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Wildkits claim 4th place at national mat tourney

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Sunday turned out to be a special Father’s Day for Evanston head wrestling coach Rudy Salinas.

He had the rare opportunity to spend the entire weekend watching his two sons, junior-to-be Rafael and incoming freshman Ricardo, help Evanston earn a fourth place finish at the prestigious Jazz Town Duals national tournament held in New Orleans, La.

Evanston’s first trip to the tournament resulted in six straight dual meet victories before the Wildkits finally dropped their last two duals to nationally prominent teams from Texas and Georgia. The Kits also claimed the Spirit and Sportsmanship Award voted on by meet referees and tournament officials while making a statement about wrestling in Illinois.

Salinas has spent the past 10 years at ETHS taking teams to competitions at the University of Illinois and Pennsylvania, but pushed the Wildkits outside of their “comfort zone” this year.

It all started when his brother Jose, who lives in Texas and has a son (Juan) who has competed at the tourney in the past, suggested that some day the Wildkits should try to land a spot in the New Orleans event. Salinas communicated with tourney officials and eventually signed on to bring a group that included 14 ETHS grapplers, plus four from Chicago Taft and one from North Chicago to help fill in gaps in the lineup.

Evanston, Granite City and Oswego were the first teams to represent Illinois at the two-day, 30-team tourney and showed the rest of the country that there’s a reason coaches from the state consider it to be one of the best in the United States.

“It was a really exciting trip,” Salinas said. “We were fortunate to do well, and we had a lot of fun down there. We actually seem to have lost the videos we took — we’re still trying to track them down — but I’ll remember everything about this trip.

“It was nice that we were able to something that’s out of the norm and still be successful. It’s a tournament that doesn’t allow graduated seniors to wrestle, and it’s all about the future. I think the kids all felt great about the experience.”

Evanston strung together six straight wins (67-6 over Dark Star, Texas; 39-34 over Riverdale of Fort Myers, Fla.;  69-3 over the Eagles of Sarasota, Fla.; 51-26 over Bayou Elite of New Orleans; 58-28 over New Orleans; and 49-29 over Warehouse Wrestling of Pensacola, Fla.) before bowing to five-time defending tournament champ Best Trained of Allen, Texas 60-21 in the semifinals. They concluded tourney action Sunday with a 60-12 loss to Camden, Ga.

“We were up against a lot of club teams that were really loaded,” Salinas pointed out. “All three of the teams that finished ahead of us were nationally-ranked. People couldn’t believe it when I told them we only had one state qualifier (220-pounder Ramin Abraham) in our lineup. Every other kid in the lineup on those other teams seemed to at least be a state placer or a state champion.

“We didn’t know  those other teams, but it worked to our advantage that they didn’t know us, either. We were really tough on top, and that’s a  Midwestern style that they weren’t used to. Being tough on top is the norm for wrestlers here. They had some phenomenal athletes who were good on their feet, but once we got on top, we were able to break a lot of people. We took them by storm.”

Abraham took a week off from preparing to fight for the starting job as the school’s soccer goalie in the fall, winning all seven of his matches, including a pin against the Louisiana state champion last Saturday.

“Ramin was down 1-0 against that kid, but he didn’t know the guy was a state champion and he showed a lot of resolve to stay in the match,” Salinas said. “I expected it to be a 1-1 tie at best, but he found a way to win and he put the kid on his back.”

Izzy Fox chalked up a 7-1 record at 182 pounds and Dylan Kull won 6 of 8 matches at 132 to provide some of the highlights for the Wildkits. The Salinas brothers, Ricardo at 145 and Rafael at 152, both posted 5-3 marks.

Also competing from ETHS were Jacob Vice at 106, Jack McCleish at 113, Manny Munoz at 138, Kameron Kull at 160, Max Morton at 170, Van Rutter at 195 and Miguel Mora at heavyweight. Kameron Kull marked his return to the mat after missing the entire 2016-17 campaign with a torn ACL.

“Watching my sons compete made it a special Father’s Day for me. It was really great, and if we go back I hope we can have more Moms and Dads make the trip. My younger son has a similar style to Rafael and he’s very goal-oriented to try to one-up his brother and be better than he is. He finished fourth in the IKWF (Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation) state tournament earlier in the spring.”

The tournament could have been even more of a family affair for the Salinas clan, but nephew Juan underwent surgery on his wrist during the high school season and just came off the disabled list, so he couldn’t join the ETHS lineup. He’ll be a graduated senior next summer and won’t be eligible to compete then, either.

“But he’s already asked me if maybe he could be an assistant coach for us, if we go back,” said Rudy Salinas.  “We’ll see how our fund-raising goes and we’ll see if we can work out the logistics to go back.”

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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