After Polo coach Jesse Culbertson watched one of his best wrestlers, 126-pound senior Connor Eubanks, lose 2-1 in wrestle-backs of the 1A regional, he could only shrug his shoulders and say, “There are a lot of quality kids not even getting into third place matches. The competition here is brutal.”
If thing weren’t hard enough with the top two ranked teams present in Dakota and Lena-Winslow/Stockton, the addition of 2017 2A state placer Dixon added another layer of toughness.
In front of a standing-room only crowd at Polo’s gym (cap. 990), Dakota defeated Le-Win 238.5-193.5 on Feb. 8 in what is considered a de facto state title.
“We had a great wrestle-back round,” said Dakota coach Pete Alber, whose team led by 32 points going into the finals. “This is the state championship. The IHSA really needs to seeds it. It’s unfair to both of us.”
Alber’s remarks are borne out by the six combined state titles between the two powers since 2013. Dakota will likely make it a seventh, with all the suspense played out at Polo.
For the outlier Dukes, it was an eye-opener, though they see many some pretty stiff 1A competition every year at the Princeton Invite.
“It’s been a learning experience. When we first got here, people were wondering why we had to be here - kind of like it is tough enough already,” Dixon coach Chris Bishop said. “The crowds are great and the fans know what is going on. It’s so loud I can’t hear myself sometimes.”
After being in a 1-class system, AA and 2A, this was Dixon’s first-ever trip to 1A and the result was a fourth-place finish out of 11 teams with 112 points and four sectional qualifiers. Last year, the Dukes had eight move on from the 2A regional.
Leading the way among area qualifiers was defending state champ Ethen Doty (35-2) of West Carroll, who quickly dispatched Tyler Simmons of Dakota with a first-period pin in the 132-pound finals. It was the only title not won by someone from Dakota or LW/S until Sebastian Quintana of Dixon at 195
“I recently dislocated the meniscus in my knee and was supposed to have surgery,” said Doty, who was only on the mats for 97 seconds in his two pins. “I’m feeling good right now and it can wait until the season is over.”
The last man left standing from the Polo coop was Marcus McKenna. Coming back from a 5-1 deficit in the 160-pound match for third place, McKenna beat Jokiah Sewell of Oregon 10-7.
It was the second straight trip to the sectional for the 33-4 senior from Milledgeville. It didn’t come easy though, as the early aggressor Sewell used two takedowns for a 5-1 lead.
“He was getting in deep on his shots,” said McKenna of the wrestler he had beaten 16-4 earlier in the year.
With five seconds left in the second period, McKenna caught Sewell in a headlock and tossed him to the mat for a takedown and back points. As the buzzer sounded, McKenna had a 6-5 lead.
“That was big,” McKenna said. “I usually don’t throw, but felt it.”
An escape upped the lead to 7-5 before Sewell had another takedown to tie it. With a minute left, McKenna escaped again for an 8-7 lead. Looking for the winning takedown, Sewell compromised himself and the cagey McKenna got the takedown instead for a 10-7 win.
“He shot and I got around on him. Then, my mindset was to ride him out.” McKenna said.
McKenna almost had an easier route to the sectional, but lost to 37-6 Andrew Haas of Le-Win in the semifinals after being tied 3-3 in the third period.
“Marcus chose down in the third period and got turned for a 6-3 loss,” Culbertson said.
Coming through the wrestle-backs, McKenna pinned Cameron Varden of Dixon to reach the third-place match.
Trapper Hartman of West Carroll was able to ride out Eubanks in the 2-1 win, advancing to the third-place match, which he won over Seth Stevens of Oregon. Stevens edged Eubanks 5-2 in the quarterfinals.
“Connor had a rough bracket (five wrestlers with over 25 wins), but never complained,” Culbertson said.
The 28-15 senior and No. 6 seed beat Cullen White of Stillman Valley in the wrestle-backs, before his match with Hartman, a 35-win senior.
The other standouts for Polo were Wyatt Queckboerner, who went 2-2 at 170, and Joel Ludwig, who also went 2-2 at 285. The other Marco win came from Daniel Engel at 220.
Polo was ninth as a team with 32 points.
West Carroll took fifth with 100.5 points and had two other qualifiers. Camren Simpson was pinned by Evan Riggle of Dakota in the 182 final. In a square-off of football strongmen, Peyton Lind (40-1) of Byron pinned Eli Dertz for the 220 championship.
In a startling stat, traditional stalwart Oregon failed to send a single wrestler onto the sectional, which will be held in Oregon. Last year, the Hawks had four state placers.
“It was a combination of things,” Hawk coach Kip Crandall said. “Our two returning state placers (Andrew Herbst and Jacob Milliman) had surgery. We’re a bit injury ridden and have a young line up with mostly freshman and sophomores. The biggest factor, though is how much of a meat grinder of a regional this is.”
Oregon’s best chance came in the Sewell and McKenna match. Amboy’s best performance was from senior Avery Shaw, who won two wrestle-back matches before dropping a third-place bout at 195.