Five Vandal wrestlers proved that experience isn't everything last weekend at the Vandalia Individual Sectional.
As a result, they will enjoy the experience of a lifetime this weekend at the Class 1A Individual State Tournament.
Two relative newcomers to the sport, second-year wrestlers Justin Hill and Jake Etcheson, booked trips to the Assembly Hall in Champaign with top-three finishes in their weight divisions, as did freshman Trever Pyle and seniors Devin Cook and Anthony Coney.
All will five be making their first state appearances at the high school level, giving the Vandals excellent representation in Champaign once again, despite losing seven state qualifiers to graduation from last year's team.
"It just proves that tradition never ends," said Cook, when asked to explain the program's sustained success. "And as long as you have people willing to work and push and give it their all, you'll have a good team."
Though he knew it wouldn't be easy, Vandals coach Jason Clay was optimistic his team could have another large contingent of representatives at Assembly Hall again this February, and the Vandals justified their coach's optimism.
"It really was a good weekend," Clay said. "The kids wrestled well. I thought we could have had anywhere from one to six (kids advance). We got five, and the way we wrestled, we could have easily got to six."
The senior trio of Etcheson, Coney and Cook secured state berths in their final chances to do so, accomplishments made all the more rewarding considering where each of them were two years ago.
• Coney didn't even go out for wrestling during his sophomore year at VCHS. He enjoyed some success his junior year after transferring to Springfield Southeast, compiling a 21-10 record. But he came up well short of state, finishing fourth at the Chatham Glenwood Regional.
Coney returned to Vandalia for his senior season, and the move back has paid huge dividends on the mats.
"There's a lot more people here (that wrestle), and the coach works us hard every day in practice and wants us to go 110 percent all the time," Coney said. "Our main thing is to be aggressive every time. They didn't have that (mentality) up there."
After a solid regular season, Coney gave himself a chance to qualify for state with a second-place finish in the recent Robinson Regional. He then capitalized on that opportunity, recording pins against Rochester's Joey Coffey (53 seconds) and West Frankfort's Tyler Chance (3:24) before clinching a state appearance with a 12-6 upset of Benton's Damon Wilson (28-6) in the 130-pound semifinals Saturday.
"I was pretty happy," said Coney of the win. "This is my first year making it to state. All my other years, I didn't come close."
Coney came up short of a sectional title, falling 9-0 to Shelbyville's Dalton Brown (32-2) in a regional-title rematch, but fortunately, his state ticket had already been punched.
"I knew he had a chance going in," Clay said. "He's got a few things technique-wise I don't like, but he makes up for it with his scrappiness and determination. He's a battler. I'm so glad he came back this year."
Coney (25-17) will open up state competition against Chris Powers (35-9) of Argenta-Oreana, who is ranked 11th in the state. The winner will take on second-ranked Steve Heino (34-2) of Wilmington.
* Etcheson, like Coney, did not go out for wrestling as a sophomore. In fact, he had never wrestled at any level until he decided to give the sport a try his junior year.
That inexperience didn't keep Etcheson from having success, as he piled up 27 wins. He was on pace to exceed that win total this year until a knee injury cost him several matches at the end of the year.
Etcheson has bounced back from the injury in a big way during the postseason, however, as he placed second in the Robinson Regional in the 160-pound division before tearing through the first three rounds of sectional competition with pins of Harrisburg's Forrest Zaranti (2:24), Herrin's Brandon Fortner (3:47) and Robinson's Mitch Thacker (3:19). The latter pin secured Etcheson a state berth.
"I'm pretty excited about it," said Etcheson. "This is only my second year. I'll see if I can't give them a run for their money at state."
Despite his state breakthrough, it was a bittersweet day for Etcheson, who came up just short of upsetting Hillsboro's Zac Hopwood in the sectional title match.
Hopwood rolled to an 11-2 win over Etcheson in the championship of the Robinson Regional and appeared to be cruising to another lopsided win in his fourth meeting with Etcheson this year, enjoying a 6-0 lead in the third period.
But Etcheson came up with a reversal late and nearly pinned his stunned opponent in the closing moments. Hopwood came up with a reversal of his own in the final seconds, however, allowing him to escape with an 8-5 win.
"It brings my confidence up," said Etcheson of coming within an eyelash of evening his record at 2-2 against Hopwood this year. "But, I don't know, I'm kind of disappointed in myself.
"I didn't really do much on offense," said Etcheson of his latest match against the third-ranked 160-pound wrestler in the state. "I probably should have attacked him a little more. I was being defensive most the time. That probably would've helped my chances a little bit."
"Jake's definitely close, but that kid's solid, so you've got to give him some credit," said Clay of Hopwood. "But I'm proud of Jake because he had a pretty tough road through the bracket.
"He wrestled tough when he had to and got through to the finals."
Etcheson (22-11) will face another state-ranked wrestler, No. 7 David Pawlowicz (34-4) of Lisle, in his state opener. The winner will get second-ranked Colten Unzicker (37-2) of Gibson City.
* Cook, unlike Coney and Etcheson, has been a part of the VCHS program all four years of his high school career. But his state breakthrough was even more unlikely, considering he didn't even break into the varsity lineup until the midway point of his junior year.
