By JOHN ROARK
MT. VERNON — Just the chance to participate at a state tournament might be enough for some athletes, but not for the three Mt. Vernon Township High School wrestlers still in the running for Class 2A individual championships.
“These three, I don’t really worry about them thinking. ‘I made it to state and that’s great, and I’m just here for the experience,’” Rams coach Sean Docherty said of senior Torrey Pollard, junior Dustin Cole and sophomore Blake Stricklin. “These three want to do something.”
And the process takes up again Friday morning in Champaign at Assembly Hall on the campus of the University of Illinois. Each is entered in an opening-round match by virtue of their respective finishes at last weekend’s Lanphier Class 2A sectional.
Stricklin (135 pounds) and Cole (215) were both runnerups in their respective divisions, while Pollard — earning a trip north in his final go-around — survived a brutal trip through the 189-pound consolation bracket, winning four bouts in the second day to claim a third-place medal.
To Docherty, Pollard’s trip to Champaign, combined with his tremendous momentum from last weekend’s experience, comes at the right time.
Pollard (29-5) meets Lemont’s Connor Nagel (29-3) in the first round, and that winner will knock heads with Grayslake’s Kevin Hein (33-5).
Crystal Lake Central’s Austin Marsden (42-2) has the best mark in the 189 field.
“Torrey’s got a shot,” Docherty said. “He’s got two good wrestlers ahead of him for the first two rounds, but I think Torrey is gonna be OK, if he keeps wrestling the way he did last weekend.”
Docherty said the tournament has a follow-the-leader format.
“If you win, you keep going on,” Docherty said. “If you lose, the guy who beats you has to win the next time around for you to stay in the tournament. That’s why each of our guys’ opening (bouts) are important. They don’t have byes.”
Which, Docherty says, isn’t exactly the worst situation.
“Every guy up there is good,” Docherty said, “so it’s not the worst thing to sit around and be cold against a guy who has already warmed up and won.”
Docherty said Cole (30-3) perhaps has the toughest route, having to meet East Peoria’s Nate Joseph (35-1) who was unbeaten until losing in the semifinals at the Sterling sectional.
Joseph then had to turn around and win a 3-2 decision in the third-place bout.
The mere fact Joseph almost went from a unbeaten semifinalist to a spectator is testament to his toughness.
“Dustin is going to have to be loaded for bear,” Docherty cautioned. “Joseph is a beast, but if he can get past that one, then he has Andy Crivellone of Oak Lawn Richards (38-4) in the quarterfinals.”
Stricklin, ironically, is the lone Ram of this qualifying trio with Champaign experience. He just missed making the third-place bout as a freshman at 130 pounds, losing in the semifinals.
This time around, he’ll meet Aurora Marmion junior Eddie Brown (33-11), with that winner meeting Montini sophomore Eric Powell (35-13).
Docherty said Stricklin (35-5) shouldn’t be blind-sided by Brown and Powell’s double-digit losses.
“Don’t let the records fool you, 33-11 and 35-13,” Docherty said of Brown and Powell. “Wins and losses don’t mean anything to those guys because they’ve been in a lot tougher tournaments than us.”
Stricklin says he learned plenty from last year’s trip, but he learned even more last weekend, when he lost in the Lanphier 135 finals to Mascoutah’s William Burns (42-3) in overtime.
“(Burns) basically showed me what I needed to work on,” Stricklin said. “Especially with conditioning on being top of my opponent, because I’m just not that good when I am on top.”
Stricklin had beaten Burns on Dec. 1 in a home dual match before having the tables turned on him.
“Burns just got better,” Docherty said. “I mean, three losses and one was to Blake.”
So what is Stricklin’s attitude this weekend?
“It’s a lot different than last year, because now I have two teammates with me,” Stricklin said. “I didn’t really want to be up there by myself and now I can get support from my teammates, and I can support them.”
And his goal?
“I’m shooting for at least to place, but always shooting for No. 1,” Stricklin said. “Last year, trying to get to the third-place match, I got locked up with a guy and it didn’t work out.
“The advice I’d give myself and other wrestlers is, to stick to your game plan. Don’t try to do somebody else’s moves.
“It doesn’t work,” Stricklin added.
Stricklin said he doesn’t worry about rankings, or top seeds.
“I wrestle the wrestler, not the name,” Stricklin said. “If you look to see who’s number one, then that can get you beat because it’s already in your mind.”
Of course, the pressure of being in a 16,618-seat arena of a Division I college also figures in.
“You can tell them what’s up and everything else,” Docherty said, “but once you walk in there, there’s 180-plus wrestlers out there warming up.
“Then there’s the period of coming out of the tunnel before your match, and seeing all the guys warming up, it can be pretty awe-inspiring.
“Yet once you get out there and get on the mat, it’s just another match. The kids tend to adjust to it pretty fast. If they don’t, they’ll be in trouble,” Docherty said.
And the coach’s assessment of his own athletes, as Pollard, Cole and Stricklin prepare for this weekend?
“All three of them have that look in their eye,” Docherty said. “They want to place, they want to get a medal. Now whether that happens is up to them.
“But I have all the confidence in the world that they’re going to do whatever it takes to get up on that medal stand,” Docherty added.
Preliminaries in Class 2A begin at 11 a.m., with finals set for Saturday beginning at 9:30 a.m., and wrestle-backs at 11:30 a.m.
Class 2A state wrestling preview
By JOHN ROARK
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