It didn’t take Ricardo Salinas long to learn that the toughest obstacle to adjusting to high school wrestling is mental, not physical. And the Evanston first-year wrestler has definitely learned that lesson well.

Off to a sizzling start to his high school mat career, Salinas scored a runnerup finish at 152 pounds Saturday and helped Evanston earn a 5th place team finish at the 53rd annual Rus Erb Invitational tournament hosted by Glenbrook South.

Salinas suffered just his second defeat of the season in the championship match, pinned by Lake Park’s Vince Liebich in the second period following a rare mistake by the ETHS first-year grappler. But at 25-2 on the season, the youngest son of ETHS head coach Rudy Salinas has provided a bright spot for a squad that will be even tougher once injured stars Izzy Fox and Ramin Abraham rejoin the lineup this week.

Evanston placed 5th Saturday despite not entering any individuals at 106, 113 or 120 pounds. The Kits totaled 124.5 points and trailed only Wheeling (171), Normal West (140.5), Oswego (140.5) and Marian Catholic (125) in the team standings. Evanston counted third place finishes from Rafael Salinas (160), Adrian Bytyqi (170), Van Rutter (195) and heavyweight Collin Olla-Chatman, plus fifths from Wyatt Witt (182) and Jack McCleish (126).

Like Fox, who came into high school having to compete at a middle weight (160 pounds) and still thrived, Ricardo Salinas finds himself matched against older and more experienced wrestlers every time he steps on the mat. The typical high school freshman usually competes at the lower weights if he cracks the varsity lineup and is more often than not competing against grapplers his own age.

But it’s not the lack of experience, the more grueling practice schedule or the longer bouts (six minutes compared to four and one-half in middle school competition) that  have provided the biggest challenge for Salinas.

“I do run into a lot of guys who have more experience than I do. But for me the biggest thing is keeping my composure and staying cool-headed out there,” Salinas said. “It’s been an adjustment competing against older guys, but I have my brother to give me a lot of good tips and it really hasn’t been as hard as I thought it would be.

“The hardest part is not letting the nerves or pressure get to you. It’s all about your mentality out there. If you just do what you do, you always have a chance to win.

“Today in that final match I just lost it mentally, so that’s still something that could be better for me. He (once-beaten Liebich) is a senior with a lot of experience who just kept stalling and waiting for me to get impatient and make a mistake. I took a bad shot — and he made me pay for it.”

You can probably count on one hand the mistakes that Salinas has made so far on the mat. His second place finish Saturday marked the best-ever finish for a Wildkit freshman at that tournament.

“He just stays fundamentally sound and gives his best effort every time,” said his proud father and coach, Rudy Salinas. “He has a great work ethic and he gets good position to set the tone to his matches. We’re not over-thinking things with what we ask him to do. Like all of our freshmen, we’re taking it one week at a time with Ricardo.

“No other 8th grader has placed higher than he did last year (fourth at the Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation state tournament at 147 pounds) for us, so no, I’m not surprised how well he’s done. But I’m so pleased with the transition he’s made so far. We knew coming into the season that he had potential, but I wasn’t counting on him having so much success.

“When you’re a freshman (competing) in the middle weights, you’ll always find a man (as an opponent) in your weight class. You always have to do your best because you’re running across seasoned veterans.  I see Ricardo putting together more and more combinations now on the mat, including a great combination in the semifinals today (4-1 decision over Tommy Hoy of Mundelein Carmel). In that match he got his one point (second period escape) and he didn’t break down after that. He was able to have a vision and execute what he needed to do. I definitely think he took a step forward there.”

Evanston’s third place finishers all bounced back from semifinal losses to earn bronze medals. Rafael Salinas won 4 of 5 matches, all via pins, and nailed Gavin Kalka of Lakes in the second period at the 3:16 mark to claim third.

At 170, Bytyqi improved to 23-3 on the year, including a 7-1 triumph over Wauconda’s Mickey Landvich in the third place showdown. Rutter bounced back from a loss via fall at 170 in the semis versus Ethan Towers of Batavia and was able to string together pins against Buffalo Grove’s David Rizzo and Normal West’s Ahmad Qahwaji, improving to 23-2 on the season.

At 285, Olla-Chatman advanced by injury default in the consolation semifinals, then topped Buffalo Grove’s Tommy Konwent 7-3 in his last bout. The junior heavyweight moved to 17-2 overall.

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.

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

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