One wrestler is in the twilight of his high school wrestling career and the other is just getting started. What did Chris Rivera and Rahim Abraham have in common for Evanston Saturday at the Central Suburban League wrestling tournament at Maine South?
Both grapplers were crowned champions in their respective weight classes, leading ETHS to an overall third place finish in the team standings.
It marked only the second time that the Wildkit program has produced a pair of champions in the same season at a meet that dates back to 2000, when conference officials decided to put together a season-ending tourney combining all 12 schools in the North and South divisions.
Rivera, at 113 pounds, and Abraham, at 220, joined a list of past ETHS champs that includes Raymion Spence (2004 at 189), Thomas Ingram (2005 at 152), Chris Jackson (2006 at 119), Angel Sierra (2007 at 103), Marx Succes Jr. (2008 at 189), Ethan James (2009 at 160), Jeffrey Brown (2010 at 285), David Rivera-Kohr (2016 at 120 and 2016 at 126), and Izzy Fox (2016 at 160).
Ten of the 13 Wildkits entered in Saturday’s competition earned top 6 individual finishes, as ETHS totaled 178 points. Deerfield dominated the team standings for the fifth year in a row with 310.5 points, followed by New Trier (201.5), ETHS, Maine South (159.5), Glenbrook North (132.5), Glenbrook South (127.5), Maine West (89), Vernon Hills (71), Highland Park (69), Niles North (66), Niles West (59) and Maine East (27.5).
Besides the championship efforts by Rivera, a senior, and Abraham, a sophomore, the Kits counted runnerup finishes by Dylan Kull (126) and Van Rutter (182), plus third place finishes by Jack McCliesh (120), Adrian Bytyqi (160), and Fox (170).
Rivera stopped Deerfield’s Jonathon Bloom 3-1 in the finals at 113 for the first CSL title of his four-year career, as he climbed to fourth on the career victory list at Evanston. Abraham scored a takedown on Vernon Hills standout Collin Turley for a sudden death overtime 3-1 triumph in the title bout at 220.
Rivera, who improved to 35-4 on the year, wasn’t even sure he’d be wrestling in a Wildkit uniform until right before the season started. He focused on his job with the City of Evanston as an assistant mechanic for the city’s heavy equipment, and didn’t wrestle either last spring or last summer.
“It’s not that I was burned out on wrestling or anything like that,” said Rivera, who began his mat career in first grade. “I did think about not wrestling this year. It’s a good job and the people there are just great to me. But when I talked to my supervisor (prior to the start of season) he said I’d be able to come back after the wrestling season. I’ve worked there for 5 years and they knew I wrestled, too. They gave me the choice and I decided to come back and wrestle, even though it was a nice break.
“I had to build myself back up to get back into wrestling shape and now I feel I’m back to where I was (last year) at a competitive level. After winning this tournament, I feel like I’m back and now I should be ready for sectional and State.”
Rivera used his experience and wrestled mostly defensively over the first half of the season, winning against younger grapplers in a weight class that most seniors have outgrown by their fourth year of competing.
But over the past month he’s become more aggressive on offense and that’s a welcome sight for ETHS head coach Rudy Salinas.
“Absolutely, Chris is more offensive minded now than he was at the start of the year,” said the veteran coach. “He’s wrestling to win now, he’s wrestling with more purpose and more focus, and that’s been the key for him.
“I think this weekend was a turning point for Chris. Lots of other people came up to me Saturday and told me how much they enjoyed watching him wrestle, and because he didn’t have a pre-season, he’s still fresh and he’s still peaking. There are still a lot of technical things he needs to fix to get to State — but he’s moving like he did last year, and I like where he’s at.”
With only 6 grapplers entered in his weight class Saturday, Rivera only had to win one match to get to the finals and racked up 3 takedowns in a 7-1 thumping of Jesse Goldufsky of Vernon Hills in the semifinals.
He had more trouble scoring in the finale, but the ETHS senior was satisfied with his performance overall.
“I felt I could’ve shot a little more in the finals,” Rivera admitted. “I got a takedown in the first period and rode him out, and there were a couple of times I felt I took him down in the second period but I didn’t get the points. In the third period, I just played a lot of defense.
“I think I’ve improved a lot this year when it comes to takedowns. Now I feel a lot more confident taking shots and I don’t worry about getting reversed so much. I like to stick to the basic moves. Now my goal 100 percent is to get to State. This is my senior year, this is my last chance and I’m not going to hold anything back. I want to see how much damage I can cause at State.”
Abraham is only in his second year as a wrestling after emigrating to the United States from Syria. His No. 1 sport is soccer — ETHS fans won’t forget his heroics in the goal this past postseason — but in two years he’s only suffered a total of 3 losses as a grappler.
Abraham fashioned a 21-1 record competing against freshmen last year — after being encouraged to step onto the mat by former varsity girls soccer coach Marx Succes — and upped his varsity record to a sizzling 28-2 Saturday.
He defeated Raymar Delemios of Niles North (fall in 5 minutes, 3 seconds) and Cody Goodman of Deerfield (11-6) on his way to the title at 220.
“I didn’t like the way I finished that match in the semifinals, but in the finals I wasn’t really tired when I got to the overtime,” said the sophomore standout. “I took like 5 shots against him before that trying to get a takedown, but I couldn’t finish it.
“I am surprised at the success I’m having against varsity guys (almost all of whom are upperclassmen). I just try to go out and wrestle my best every match, and I listen to the coaches, even when I get tired and it’s harder. Just like in the finals, I’m always taking shots, even if they don’t work.”
That’s what separates Abraham from his foes at the bigger weights, who rarely attempt takedowns and are content to muscle each other and win 2-1.
“He’s blessed with the kind of agility and speed that most big guys don’t have,” said Salinas. “And most big guys can’t change levels like he does. His quickness is really a huge asset for Ramin. He has a good combination of good athleticism, he’s coachable and he has the physical skills and now he’s putting it all together. He’s still learning, but he’s kept it simple and he sticks to what he does well.
“I thought the turning point for Ramin was at the Rus Erb Tournament (last month at Glenbrook South). He’s embraced the idea of shooting more, and he’s become less opportunistic and more creative on offense as a result. He doesn’t take on every challenge yet the way we’d like him to, but if he sticks with it and embraces those challenges, he can be a great wrestler.”
The Wildkits came up short in two other title matches. At 126, New Trier rival Jack Tangen pinned Kull at the 2:35 mark after the ETHS sophomore had blanked Maine West’s Arsalan Afshar 3-0 in the semifinals.
And Rutter suffered a first period pin at the hands of Highland Park’s unbeaten D.J. Penick in the finals at 182, following his own back-to-back falls that boosted his own victory total to 31-5 on the season.
Evanston’s potential point total as a team took a couple of hits in a bid to at least earn runnerup honors. Rafael Salinas woke up sick with stomach flu Saturday morning, too late to replace him at 138, where the Kits scored zero points.
Danny White was still undergoing concussion protocol and wasn’t able to suit up, and potential points in the back draw at 106 were lost when sophomore Isaac Hunter suffered a shoulder injury in his first match and couldn’t continue.
“Isaac really came out swinging against that Deerfield kid (eventual champion Matt Templeton) and I know he would have been good for at least 10 more points,” Salinas pointed out. “And (son) Rafael could’ve made up at least 15 more points because he was seeded. So we could have challenged for second place, but it was still a very respectable showing for us.
“Now, we just have to get healthy for the regional.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.