Juniors Ricardo Salinas and Valery Jean-Jacques both captured individual championships Saturday and led the Evanston wrestling team to a 5th place finish in the team standings at the Central Suburban League tournament held at Maine East High School.
Both grapplers earned their first conference career titles. Salinas, who competed at 170 pounds, was named the winner of the Elias George Award as the outstanding performer in the South division, breaking through for his title after consecutive runnerup finishes in the league competition his first two varsity seasons.
Jean-Jacques ruled the 285-pound bracket in his first season as a varsity starter, edging Maine South’s Teddy Hickey 2-1 in overtime and earning payback for a regular season loss to the Hawks’ wrestler.
The Wildkits also counted third place performances from Nathan Straus (152) and Graham Umbanhowar (126), fourths from A.J. Joyner (182) and Max Morton (160), and a fifth from Sheldon Kinzer (195).
Evanston totaled 139 points and trailed first-time team champion Glenbrook South (235), Deerfield (218), Maine South (214.5) and New Trier (165.5) in the 12-team field. It marked the first time since 2014 that the Kits haven’t finished in the top 4 in the CSL tourney, but ETHS head coach Rudy Salinas wasn’t disappointed in the aftermath.
Maybe it was partly because son Ricardo was recognized with the award for Outstanding Wrestler named for the late Hall of Fame coach George, who preceded Salinas as the head coach for the Wildkits.
“Fifth place was where I thought we’d be, and I’m very pleased with our kids’ effort,” said Coach Salinas. “As the Evanston coach, when an Evanston wrestler gets that Elias George Award, it’s huge. And it’s really nice when it goes to your own son. That’s a really huge compliment, and a special moment for us.
“That’s the first championship for our family (oldest son Rafael never accomplished the feat despite setting the Evanston career record for victories) and Rafael called at 12:30 in the morning to congratulate Ricardo. He’s a big Ricardo fan. Ricardo did a good job of wrestling within himself. We didn’t want him to play around this weekend or do anything he doesn’t normally do, didn’t want to risk getting injured. He got the first takedown against all of his opponents, and he did a good job of setting the tone in all of those matches.”
Salinas boosted his impressive season record to 37-2 after pinning Loudon Gershbein of Niles North (30 seconds) and Rahil Sadruddin of Maine West (1 minute, 51 seconds, then scoring a major decision in the title bout with a 15-5 romp over Glenbrook South’s Norbert Crecan.
The ETHS junior didn’t take anything for granted Saturday after reaching the title match and coming up short in his first two trips.
“I got extra nervous for that finals match, but this time I came through,” said Ricardo Salinas. “A lot of the coaches have been telling me that I’m a slow starter, so I’m trying to fix that. I’m making it a point to start out matches better and I’ve really put an emphasis on that the last few weeks. Setting the tone for a match early can really get into the other guy’s head, and you don’t want to get down 2-0 yourself when you’re up against someone good.
“I think I’m right where I need to be right now.”
So is Jean-Jacques, whose breakthrough this year has come from a highly competitive practice room that includes daily matchups with teammates Tyjuan Harris and Josh Hartwell, plus occasional tests from former ETHS heavyweight state champion Jeffrey Brown.
Jean-Jacques, now 21-6 on the season, had to beat out both Harris and Hartwell to earn the starting job at heavyweight but doesn’t regard his teammates as competitors.
“I think of it more as a brothership,” he said. “We like to push each other, and help each other get better, but not as competitors. At the start of the season I was actually the No. 3 guy and I had to work my way up to the top. I wasn’t taking it seriously and a lot depends on how much work you put into it. I got my head where it needs to be and I focused on becoming the starter.
“I started wrestling in 8th grade and worked with (former ETHS standout) Kam Kull and coach (Joe) Villanueva. But I never came out for wrestling my freshman year, and I really regret that. I felt like I wasted a year. I feel if I had put the work in as a freshman, I definitely would have qualified for State last year.”
On Saturday, Jean-Jacques scored falls versus Max Acceturra of Vernon Hills (3:28) and Hakham Yahya of Niles North (3:35), then fought Maine South’s Hickey to a scoreless tie before prevailing 2-1 in the second overtime period.
Jean-Jacques dropped a one-point decision to Hickey during the regular season, with a referee’s decision to award a stalling point against the ETHS 285-pounder making the difference in that bout.
“Apparently I wasn’t’ moving my feet enough and he called me for stalling,” Jean-Jacques said. “That just made me more motivated, and the Maine South guy told me after the match that I was the hardest guy he’d ever wrestled. That really inspired me.”
“He did a great job of just riding that guy out for the last 30 seconds in overtime,” Coach Salinas praised. “We had 3 different types of guys at that heavyweight spot and Valery is the most well-rounded, whether he’s on top, on the bottom or in neutral. He won that starting spot early on and he’s worked hard to keep it.
“He’s been working a lot with (assistant coach Carmelo) Flores and he’s still so green. But he has so much potential, the potential to be our next great heavyweight.”
Jean-Jacques’ journey to possible greatness in the future includes occasionally trying to get the best of Brown, who won the 2010 state title and volunteers to work with Evanston’s current squad about once a week.
He hasn’t topped Brown yet in the practice room.
“Coach Flores saw the best in me when I didn’t think I’ could be my best self, and I couldn’t be more grateful to him,” said Jean-Jacques. “He saw the potential in me. The same with Jeffrey Brown. He’s one of the people who saw my potential, and he works me very hard. He’s making me get better. I really appreciate him working with me, and it blesses my heart to see how he feeds back information to the younger generation here. He’s really been helpful.
“He’s helped me a lot with my standups (escaping from the down position) and showed me that once you master one move, and keep working hard at it, you’ll just get better and better. I really appreciate our coaching staff for the way they like to push people to their best potential.”
At 126, Umbanhowar pinned Adrian Knyazev in 4:29 in the third place match to collect his medal. Straus bounced back from a first-round loss at 152 with three straight victories, including an 11-4 decision over Patrick Downing of Glenbrook South to decide third place in his weight bracket.