Cook started turning the corner midway through his senior season, and he's carried that momentum into the postseason, winning a regional title before advancing to the sectional semifinals in the 215-pound division with a pin of Murphysboro's Kevin Gottlieb (4:31).
A narrow 5-3 loss to Mt. Olive's Shawn Gasaway in the semis set up a pressure-packed regional-title rematch against Shelbyville's Jared Fisher, however.
But with a state berth on the line, Cook came through with a 6-0 third-place victory over Fisher.
"Amazing," said Cook, who credited his state breakthrough to hard work, discipline, extra running and listening to his coaches. "Last year, I made it to the second round of sectionals and got beat. This year, to make it to state, it's amazing."
"I thought he had a great tournament," Clay said. "He's a senior and the kind of kid you want to see have success. He's always had a good attitude and has always been a fighter and a battler."
Cook (30-13) will open state competition against sixth-ranked Miguel Flores (31-11) of Harvard. The winner will take on top-ranked Michael Sojka (39-0) of Winnebago.
* Hill's state bid was "a big surprise in my mind," Clay said.
In just his first year at the varsity level and his second year of wrestling, overall, the sophomore opened sectional competition in the 112-pound division with a 12-8 win over Roxana's Nathan Shewmake, but he lost in the quarterfinals to Benton's Jordan Parola before falling behind 6-2 to Levi Fortner in an elimination match.
Hill rescued his season by rallying to pin Fortner at the 5-minute mark, however.
He then secured an unlikely state appearance with a win by technical fall over Fairfield's Quinten Clevenger in the third-place match.
"That's kind of indicative of him as a kid," said Clay of Hill's comeback. "He just works and listens. I'm proud of him because it shows if you're willing to work hard and listen, you can get there."
Hill will open state competition against Leroy freshman Justin Meyers (25-9). The winner will move on to face third-ranked Thorian Twyner of Orion.
"I was just happy being a sectional qualifier," Hill said. "I just wrestled my hardest and I'm a state-qualifier, I guess."
* Despite being Vandalia's youngest state qualifier, Pyle is probably the team's most experienced wrestler - and the most likely Vandal to come home with a state medal.
The fourth-ranked 103-pounder in the state was involved in the Vandalia junior program for 11 years, qualifying for state a year ago.
He's gone on to "pile" up 37 wins during his freshman season, including a pin over Roxana's Ethan Harshbarger in Saturday's sectional quarterfinals and an 18-6 major decision over Anna-Jonesboro's Dan Heath in the semis to clinch a state berth.
But one of the few wrestlers who's had Pyle's number this year - top-ranked and undefeated Josh Bennett (40-0) of East Alton-Wood River - proved too tough in the title bout, rolling to an 11-2 win over Pyle.
Pyle is hoping for another meeting with Bennett at state.
"I think I'll have him in the finals if I make it," Pyle said. "I used to beat him, but he's been studying me. He's been working my legs for about two years, and I haven't beat him since.
"I think I can beat him. I just need to work on my feet and practice harder."
"There's some things (Pyle's) got to work on, getting a little closer, hand defense - where he can finish some of those shots that were too far away," the coach said. "Trever's quick - he's used his quickness on a lot of kids. But at the highest level, kids have good defense, too. Bennett's definitely got that.
"Bennett's pretty solid," Clay added. "You can tell he's put in a lot of work and time with some quality people.
Pyle will need three wins to meet Bennett in the 103-pound championship, starting with a victory over Lisle's Brad Blechschmidt (27-6) in his state opener.
* Though the sectional produced plenty of pleasant surprises for the Vandals, the weekend wasn't without some disappointments - none more unfortunate than junior Alex Foster's near miss in the 140-pound division.
Foster appeared on the brink of a huge upset and his second-straight state appearance after completing a comeback from an 11-6 deficit against undefeated and third-ranked Deven Tyrone of Murphysboro with an overtime-forcing takedown just before the third-period buzzer sounded.
But Tyrone scored a controversial takedown in overtime, escaping with a win.
"It was a great match to watch, and it was one of those things where I questioned the takedown at the end," Clay said. "But it's one of those things where the referee makes a decision."
Tyrone (33-0) went on to win the sectional title without even taking the mat, as Herrin's Jon Sargent defaulted the championship match due to illness.
Foster went on to miss state in excruciating fashion, falling 8-7 to Rochester's Chase Tackett in the third-place match.
"I thought he wrestled really well all day in a tough weight," Clay said. "Foster's definitely at a state-qualifying level."
Fortunately, Foster will get another shot at state next year, as will four other Vandals who competed in the individual sectional but came up short of state.
Freshman Levi Ulmer won a 15-6 decision over Rochester's Zane Schultz in his 152-pound opener, but was eliminated from the sectional after suffering back-to-back pins against Benton's Casey Spencer and Roxana's Tyler Gray.
Junior Caleb Walton pinned Carmi's Jimmy Smith in his 171-pound opener, but was eliminated by Mt. Olive's Ross Cooper via major decision.
John Vosholler went 0-2 in the 125-pound division, while Jacob Whalen was pinned in his only 285-pound bout, but Clay was happy with how each of his non state-qualifiers competed.
"Even our kids that didn't place wrestled tough," Clay said. "It bodes well for the dual-team (sectional) and the future."