Rafael Salinas wasn’t about to call it his biggest win ever, because the Evanston junior wrestler has designs on bigger and better things — like Illinois High School Association state tournament medals — before he graduates from his Dad’s program.

But it certainly ranked with the most satisfying triumphs of his career after he turned the tables on Max Garland of Chicago Taft Saturday at the Class 3A Niles West Regional tournament.

Trailing 8-4 early in the third period of the championship match at 160 pounds, Salinas pinned the No. 1 seed in 4 minutes, 45 seconds and joined younger brother Ricardo Salinas (152 pounds), Adrian Bytyqi (170) and Ramin Abraham (220) as regional champs for ETHS.

The Wildkits settled for second place in the team standings with 215.5 points to 242 for Maine South in the 8-team field, but will send a total of 11 grapplers to next weekend’s individual sectional tourney at Elgin Larkin.

Second place finishers Jack McCleish (126), Anjual Joyner (138) and Izzy Fox (182) also kept their seasons alive, as did third place qualifiers Dylan Kull (132), Van Rutter (195), Jacob Vice (113) and Kevin Washington (285).

Back at the season-opening dual meet tournament hosted by Vernon Hills, Salinas was cruising with a 13-2 lead over Garland when the Taft wrestler took advantage of a mistake by the ETHS junior and turned it into a fall.

That’s a loss that haunted Salinas until Saturday when he improved to 39-6 on the season. He scored a takedown in the final moments of the second period, then rode that momentum and pinned Garland with a satisfying thump.

“I don’t think it was my biggest win, but it’s definitely one of the big ones,” Salinas said. “It feels really good. I put in a lot of work this week and it showed today. Wrestling is a sport that really pushes you to get better, and allows you to see who you really are. This year I have a lot more positive outlook and I’m really having fun. I’m just trying to make the best out of things.

“I wasn’t feeling it today in my first match — I needed to wake up — and I wasn’t doing my moves in the second match, either. Coming back like that and doing the same thing he did to me feels incredible. I was scared when he had me caught in that cradle (in the second period) and I thought the ref would call it (a pin). But he didn’t, and I got another chance and I pushed through.”

Salinas earned his second straight regional crown and ETHS head coach Rudy Salinas couldn’t decide if he was happier as a parent, or as a coach, about the comeback win.

“They’ve been awaiting this rematch all year and they’ve been in each other’s heads all that time,” the Evanston coach noted. “Rafi made one big mistake again today, but he got out of it and he’s got such great offense that as long as there’s time left on the clock, he’s dangerous. That was a great flurry he put together and he turned it into a pinning combination. At that point it was tough keeping Dad in check — and the coach in my chair.

“Rafi’s slick and he’s quick, and I’m so proud of the season he’s having this year. “

Freshman Ricardo Salinas continued an unfortunate family tradition for bloody noses during bouts  — one teammate estimated that the 152-pounder has used up at least 20 minutes of “blood time” on his way to a 39-6 overall record — but couldn’t be denied his own regional title. His championship match with Sean Cavanaugh of Maine South was stopped 5 times in the 6 minute match, but all that did was slow the freshman down on his way to a 10-1 triumph.

Salinas now has Central Suburban League tournament and regional tournament crowns on his resume, not bad for a first-year grappler, and broke Fox’s freshman record for wins with at least two more matches on tap at the sectional.

“That bloody nose is a problem,” admitted the freshman standout. “Maybe I need to get it cauterized or something. Rafael wrestles the same way, we both put our faces into whatever moves we’re making, so we get cross-faced or hit with elbows a lot.

“It’s not fun to have to have things stuffed in your nose — it’s kinda gross — but you do get time to rest and collect your breath when that happens. It feels really, really good to win a regional championship. I’m happy, but I still have a lot more work to do.”

At 220, Abraham kept his perfect season record intact and improved to 18-0 after pinning Maine South’s Sean Kelly in 2:22. Abraham lived up to his No. 1 seed after also nailing Noe Arroyo of Taft in 2:24 in his opening test.

Bytyqi advanced to the sectional level for the second time, but as a champion for the first time after pinning three straight opponents. Now 42-5, the senior standout isn’t necessarily known for his quick falls but dispatched his first two victims in 31 seconds and 35 seconds, respectively, before scoring a fall in 3:18 in the finale versus Mohammed Sami of Niles West.

“Winning the regional wasn’t really a worry for me personally, because I beat the No. 2 seed (Sami) at the conference tournament,” Bytyqi explained. “I really wanted to win it as a team, and I knew we needed those pins (for bonus points). We came up short as a team, but we all fought hard to qualify and we can walk out of here with our heads held high.”

In other championship showdowns, unbeaten Julio Cabrales of Maine East pinned McCleish in 2:24; top-seeded Eugene Lee of Maine South scored a major decision (14-3) over Joyner; and once-beaten John Halvorsen of Maine South pinned Fox in 3:18.

Among Evanston’s third place finishers, Kull was lodged in the toughest bracket of the tournament at 132. He was pinned by Taft’s Brendan Gallo in the second period in the semifinals, then bounced back with pins of his own against Raymond Noffz of Maine East (1:03) and Trevor Marks of Maine South (2:43). He’ll advance with a 36-5 won-loss record.

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.

Dennis Mahoney

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

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