Rafael Salinas’ ability to climb the career wins list in Evanston’s wrestling program is partly due to the fact that he learns from his mistakes on the mat.

Saturday, the Wildkit senior joined the short list of wrestlers in program history who have earned 3 regional championships.

Salinas earned payback for a regular season loss to Niles West’s Mohammed Sami with a 5-2 victory in the finals of the 170-pound bracket Saturday at the Class 3A Maine East Regional tournament. He joined younger brother Ricardo Salinas (160) and Ramin Abraham (220) as regional champions and led a wave of 8 ETHS qualifiers for next week’s Conant Sectional tournament.

The Wildkits were unable to mount a serious challenge for the team title — and a spot in the team sectional series — and settled for a 3rd place finish with 153 points behind both Maine South (218) and Chicago Taft (161) in the 9-team field. But that trio of champs kept their seasons alive along with 2nd place finishers Collin Olla-Chatman (285), Walker Witt (182) and Jacob Vice (120), plus 3rd place qualifiers Dylan Kull (132) and Ulysses Alva (195).

Salinas’ third straight regional title moved him within 3 victories of the ETHS career mark of 157, currently held by 2016 graduate David Rivera-Kohr. The senior standout improved to 43-3 on the year and is hoping to earn his first trip to the state finals.

He lived up to his No. 1 seed Saturday by outscoring Gabe McCall of Maine South 12-5 in the semifinals, then turned the tables on Sami after a scoreless first period.

“I worked very hard to get those 3 championships, and I had my teammates and my coaches and my parents behind me,” Salinas said. “I wouldn’t have made it this far without their support. As long as I know I’ve worked hard and have that kind of support, I can’t doubt myself.

“You have to be able to look past your mistakes and learn from them, or mistakes will haunt you. I made a mistake the first time I wrestled Sami (in the Central Suburban League tournament) and I lost by a pin to him. He came out strong and I let him get the first move in. But today I showed I had better conditioning and I was better in the moments where I needed to be better.

“That loss motivated me. I wasn’t going to let him beat me again. I did that to a guy from Taft in the regional last year and to a guy from Notre Dame when I was a sophomore, too (in the regional showdowns). No one wants to wrestle someone twice.”

“Winning 3 straight regional championships is something that’s not easily achieved,” pointed ETHS head coach (and proud father) Rudy Salinas. “That’s nothing to sneeze at. Rafael’s level of maturity has really improved this year. He has avenged all three of his losses and wrestled much smarter every time. He knew he made a mistake at the conference tournament and we talked about cleaning things up. He wrestled much better today.”

Ricardo Salinas made it a clean sweep for the family with his second regional crown. The sophomore grappler improved to 38-3 on the year with falls against Daniel Ramirez of Niles West (1 minute, 47 seconds) and Ryan Pena of Maine South (1:40) and could be on pace to become the first Wildkit to win four regionals in as many tries.

That’s in the future. For now, he’s hoping to turn in an even better performance at the sectional despite two lopsided wins on Saturday.

“I was nervous about the match (with Pena) because even though I majored him (won by 10 points), I had bad memories because I was sick with bronchitis then,” said the younger Salinas. And I had a really bad cold today — with a lot of congestion — and I know I can wrestle with more intensity than I did today.

“I should have qualified for State last year and I think that experience will help me this time. I’ll give it my all and I won’t make the same mistakes.”

Against Pena, Salinas scored a fall with a move that even seemed to register surprise on the sophomore’s face as he celebrated immediately after the win.

“He tried to build a base and I hit a 2 on 1 move on him,” he explained. “I used my knee instead and stacked him on his head. It’s an opportunity you have to take advantage of and I didn’t even think about it when I saw his butt go down and his head up. I just went for it.”

Abraham reeled off his 3rd straight regional title and preserved his unbeaten record at a perfect 45-0. That’s only 4 wins shy of the single season school mark set by heavyweight state champion Jeffrey Brown back in 2010.

Abraham scored a first period pin in 49 seconds in the semifinals at 220 versus Zach Kurczak of Taft, then defeated Maine West’s Jacob Bellizzi for the third time this season, romping 12-4 in the title bout.

Bellizzi, a two-time state qualifier, couldn’t match the Evanston senior’s versatility in the high-scoring match.

“The last time I wrestled him I was tired and I just had to push through,” Abraham confided. “I know I’m better than that and this was a statement win today, a statement that he can’t beat me. I’m proud of my effort today.”

The Wildkits dropped 3 other finals matches. At 285, Olla-Chatman (21-2) lost 5-0 to Taft’s Piotr Krupa, while Witt (41-5) was pinned by Maine South’s Jon Halvorsen in the second period at 182 and Vice (33-16) came up on the short end of a 4-1 matchup with Maine West’s Zak Chrisovitsitiotis.

No. 1 seed Kull was upset by Maine South’s Josh Bess, an individual he beat during the regular season, when he was caught and turned for a pin in the third period of the semifinals at 132. He regrouped to advance with wins over Tariq Paul of Niles West (1:38) and 1-0 over Tuvshin Zuunbayan of Elk Grove Village.

 Alva also lost in the semifinals at 195, pinned by Maine East’s Mark Ibrahim, before pinning Naibil Saiyed of Niles West in 4:21 and topping Noe Arroyo of Taft 6-2 in the decisive third place match.

Max Morton contributed a non-qualifying 4th place finish for the Kits at 152, but Evanston’s inability to mount a challenge in the team race could be directly traced to the lower weights. The Kits were blanked in the win column at 106, 113, 126, 138 and 145.

“We had 5 weight classes where we didn’t score and I don’t think that’s ever happened to us,” Coach Salinas summed up. “It was a combination of youth and inexperience there. It wasn’t unreasonable for us to think we could win this, but Maine South came out on fire and over-achieved on some of their seeds, and we under-achieved on some of our seeds.  We still had a lot of good things happen today.”    

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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