In one sense, Jacob Cronk is no different from the nine other area sophomores and juniors who qualified for their first state tournament at last weekend’s Class 3A Alton Sectional.
On the other hand, the Lincoln-Way West junior is very much different from the other nine local juniors and sophomores who will make their state debuts in Champaign.
Last season five individuals were sectional qualifiers, three won 17 or more matches, and another was stuck behind a medalist on the state’s top team. Cronk was on the junior-varsity.
Cronk didn’t look like someone who wasn’t wrestling on varsity a year ago when he advanced to the 160-pound semifinals, and later beat Plainfield South’s Erik Santiago, 7-4, before claiming fourth place.
“I’m very happy,” said Cronk, who takes a 32-16 record to state. “I think that I had a good season. Every time that I wrestled, I try to get better and improve on what I’ve done. I definitely feel like I’ve grown a lot this year. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Cronk was one of five Warriors who captured wins in the consolation semifinals in order to advance. Another individual from West who also won in that round is sophomore Garrett Geigner, who advances with a 33-15 mark after taking fourth at 120 pounds.
His twin brother Payton went to state last year as a freshman but fell short in the consolation semifinals at Alton. Meanwhile, Garrett bounced back from a quarterfinal loss by picking up three straight wins, including 7-5 in the blood round, before settling for fourth place.
“We had two more qualifiers than last year, so this is much better,” Geigner said. “With Payton going last year, it made me want to work harder for this year. It was pretty cool.”
A year ago, Lockport’s Mike Kaminski was at the same weight as eventual placer Matt Ramos, so he only had one varsity match. But the freshman’s abilities warranted that he be included on the roster for the dual team finals, where the Porters won their first state title.
Despite missing some time due to a broken nose, sophomore Kaminski (29-10) hopes to challenge for a spot on the awards stand. He fell 3-1 in the 106 semifinals but then won his next two matches to claim third place.
“I’ve really been working hard this past week,” Kaminski said. “I feel like I’m a little more out of breath than I should be but I wrestled alright today. Everyone wrestled good today in my bracket. I had a lot of fun wrestling them and it was a really great experience.”
Joliet Central junior Mario Leon (23-9) didn’t advance to the sectional last year but he followed up on a regional title by becoming the Steelmen’s lone qualifier. After falling in the 132 quarterfinals, he won three in a row, including 4-2 overtime win over a ranked opponent and wound up finishing fourth.
“This feels great,” Leon said. “I made my school and coaches feel proud. Everybody will be talking about this at school and I feel honored to qualify for state. I had to push through it mentally and go through all the physical pain. I’m going to use this as learning for next year.”
Minooka’s two qualifiers will be making their initial trips to Champaign. Junior Noah Boles (25-9) and sophomore Drew Gutknecht (25-6) both learned from visits to last year’s sectional. And after individual state is complete, they’ll try to help the Indians get back to the dual team state finals.
Gutkecht got pinned in the 195 semifinals but bounced back with a 3-2 win over Plainfield Central’s Josh Mackenzie before beating Plainfield North’s Devontae Davis 5-2 for third.
“I’m only a sophomore, so it’s good to qualify,” Gutknecht said. “I’ll have two years to place and maybe win it some day. I felt real confident when I won my first match of the season then I won a Lincoln-Way East title. We’ve just been rolling as a team and I’ve been rolling, too.”
Boles lost by technical fall in the 145 quarterfinals but then recorded two falls and a 4-0 win in the consolation semifinals to earn his state spot before injury defaulting in his finale.
“I’ve been working since I was three years old to make it to state,” Boles said. “This is just momentum going into next year. This has been a fun ride. We’ve picked it up a lot more in the room and it’s way more intense. I’m hoping to get up on the podium so I’ll keep working.”
A year ago, Plainfield Central’s Nick Minnito won 35 matches and got to the sectional. That experience helped the sophomore this season as he beat defending state champion Jacob Lindsey in the 113 quarterifinals. After falling 6-2 to Plainfield South’s Enzo Silva in the semifinals he pulled out a two-point win in the next match and is 33-11 after placing fourth.
“It feels really good,” Minnito said. “I’ve never been on the mats there so it’s going to be a good experience.”
After just missing out on a sectional trip last year, Providence sophomore Kevin Countryman (33-12) was determined to not fall short of his first state trip. Following a pin in the 152 quarterfinals, Countryman won four in a row, including falls in his last two matches. It certainly helped to have three of his Celtics teammates joining him as qualifiers.
“It feels good to beat two good kids that no one really thought I could beat,” Countryman said. “Everyone came out and did their best and I just proved everyone wrong and showed them that I could make it downstate. We all push each other every day in the practice room.”
The other two state newcomers who aren’t seniors were the two sectional champions, Plainfield North sophomore Dylan Amico (36-4 at 106) and Lincoln-Way East junior Nick Mihajlovich (30-3 at 182).