Dealing with injuries just goes with the territory in some high school sports, like wrestling.
But Max Morton’s bid to compete in the Illinois High School Association state wrestling tournament this year was a profile in courage on Saturday at the Class 3A Prospect Regional tournament.
The Evanston senior was one of six Wildkit grapplers to punch a ticket to next week’s Barrington Sectional after scoring a third place finish at 160 pounds. He joined 170-pound champion Ricardo Salinas, 2nd place finishers Nathan Straus (152) and Valery Jean Jacques (285), along with Charlie Fox (3rd at 220) and Anjual Joyner (3rd at 182) as the top 3 individuals in each weight class earned the right to keep their seasons alive.
Morton fought through his second serious knee injury of the season — suffered at the hands of a Hersey wrestler who was disqualified for the move that produced that pain —and outscored Bilal Vasty of Niles North 7-4 in the 3rd place match.
The Evanston senior captain’s biggest career moment followed an hour or so of indecision about whether to keep going, not to mention an hour of pain. He only started on the comeback trail from suffering a grade 2 tear of the LCL in his right knee about six weeks ago in a dual meet against Glenbrook South, missed almost a full week of practice leading up to the regional with a bad ankle that was at first feared broken, and ran into a malicious move by Hersey’s Daniel Mukhamedaileyev in the consolation semifinals on Saturday.
Mukhamedaileyev caught Morton’s leg in an awkward position and dropped the ETHS senior to the mat in obvious pain. The Hersey wrestler was immediately disqualified and, in the drama and dispute that followed, one adult fan was actually ejected from the gym.
“What happened was that he (Mukhamedaileyev) applied pressure against a joint that worked against the normal range of motion, and that’s illegal,” pointed out Evanston head coach Rudy Salinas. “He put pressure on it laterally. That’s potentially dangerous and it’s not good sportsmanship.
“I have two concerns about this. One, I hope this technique isn’t being taught in their (practice) room, and if not, than it was out of malice and the kid is just wrong. Either way, I wish it would’ve been called when he tried it earlier instead of it being called only after his knee popped. The kid was warned about it in the previous match.
“This wasn’t just one moment for Max. He’s been navigating through things since the original injury only to have it aggravated again by a flagrant move. Something like that really tests your resolve, and I love the way Max was able to come back, manage the pain and put himself in position to win again. He clearly showed the intangibles of why he’s one of our team captains.”
“It wasn’t cool what he did to me,” Morton said. “I don’t think he tried to hurt me on purpose, but I think he cranked it knowing I’d been injured there and he tried to gain an advantage. I heard it pop, and I definitely felt it throbbing the rest of the day. It hurt physically and it was also mental for me. I was scared my season was over.
“Once I was able to calm down and relax, I looked at all my options and the coaches were all great about it and really helped me out. Once I decided to keep going, even though it wasn’t ideal, I had to find a way to win.”
Matched against Niles North’s Vasty, the same wrestler who eliminated him in the regional 3rd place matchup a year ago, Morton capitalized on his opportunity even though he had to shift strategies to make up for the injury.
He went from a right-legged attacker to a left-legged attacker, and that’s like trying to shoot a basketball with your less-dominant hand to try to make a game winning free throw.
Morton found a way and boosted his won-loss record to 24-5 on the season.
“I wrestle year-round and I do a lot of Greco-Roman wrestling where it’s all about what you do with your upper body,” he said. “My practice partner is Ricardo (Salinas) and we do work on both sides with our moves all the time, and that came in handy. It was natural enough for me that I could work through it.
“My game plan was to stay in a good position and let him (Vasty) make the mistakes, and then be as opportunistic as I could. I was down 1-0 in the second period, but I got a nice upper body throw against him for 5 points. I usually stay pretty calm after a match, but this time I was ecstatic! All of my teammates got very excited, too. It was a cool moment after I considered not wrestling any more.”
“All the credit goes to Max, because he processed all of his choices well and he made the right decision,” Salinas said. “He’s well versed in many ways to attack, and I was proud of how he was able to stick to the strategy. He’s comfortable on his feet and with those tieups, and he made the Niles North kid unsure of just how to counter what he was doing. He just outwrestled that kid.”
Adjustments also helped Salinas’ son, Ricardo, claim the regional crown at 170. After opening the tourney with a fall and a technical fall, the Evanston junior pinned Glenbrook South’s Norbert Crecan in 5 minutes, 1 second and defeated the GBS standout for the third time this season.
Salinas will take a sterling 44-2 record into a loaded Barrington Sectional that will feature 7 of the top 10-ranked competitors in the state in that weight class.
“He (Crecan) threw something different against Ricardo again this time,” said Coach Salinas. “He took away Ricardo’s first move at the conference tournament (Salinas still won a major decision), and this time he upped the tempo and got into Ricardo’s face a lot more on defense. Ricardo only had a 3-1 lead going into the 3rd period, and then he put him on his back.”
Straus, at 152, and Jean-Jacques, at 285, earned runnerup honors. Straus was pinned by Hersey’s top-seeded Billy Spassov in the title bout in 5:19, and Jean-Jacques’ only defeat was in the heavyweight finale to another Hersey wrestler, Austin Korba. Korba, who is expected to be a state medalist, pinned Jean-Jacques in 5:46.
“Straus has had a really great 3 weeks for us,” Salinas praised. “He’s always been on our radar because of his talent, and I’m happy for him and proud of him. He’s finally embracing what he does best and he saw his (No. 2) seed through. The exciting part is that he’s only a junior. He’s still learning, and he has a lot of upside.
“Valery was up on that guy with 30 seconds to go, and if he had a little more experience I think he could have controlled the match and won. But the other kid has a little more experience, he built some momentum, and Val lost it.”
Both Fox (26-11) and Joyner (30-7) bounced back from semifinal defeats to book their first sectional trips. Fox scored pins in both of his wrestleback matches, nailing New Trier’s Riley Cornielson in 1:27 for 3rd place, and Joyner registered back to back falls at 182, eliminating No. 4 seed Tommy Cortese of Hersey in 4 minutes even.
Nathan Mann (120), Graham Umbanhowar (126) and Sebastian Pachis (138) contributed 4th place finishes to help the Wildkits tie New Trier for 4th place in the team standings. Host Prospect ruled with 201 points, followed by Glenbrook South (149.5), Hersey (141.5), Evanston (124.5) and New Trier (124.5) in the 9-team field.
Pachis couldn’t keep his season alive, but did avenge two earlier losses to third seeded Jack Downing of GBS with a decisive 10-4 triumph in the first round. He was eliminated with a 9-2 loss to New Trier’s Michael Stringer.