The Vandalia wrestling team’s five state-tournament veterans have offered up a little advice to teammates Curtis Hemminghaus and Alex Foster as they get set to make their state-tournament debuts Friday.
‘They just said, ‘Don’t look up,” said Hemminghaus, refering to the potentially overwhelming scene that will greet him when he hit the mats at the 16,000-plus seat Assembly Hall.
‘And I’m not going to look up,’ Hemminghaus added.
Hemminghaus may not look up on Friday, but if he and Foster’s performances Saturday at the Robinson Sectional are any indication, neither of the Vandals’ state tournament rookies will give up easily despite their inexperience on the biggest stage in the state.
Hemminghaus, a senior, qualified for his first state tournament with a gritty 8-3 come-from-behind win over Robinson’s Travis Selby in the third-place match of the 160-pound division.
Foster, just a sophomore, enjoyed some sweet redemption after narrowly missing state last year, coming from behind in similar fashion for a 9-5 win over Benton’s Aaron Robinson in the third-place match of the 125-pound division.
‘It speaks well of those kids that they were taken down early, but were able to battle back in both cases,’ said VCHS coach Jason Clay.
And though both wrestlers will be making their state-tournament debuts this weekend, their stories are very different.
Hemminghaus’ achievement is all the more impressive, considering he wasn’t even on the team last year.
He paid his dues at the JV level his first two years, but did not go out during his junior year, thinking he wouldn’t be able to secure a varsity starting spot on a deep and talented squad.
But Clay convinced Hemminghaus to return to the team this summer, and it turned out to be wise decision for all parties involved.
‘I owe most of this to coach Clay, because I didn’t think I was going to come back,’ said Hemminghaus, who has gone 35-10 in his first year as a varsity starter. ‘I ended up working with him over the summer, and the summer practices helped a lot. It’s mainly in ‘the room’ (the VCHS practice facility) that I got better.’
‘I’m just glad he came back,’ Clay said. ‘He’s a kid that’s improved a lot as the season went along and has had a good work ethic. And he’s got to work hard or take butt kickings from (Matt) Shroyer and (Adam) Bowling.’
Hemminghaus quickly established himself as one of the Vandals’ top wrestlers upon his return, giving the Vandals an unexpected boost.
‘To me, coming in, he was kind of a little bit of an unknown,’ Clay said. ‘Going in, I didn’t expect a lot out of him, but by Christmas, I had a lot of confidence in him.’
Still, the road to Champaign was to be a rough one, as Hemminghaus entered the sectional as the No. 4 seed (the top three finishers advance).
Hemminghaus made quick work of Hillsboro’s Zach Wiltshire in his opener – recording a pin in 1 minute, 9 seconds – setting up a semifinal showdown with second-seeded Shea Baker of Murphysboro.
Hemminghaus wound up giving the eighth-ranked 160-pounder in the state all he wanted and more, but Baker scored a key reversal late in the second period and went on for an 8-4 win.
Hemminghaus bounced back in the consolation bracket, however, winning a major decision over Litchfield’s Billy Thorpe, setting up a showdown with the third-seeded Selby for a state berth.
Selby scored an early takedown in the first period, but the powerful Hemminghaus came back strong and dominated the rest of the way.
‘It was one of my main goals to get to state, because I had been off for a little while,’ Hemminghaus said. ‘It’s just pretty cool to make it to state my senior year after not wrestling.’
Hemminghaus wound up beating a pair of state-ranked wrestlers at the sectional, which gives him confidence heading into state.
‘I wanna place,’ Hemminghaus said. ‘I think it’s very possible. I’ve got a fairly good draw. My goal was to go to state, but coach has said that you can’t just sit on that. That’s one of my main goals – I wanna place now.’
Hemminghaus, now ranked 11th on illinoismatmen.com, will open up against 10th-ranked Jesse Kugler of Macomb (20-7) when the opening round begins at 11 a.m. Friday.
The winner will get undefeated and top-ranked Tony Bahrs (31-0) of Sterling Newman in the quarterfinals.
Foster had an even tougher road to state than Hemminghaus, as he entered the sectional as the No. 5 seed behind three state-ranked competitors.
But he willed his way into state contention by pinning Harrisburg’s Brennan Harris 3:48 into his opening match before clinching a semifinal berth with an 5-0 win over Carlinville’s Casey Morrin.
Like Hemminghaus, Foster battled valiantly against a higher-seeded opponent in the semifinals, but top-seeded and undefeated Jake Holiday managed to come away with an 8-4 win.
Foster kept his state tournament hopes alive, however, by beating Lawrenceville’s Dustin Hoke in the consolation round, setting up a third-place showdown with second-seeded Aaron Robinson of Benton.
Robinson looked to be in good shape early, as he jumped out to a quick lead, but Foster battled back in the second period before taking the lead for good early in the third.
‘Alex wrestled really well,’ Clay said. ‘I thought he was pretty big underdog going into the weekend.’
It was sweet redemption on a couple of fronts for Foster (28-11), who is now ranked 12th in the state in his weight class.
‘Alex is capable, but he maybe hasn’t had the kind of season he was looking for,’ Clay said. ‘But he’s turned it up the last few weeks at the right time.’
Foster narrowly missed a state berth as a freshman after,losing a heartbreaking 4-2 overtime decision to Shelbyville’s Caleb Duckett in the semifinals before dropping his third-place match.
But he didn’t let that disappointing outcome – or his unsavory seed at the sectional this year – deter him from achieving a dream he’s had since he took up wrestling at age 6.
‘It’s really exciting, considering I’m only a sophomore and how close I was last year,’ Foster said.
‘I knew there were going to be some tough kids going in,’ he added. ‘But I knew that if I wrestled as hard as I could, nobody would blow me away, because I’d wrestled everyone in my bracket close the first time I wrestled them.’
Foster will have a tough opening match Friday, as he will draw third-ranked Tony Whaley (32-2) of Byron in the opening round. The winner will face fifth-ranked Jake Buldtman of PORTA.
Foster pulled off an upset of Buldtman earlier in the year at the Clinton Quad.
By clinching a state berth, Foster guaranteed the Vandals will have a returning state qualifier on the team next season. All six of VCHS’s other state participants are seniors.