have to keep the pace going."
In Class 1A, Peotone's Paul Keane assured himself of a third-straight trip to the title mat after getting a pin in 3:06 over Aurora Christian's Nate Orosco at 120. The junior, who won state a year ago, is 33-1 and faces Heyworth's Gabe Spencer in a 1-2 clash for the title.
"I had some struggles earlier in the tournament," Keane said. "A kid took me down late in the second period but I stayed calm since I've been here before and know what to do and in the semis, I knew I had the kid. You have to wrestle every match like it's the most important one."
Joliet Catholic Academy sophomore D.J. Hamiti rolled along to capture his seventh-straight win by pin or technical fall in the state finals. The defending state champion in 2A beat Civic Memorial's Caine Tyus by technical fall in 3:33 at 126. He takes a 41-4 record into the finals, where he meets Washington's Brody Norman in a clash of the top-two at that weight.
"It's always the expectation for me to make the finals," Hamiti said. "I like wrestling the tough schedule that the coaches put together for me so that I can get a feel for all of the top competition around the state."
Lockport's Matt Ramos assured himself of a third state medal and earned his first trip to the finals when he edged Marmion's Michael Jaffe 6-5 in the 3A 120 semifinals. The senior moved to 33-4 and will face Edwardsville's Noah Surtin in another 1-2 matchup.
"You can't go in this tournament thinking knowing that you're going to dominate but you can't come here and say that I can't do it," Ramos said. "You can't take anyone lightly here. What you practice for all year is that when you're down in matches, you have to know how to come back. This is the last part of my high school career and I want to end it on a good note."
Coal City's Daniel Jezik is back in the 2A title match for the second-straight year and claimed a third medal after winning 7-3 over De La Salle's Dominee Daniels in the 182 semifinals. The junior takes a 23-0 mark into the finals against Crystal Lake Central's Brock Montford.
After not competing in last year's postseason, Lockport's Baylor Fernandes earned his second medal. The senior, who is top-ranked at 160 in 3A and has a 34-4 record, won 12-4 in the semifinals over Marmion's Brad Gross and meets Quincy's Hunter Yohn for the title.
"You just have to go out there with the right mindset and know that you're going to win, and this is what we've been working for all of these years," Fernandes said. "This is my last opportunity so I'm going to do everything that I can to do the best that I possibly can and I'm going to go out there and win it hopefully."
And Lemont's Apollo Gothard assured himself of a second medal after capturing a 3-1 win at 220 in 2A over Glenwood's Conner Miller. The sophomore owns a 44-2 record and will take on Cahokia's Jacob Bullock in another battle between the top-two at their weight class.
"It's crazy," Gothard said. "The whole year, I've tried to step up and try to help out the older guys. We've worked real hard this season to get to where we are."
In Class 3A, five area competitors fell by two points or less in their semifinal matches, with Lockport and Plainfield South having two apiece and Providence Catholic the other one.
Anthony Molton came up short in his effort to try to repeat as a state champion after falling 3-2 to Montini's Dylan Ragusin in a clash of the top-two at that weight in the 126 semifinals. The 43-5 senior still needs to win more match in order to claim his third state medal. And Kaleb Thompson (20-5) lost a 1-0 decision at 106 to Montini's Nick Gonzalez.
In the final match of the night, Plainfield South's Andrew Bejarano dropped a heartbreaking 5-4 decision at 285 to St. Charles East's Justin Hull. The Cougars senior, who is 45-3, looked like he might have a last-second takedown, but it was waved off. And South senior Jake Kendall (36-8) suffered a 3-1 loss by sudden victory at 160 to Quincy's Hunter Yohn.
Providence's Jake Lindsey, who won a state title in 2017 but fell one win shy of a third state trip a year ago, dropped a 4-2 decision to Mount Carmel's Colton Drousias at 113. The senior, who is 22-6, still needs one more win to claim his third state medal.
Lemont had two others who fell short in the semifinals. Junior Grant LaDuke (26-6) lost 4-3 to Danville's Anthony Turner at 145 and freshman Evan Schiffman (36-9) dropped a 5-0 decision at 106 to Marian Central's Josh Glover. And in Class 1A, Seneca senior Jackson Beene (42-3) got pinned in 3:18 at 152 by Newman Central Catholic's Brody Ivey.
Others who were still alive in 3A for Saturday's wrestlebacks are Providence's Josh Ramos (138), Kevin Countryman (145) and Ryan Boersma (220), Plainfield East's Alex Villar (120), Plainfield South's Jimmy Pierandozzi (145) and Lincoln-Way East's Nick Mihajlovich (182).
Also in contention for medals in 2A were Lemont's Drew Nash (132), Coal City's Ryan Wasielewski (152) and Morris' Robby Bates (195). And in Class 1A, Dwight's Dillon Sarff (113) and Cameron Klingler (170) and Wilmington's Jack Narine (126) still had medal hopes.