Evanston’s wrestlers are in position to win the Central Suburban League South division championship when the Wildkits meet arch-rival New Trier in a winner-take-all dual meet set for Jan. 8.
And coach Rudy Salinas’ young squad, which starts four freshmen, is also poised to do some damage in the postseason, too.
But it wouldn’t be stretching the point to say that it’s already been a Banner Year for the Wildkits.
Ask ETHS senior Jaalen Banner and he’d probably tell you it’s happening a year too late. Banner and Izzy Fox both captured 2nd place in their respective weight classes Saturday at the 52nd annual Rus Erb Invitational hosted by Glenbrook South, leading Evanston to a 9th place finish overall in the 18-team field.
Besides Banner (182 pounds) and Fox (160), Evanston’s top six finishers also included Chris Rivera (3rd at 106), Brandon Bias (5th at 220), Dylan Kull (6th at 120), Rafael Salinas (6th at 182) and Lamont Davenport (6th at 285). The Wildkits totaled 103 points over the two-day tournament, which was won by Wheeling with 181.
Banner dropped a controversial 7-6 overtime match to Sycamore’s Mike Beaudoin in the finale at 182 pounds when he was penalized a point for unsportsmanlike conduct for allegedly hitting Beaudoin in the face. But that loss was just a blip on the radar screen for the Evanston captain, who missed almost all of last year with a knee injury, and never had a varsity victory to his credit prior to this year.
Now 20-4 overall, Banner has stepped up to serve as an example for other grapplers. He suffered a torn meniscus in preseason practice last year and that delayed his progress significantly. Now, he’s making up for lost time.
“He was extremely close with Arrhian Monroe (who went on to win 26 matches last year) when he got hurt,” said Salinas. “And he kept aggravating it, and the swelling didn’t go down until January. He wasn’t able to get in shape by then, or he’d have had more experience coming into the season.
“He’s a captain for a reason. He’s a solid wrestler with a good motor, and he’s a workhorse. He’s put in the time. This tournament is perfect for Jaalen because it’s an affirmation for him that he can go with the good guys. He had a default year last year — I wouldn’t call it wasted — and I think he still has a lot of upside.
“I like the fact that he was in it (the championship bout) because that means he’ll be in it again in the future. I didn’t see the (unsportsmanlike) blow, but I thought it was a ticky-tack call with everything else that was going on out there. No one saw him cock a fist, and if he hit him, it was incidental.”
Banner advanced to the finals after scoring decisions against Dan Risley of Oswego (6-2) and Addison Klausner of Marian Catholic (5-3). He trailed Beaudoin 6-1 midway through the third period, but rallied to pull into a 6-6 tie thanks to a near fall with 22 seconds remaining in regulation.
Seconds into the overtime session, the Evanston captain was penalized for striking Beaudoin.
“I felt cheated,” said Banner after the loss. “He was going hard, and I was going hard out there. My elbow just rubbed him in the face a little. I didn’t hit him. At one point in the match I had him pinned, but they didn’t call it. I guess that was my mistake — but I still feel cheated.
“The swelling on my knee kept me out most of last year, although I did wrestle some JV matches. It was hard to deal with at first. But even though I wish I could change what happened, I think maybe stuff like that happens for a reason, so I could come back and really do it my senior year.
“I’m still making up for lost time. I starting to chain wrestle (stringing moves together) and getting a little more movement now. But even though I’ve got 20 wins now, I’m a little disappointed. I want more than that.”
Teammate Fox noticed Banner’s improvement once he was able to get back on the mat after the high school season. He worked out with Banner and Zach Warhus, a 2015 graduate, all spring and summer.
“I’d have to say that Jaalen is the most improved wrestler that I’ve ever seen,” said Fox, a sophomore. “At the end of last year he really started giving me and Zach a run for our money. We’re making each other better, and it’s not a surprise to us that he’s doing so well. We know he’s capable of being a state placer.”
Fox himself was less than pleased with the officiating in his 11-6 loss to Grant’s Justin Gilich in the championship bout at 160 Saturday. It was only his third defeat in 27 matches and followed falls against Peter Kennedy of Loyola Academy (1 minute, 41 seconds) and Brendon Ewing of Prairie Ridge (3:30).
“In my opinion, I should have had more back points (awarded),” he said. “I knew what I had to do to get back in the match (after falling behind 8-3 in the second period) and at one point I was in a position to stick him, but it didn’t go my way.”
Fox is taking a back-to-basics approach even coming off a freshman year where he racked up 38 varsity wins at a middle weight where first-year wrestlers rarely make that kind of an impact.
“It’s hard for me to set a benchmark for wins right now,” he said. “Last year I was just too immature to know that I was good. People are starting to know how I go. My style is very flashy and it’s the basics that I’m lacking. I have to get back to my roots. I’ve been wrestling for nine years now, and my main concern now is getting back to the basics. That’s what I worked on all summer.
“I’ve never really had great basics and I don’t know if I lost them somehow. At one point I started to move my body different, and that’s what I love about wrestling, that it’s human chess. I just have to get back to the basics I’ve been lacking.”
Rivera bounced back from a semifinal loss to Marian’s Travis Ford-Melton — the third period pin was only his third loss of the season — to nail Jace Sparks of Prairie Ridge in a quick 49 seconds in that third place showdown at 106.
Bias claimed 5th place in his bracket by downing Joey Beaudoin of Sycamore 5-1 in his last match. All four of Kull’s matches at 120 ended in falls, giving him a split for the tourney when he was pinned by Uri Ariza of Metea Valley in 1:38.
Both Salinas, the coach’s son, and Davenport forfeited their respective final bouts due to minor injuries and settled for 6th place.
“Our four freshmen (the Kull twins, Salinas, 152-pounder Danny White) all went 4-0 in the first round yesterday, they all had good showings and two of them placed,” pointed out coach Salinas. “I think we’re in a good place right now as a team. I’m licking my chops going into the Christmas break.”
Source: ETHS Sports Information