Ramin Abraham earned a second straight trip to the Illinois High School Association state wrestling tournament and senior Van Rutter qualified for the first time in his career.
But the real story for Evanston’s wrestlers Saturday at the Class 3A Elgin Larkin Sectional tournament was about a guy who wasn’t even sure he wanted to compete as recently as a month ago.
What a difference a couple of weeks have made for senior heavyweight Kevin Washington, who earned a runnerup finish at 285 pounds — and improved his season record to a not-so-eye-catching 8-2.
Washington capitalized on a chance to fill a void at heavyweight after battling grade problems for much of his high school career. A starter at 185 pounds and a sectional qualifier for the Wildkits as a sophomore, he missed his entire junior season because he wasn’t eligible academically, and didn’t turn things around in time to play football this fall, either.
He spent most of the first semester this year working part-time, then decided to give wrestling another shot. And when starting heavyweight Colin Olla-Chatman decided to leave the mat before the season was over and join the ETHS indoor track team, the opening was there for Washington.
Now Washington is making the most of his last chance.
“That last match (he was pinned by Justin Hall of St. Charles East in 1 minute, 52 seconds) was kinda rough,” said Washington. “But I’m so glad now that I decided to keep wrestling. I just had to man up and do something, accomplish some kind of goal as a senior this year.
“I was ineligible most of the season, then went 3-0 at the JV conference meet and 2-1 at the regional. I still feel like I really haven’t had a season. I’m just going to the state tournament. My junior year was a rough year and I’m glad I learned those lessons at an early age and didn’t wait until I was in my 20s or something. I know now it’s time for me to move forward.
“The best thing I did today was getting here, and not quitting. I just had to keep fighting.”
Washington will join Abraham, the 3rd place finisher at 220, and Rutter, the 4th place finisher at 195, next weekend at the IHSA individual state finals at the University of Illinois in Champaign. The top four finishers automatically advanced.
Washington, the lightest heavyweight in the field Saturday at 227 pounds, scored consecutive victories over James Moncholas of Glenbard East (5-2), Josh Malhaisen of York (16-1 technical fall) and Niko Stamos of Maine South (9-7) to reach the title bout.
“Over the years I’ve had my ups and downs with Kevin, but I love him like he’s one of my own kids. I feel that way about all of these guys,” said Wildkit head coach Rudy Salinas. “A month ago he was not sure he wanted to do this, because he said he wasn’t feeling it (a passion to compete again). Then he decided he WAS feeling it.
“We had an understanding back in November that, for him to come back, he had a lot to do to make it work. And he got it done. He’s had a lot of hardship in his life. But he fulfilled what he had to do for us and got this opportunity, and for him to come back like that and become a state qualifier is really a great story. I’m extremely proud of him.
“He’s such an agile big guy. He’s powerful and explosive and I think he could have been the starting middle linebacker for the football team this year. With all the physical gifts he has, it’s really no surprise to me that he did so well today. I’m just so glad the light is shining on him in such a positive way. No matter what happens, this is something that nobody can take away from him.”
Both Abraham and Rutter were able to bounce back from defeats in their opening matches to keep their respective seasons alive. For Abraham, a 3-1 loss to Glenbard West’s Connor Skryd marked his first defeat of the year, but the junior standout roared back with four straight wins and racked up 51 points in those four mismatches.
He eliminated Mark Ibrahim of Maine East (16-1 technical fall), Jesus Lopez of Glenbard East (11-2), and familiar foe Sean Kelly of Maine South (9-5) before routing Jesus Facio of Elgin Larkin 15-0 (another tech fall) in the 3rd place matchup
Abraham will take a 22-1 record to Champaign next weekend and hopes to make his second State trip more memorable than the first.
“Obviously I’m excited to make it to State again, but I didn’t finish the way I wanted to,” Abraham pointed out. “It wasn’t that hard for me to come back from that loss, though. I just kept my head in the matches.
“The Glenbard West guy wasn’t really that tough for me to solve, because I took him down twice, but it was outside the mat (out-of-bounds). I need to learn to finish inbounds, I guess. I think I was better than him and I think I should have won that match. He didn’t get any shots on me. After that, I just got mad and started scoring more.
“That state experience from last year will help, and I’m excited because I know what State is all about now. My goal is to win as many as I can — and place down there.”
Rutter pushed his won-loss record to 44-9 and has climbed into the top 10 for career wins by an ETHS grappler in methodical fashion. And he earned his State trip in an unusual manner, after not having to step on the mat for a 3rd place match against Maine West’s Jacob Bellizzi.
Bellizzi was awarded 3rd place and Rutter placed 4th because of criteria that had to be applied according to IHSA rules. No individual is allowed to compete in 6 matches in one day, which would have been necessary for Rutter because winter snowstorms on Friday forced the sectional officials to switch from a two-day format to a single day of completion on Saturday.
Since Rutter lost his match in the first round, and Bellizzi didn’t lose until the semifinals, that criteria was enough to favor the Maine West entrant.
Rutter suffered a second period pin against Schaumburg’s Joe Cunha, then punished Ben Pham of Glenbard East (16-0 technical fall), pinned Vince Clinite of South Elgin in the first period and tripped Antowon Tolbert of Wheaton North 3-1 to advance.
“I think I got lucky with the seeding, and losing my first match actually worked to my advantage today,” explained Rutter. “It wasn’t hard for me because those guys really matched up well for my style. This was my main goal this season, just to qualify. When I lost that first one it was just because my head was not into it. I gave it up too easily and I didn’t fight to get off of my back.”
“I’m very proud of Van,” said Salinas. “That was really an emotional gut check for him after he lost that first one, and after that he just took it one match at a time. He followed our team motto — Fight the Good Fight — and he was able to execute and advance.”
Also representing the Wildkits at the sectional were sophomore Jacob Vice, 0-2 at 113; senior Jack McCleish, 1-2 at 126; junior Dylan Kull, 0-2 at 132; sophomore Anjual Joyner, 0-2 at 138; freshman Ricardo Salinas, 1-2 at 152; junior Rafael Salinas, 1-2 at 160; senior Adrian Bytyqi, 2-2 at 170; and senior Izzy Fox, 3-2 at 182.
Bytyqi and Fox are considered state alternates if injuries prevent others from competing at Champaign in their respective weight classes, as both grapplers were eliminated in the consolation semifinals.
“The entire team battled today, but some of their draws were tougher than others,” Salinas said. “I’m glad we have 3 state qualifiers and I’m proud of all of them.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.