Rafael Salinas rose to the top of the career victory list at Evanston Saturday at the Class 3A Conant Sectional wrestling tournament.

And his last win was definitely his biggest.

The ETHS senior clinched the first trip to the Illinois High School Association state finals in his record-setting career, one of three Wildkits who kept their seasons alive and will compete in the state tournament at the University of Illinois in Champaign starting next Thursday.

Salinas scored a 3rd place finish at 170 pounds and will join younger brother Ricardo Salinas, 3rd at 160, and unbeaten Ramin Abraham, the 220-pound champ, for a taste of Champaign. The top 3 finishers in each weight class automatically advance to State.

Rafael Salinas’ 8-4 triumph over Danny Lingen of Oak Park-River Forest in the 3rd place match pushed him to the top of the ETHS list with 158 wins, 1 more than 2016 graduate David Rivera-Kohr. He’ll take a 47-4 record into next week’s state tourney after bouncing back from a second round loss to Anthony Pennington of Glenbard North with 4 straight wins.

The elder Salinas seems to be saving his best for last. He dominated Lingen with 3 takedowns and a reversal after eliminating Mohammed Sami of Niles West — who is responsible for one of Salinas’ defeats this year — by a 3-0 margin in the consolation semifinals.

“I feel pretty good right now. It’s a crazy feeling!” Salinas exclaimed. “This (Downstate trip) is something I’ve been chasing for quite awhile, and making it Downstate is a feeling that’s a lot better than I expected.

“I definitely gained confidence as the day went along. Losing yesterday was hard because I thought that was a match I would win, but he (Pennington) stopped every move I had. After that I kept my mind straight and just took them down one at a time.

“I didn’t know I got that (career) mark today and it’s a big deal for me to be able to make my mark like that. I think I earned it.”

Salinas knows he may yet yield that ETHS record to his younger sibling. Ricardo Salinas, a sophomore, is on pace to break that mark — and he knows it.

“I may do a lot of trash talking tonight about that,” Ricardo Salinas kidded after edging Tommy Schroeder of St. Charles East 4-3 in the 3rd place bout at 160. “Rafael is a great wrestler and he really brought it today, and for him to get that wins record is just awesome. But I can’t wait to beat it myself and to get the chance to brag about that in a couple of years. I know I’m on pace to do it.

“For both of us to make it to State together is doubly good. It feels great  because I brought it today like I needed to.”

The younger Salinas, now 41-4, had to do it the hard way like 7 of the 8 ETHS entrants who fell into the consolation bracket at some point during the 2-day tournament. Salinas suffered a controversial 1-0 loss to South Elgin’s Elijah Lopez in the semifinals, after the referee refused to count a takedown he scored with 10 seconds left in the 3rd period.

The officials wiped out the move because they discovered blood first, although it’s unclear why that should have produced a stoppage while Salinas was in the process of making his move.

Veteran Evanston head coach Rudy Salinas — proud father and coach of the brothers — said he’d never seen that called before.

“I definitely have never heard that explanation from an official before,” Coach Salinas said. “That’s a strange reason not to get that takedown, and if you asked anybody watching in the crowd, at least 50 percent would tell you that Ricardo got robbed. But he controlled his own destiny before that. The referee made the call, and I couldn’t argue it.

“Personally, I think it was a bad call,” said Ricardo. “You’re supposed to let it play out even if there’s blood. But I can’t blame the loss on that call. I let him control my wrist in the first period and he rode me out in the second period. I couldn’t take him down.

“I was really upset about losing that one and it took me awhile to regroup. But I was able to come back and bring it the last 2 matches.”

Coach Salinas has often described the opportunity to coach his oldest two sons at the same time as “the dream of a lifetime” and said the chance to walk onto the mat with them at the state finals is “it’s gravy, I’m swimming in gravy” now.

“For Ricardo to make it to State as a sophomore is way above the curve. And to be able to see my oldest son get to State in his last year, I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” the coach said. “This was probably the best tournament of Rafael’s career. He was so fundamentally sound that the coach in me says, ‘yeah, I’m glad that kid showed up today!’

“Ricardo makes him better in practice, and Rafael makes Ricardo better in practice. They bring out the best in each other in that room. And for Rafael to get that (wins) record, wow, what a great career he’s had!”

Abraham is approaching greatness — and another Wildkit school record — himself. He became the first ETHS grappler since Jeffrey Brown back in 2010 to win a sectional title, and that parallels the path that Brown took on his way to the state championship.

At 48-0, Abraham is one win shy of matching the record 49 wins Brown racked up in his senior season. Abraham kept his record perfect with wins over Jesus Lopez of Glenbard East (17-2 technical fall) and Miguel Rodriguez of West Chicago (fall in 3:18) before clipping Lake Park’s Demarco Lee 5-3 in the finale.

Abraham punched a ticket for his third trip in a row to the state finals and the matchup against Lee, who placed 5th last year at the IHSA finals at 195 pounds, wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. He scored an escape and a takedown in the final period to hand Lee only his second loss of the season.

“We watched film and had a game plan, and it worked perfectly,” Abraham pointed out. “I knew what his favorite moves were and I was able to defend them. He’s in a different weight class this year and he’s moved up to MY weight class. I felt like I was in control the whole match, that he couldn’t score on me.

“I’m ready to do what Jeffrey Brown did (win State). He’s a great guy, he’s my role model and I get a chance to practice with him a lot. I want to be just like him.”

“Sectional championships are hard to come by, especially when the bullseye is on your back like it is for Ramin,” added Coach Salinas. “I’m happy with the way he wrestled, and now we’ll get back to work next week. Even though he dominated the match, he knows he can still have a better performance.”

Evanston’s other sectional qualifiers included Jacob Vice, 0-2 at 120; Dylan Kull, 3-2 at 132; Walker Witt, 2-2 at 182; Ulysses Alva, 0-2 at 195; and Collin Olla-Chatman, 3-2 at 285. Kull, one of the winningest grapplers in program history, bowed out with a 1-0 loss to Jake Matthews of Addison Trail in the consolation semifinals, and Olla-Chatman ran into the same individual he lost to in the regional finals, Taft’s Piotr Krupa, and was pinned in 5:59 in that consolation semi.

“I thought all 8 of our guys wrestled tough and this was probably our best sectional ever in terms of the quality performances,” said Coach Salinas. “This is a tough sectional and I’m really proud of our effort. We fought and we kept our heads up, win or lose, and I think we’re establishing a consistent culture (of effort and success) here. I really feel this was a step forward for the whole program.”

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

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