CHAMPAIGN — Ramin Abraham was thrilled just to wind up on the bottom step of the awards podium here last year at the Illinois High School Association state wrestling tournament.
Saturday night the Evanston senior completed his climb to the top.
Abraham defeated Demarco Lee of Lake Park 4-3 in the 220-pound title bout in Class 3A and claimed Evanston’s first individual state championship since 2010 — and just the 12th in the history of the ETHS program.
Abraham polished off a perfect 53-0 season with 4 straight wins at the State Farm Center at the University of Illinois, establishing a new school single season record for victories and extending a winning streak of 54 that extend back to his 5th place finish at the state finals as a junior.
He’s one of a group of just 5 Evanston grapplers to earn multiple state medals, including former state champs Richard Gilbert, Bob Sheppard, Bob Pickens and Guy Ward.
In his 3-day quest for greatness this year he pinned Jake Shipla of Minooka in 2 minutes, 28 seconds; scored a 15-4 major decision over Brian Morel of Fremd; and tripped Jake Bellizzi of Maine West 7-3 in Friday’s semifinals before beating Lee for the 3rd time this season.
Not bad for someone who never stepped onto a wrestling mat — unless maybe he was on his way to a soccer practice — before emigrating here from Syria 4 years ago.
“I told myself tonight that I didn’t come this far to lose!” exclaimed the exuberant Evanston senior after the title match. “I had to keep pushing myself. I didn’t stop wrestling for 6 minutes. I wrestled my hardest. We had a plan with the coaching staff and I executed it. I was very cautious because I didn’t want to lose this title. I wanted it to be mine. I wanted to come out on top.
“He (Lee) is taller than I am and I knew my shots had to be perfect or I’d get caught underneath him. I had to wrestle smart.”
Lee’s three losses on the season all came against Abraham. He’s the only opponent to have registered a takedown of Abraham in a match all year, in the finals of the Rus Erb tournament at Glenbrook South, but Saturday night all he could muster was three escape points.
Twice in the final period, which began with Lee on top, the lanky Lake Park wrestler grabbed Abraham around the waist and lifted him on takedown attempts. But Abraham fought him off and the two foes traded escapes in the final minute for the 4-3 final.
“That’s the smartest match Ramin has wrestled all year. He did everything we told him to do,” praised Evanston head coach Rudy Salinas. “He was always in control and he always had Demarco back on his heels. He executed so well.
“Ramin had a dream to do this (win State) and he took us on that journey with him. He proved that if you work hard, and you do the right things, you can make it happen.”
Abraham’s unbeaten season was especially impressive when you consider the competition he faced. Besides beating Lee three times, including the sectional championship match, he also scored multiple wins over fellow Central Suburban League standouts Bellizzi of Maine West, Sean Kelly of Maine South and Trent Williams of Glenbrook North as part of the regular season grind.
Bellizzi and Kelly both advanced to the state semifinals before losing, with Bellizzi placing 4th Kelly 5th and Williams 6th overall.
“It was good that I’d seen them all before,” Abraham said. “I was never nervous because I knew what they were all about.”
Records show that Abraham is only the 2nd Evanston wrestler to reach the state finals three years in a row, after Mike Greiner, who accomplished that feat from 1956-58 and placed 2nd at 127 pounds as a senior.
“I think it started between those guys (CSL foes) when Ramin qualified for State as a sophomore,” Salinas noted. “After that I think they all fed off each other and brought the best out of each other. They kept re-setting the bar among them and your own backyard is a good place to test your mettle.
“Ramin’s evolution from his sophomore year to now has always been on a curve up. He led our team in technical falls this year because he likes to score points so much he’d rather do that than get a fall. He always wanted to go out there and score and tonight we preached control, not to leave anything to chance. And he did everything great!”
The head coach noted the work his assistants, especially Nick Jones and the latest ETHS state champ, 2010 grad Jeffrey Brown, put in with Abraham in the practice room as the main factors to Abraham’s success along with the senior’s work ethic.
The irony of Abraham’s ascension to the top in wrestling is that the personable senior will probably always consider himself a soccer player, first and foremost. But he was never able to secure the starting job as an ETHS goalkeeper despite making valuable contributions to the varsity since he was a freshman, and he’s still tight-lipped about the future.
Saturday’s championship might be the last time he competes as a wrestler.
“In the tunnel (before the opening Grand March) it was just awesome. If someone had told me my freshman year that I’d be a state champion, I’d never have believed it,” Abraham said. “I hated wrestling my first 2 years and I wanted to quit all the time.
“I’m glad I didn’t quit.”
“I think he got to the point where he really started to love the sport and he really became a student of it,” added Salinas. “I’ll be sorry to see him go. He’s still learning and I think he just starting to tap into his potential.”
Abraham actually picked up an extra victory, along with Salinas’ sons, state qualifiers Ricardo and Rafael, when the ETHS coach realized that initially the IHSA didn’t count regional tournament byes awarded to several Kit wrestlers and made the correction.
Rafael, who qualified at 170 pounds, concluded his stellar career with 159 victories, tops on the all-time list at Evanston. At State, he went 0-2 in his only trip, losing to Jordan Chisum of Zion-Benton (7-2) and Anthony Geraci of Montini (10-6). Salinas finished with an overall record of 48-6.
Sophomore Ricardo Salinas, 43-6 overall, won 1 of 3 matches before he was eliminated at 160 pounds. After bowing to Luke Rassmussen of Barrington 3-2, he bounced back with a 7-4 trimming of Brock Pfeifer of Lincoln-Way West in the consolation bracket. But the younger Salinas couldn’t muster enough offense in his last bout, a 4-3 loss to DeKalb’s Austin Johnson.