Three Evanston wrestlers captured individual championships Saturday at the Illinois High School Association Class 3A Maine East Regional tournament. And two of them did it the hard way.
182-pounder Jaalen Banner and 160-pounder Izzy Fox both scored come-from-behind victories en route to titles in their respective weight classes, and 126-pounder David Rivera-Kohr extended his unbeaten record to 39-0 on the season while leading the Wildkits to a second place finish in the team standings.
Evanston, the defending champ, totaled 157.5 points but couldn’t catch meet champion Notre Dame (197.5) despite putting together a better final round than the Dons. Overall, the Wildkits qualified 8 individuals for next week’s Conant Sectional individual tournament.
Joining Banner, Fox and Rivera-Kohr as sectional qualifiers were Chris Rivera, 2nd at 106; Kevin Washington, 2nd at 195; Dylan Kull, 3rd at 120; Kameron Kull, 3rd at 138; and Brandon Bias, 3rd at 220. Heavyweight Lamont Davenport placed a non-qualifying fourth in his weight class, losing his final match by a 3-1 margin in overtime to Dylan Ramirez of Niles North. The top three finishers in each bracket automatically advance to the sectional round.
Rivera-Kohr won his second straight regional title and advanced to the sectional for the fourth straight year after winning by a major decision (9-1) over Notre Dame’s Mike LoBianco in the finals at 126.
Evanston’s career wins leader knows he’ll face stiffer challenges in the next two weeks — and that’s OK with the senior standout.
“I did a good job today of staying in position and not doing anything stupid,” Rivera-Kohr shrugged. “These guys (in his weight class) all know me and I think they come in wrestling not to lose or give up points. These guys are just trying not to make mistakes, not wrestling to win, so I had to generate my own offense today. I’m better when I can work against the other guys’ offense. Next week is what I’ve really been looking forward to all year.”
Banner, now 42-6 in his first full season as a varsity starter, needed a semifinal comeback against Maine South’s Mike Milito after falling behind by a whopping 7-0 margin midway through the match. He fought his way back to within 7-3 by the end of the second period, then put Milito on his back with the fall coming at the 3 minute, 35 second mark.
Banner dominated the second half of the match to earn a revenge victory over Milito, who defeated him during the regular season.
“When I was a sophomore I was down 14-2 in a match and came back, but this is the biggest comeback I’ve had this year,” said the Wildkit senior. “When you get down like that some people say you might as well give up, and I saw coach (head coach Rudy Salinas) turn his head away like he thought I’d already lost. I know he was mad because the Maine South guy just kept hitting the same move. But I think he also knew that somehow I’d pull something out.
“I just knew I had to keep moving. When you’re down like that it’s anything goes, so you might as well try your best. It was real important to score some points by the end of the (second) period, or he might have won. It was so satisfying for me. Today was my day for redemption.”
“When he got down 7-0 we knew he was in a hole, and he fought out of it,” Salinas praised. “We didn’t think it was over, but he did something miraculous there. That’s why this sport is so great!”
In a physical title bout, Banner clipped Nick Prozanski of Notre Dame 4-2. Both wrestlers required injury time after being slammed to the mat, and Banner shoved the Dons’ wrestler right after the final buzzer, a move that brought boos from Notre Dame’s fans.
“I’m kinda disappointed in myself for the way I responded,” Banner said. “He grabbed my lower area and squeezed, so I pushed him off me. I know it’s always going to be a physical match for me because my natural weight is about 174, so I’m always going up against bigger guys.
“It’s exciting to win, but the regional championship is just one more thing to cross off my list (of goals). Next week won’t be a walk in the park for me, I know. But I want to be a sectional champion, and I want to be a state champion.”
Fox, a sophomore, advanced to the sectional for the second straight year after losing in the championship match at 160 a year ago. This time he recovered from a pair of early takedowns by Dino Gutierrez of Notre Dame to record a fall in 3:02, his third fall of the tourney as he improved to 39-4 on the year.
Fox had predicted his own title two weeks ago and said Saturday that the title match played out just like he envisioned while preparing this week.
“I knew I’d probably face him in the finals and he’s tough. He’s gone toe-to-toe with some of the best guys in the state, and he’s got some slick takedowns,” Fox said. “I know that my strength is in those scramble situations, and it happened just the way I envisioned it would. I had him locked up and it felt so great that I wasn’t even thinking about the move I made (for the clinching pin).
“I saw what would happen in my mind, that as soon as I got him into a scramble I had to capitalize on it — and I did. I felt like I gave away the title last year at the regional, and this is right up there with one of the greatest moments of my life!”
Evanston’s two other finalists, Rivera and Washington, both suffered one-point losses. Rivera could only muster a pair of escapes in a 3-2 loss to John Yousef of Maine East at 106, and Taft’s Dakotah Peterson (42-4) fought off Washington’s upset bid at 195 with a 2-1 triumph.
The Kull twins played “can you top this?” as part of a sibling rivalry, with matching pins that kept their seasons alive for another week. At 120, Dylan dominated Maine South’s James Nuzzo with a fall in 1:08 in their 3rd place matchup, and Kameron followed his example with a fall of his won at 138, nailing Lane Tech’s Sean Murphy in 4:47.
Evanston’s other qualifier was Bias, a junior. He bounced back from a semifinal loss to Notre Dame’s Tom Simon to advance with back-to-back wins over Akis Melissinas of Maine East (11-6) and Aidan Montoya of Niles West (7-0).
“It was an insurmountable task for us to repeat today, but we finished about where we were projected to finish, and we’re definitely happy with the number of qualifiers we had,” said Salinas. “We had two freshmen qualify for sectional and I can’t remember the last time that happened here. We started out a little flat today, and by the time we got momentum it was just too late.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.