CHAMPAIGN – Prior to Saturday, no Vandalia wrestling team – not last year’s state runner-up, not the squad that placed third at state in 2002, not even the Vandals 1996 state championship team – managed to advance multiple wrestlers to the finals of the Class A Individual State Wrestling Tournament.
So it’s no wonder that coach Jason Clay characterized his team’s semifinal round at this year’s individual state tournament as ‘unbelievable’ after a program-record four Vandals clinched spots in their respective championship matches during a storybook afternoon at Assembly Hall in Champaign.
Seniors Adam Bowling, Matt Shroyer, Cody Pyle and Josh Eller all booked tickets to the finals, giving the Vandals a remarkable four representatives in the extravagent Grand March ceremony that precedes the championship round.
And, along with classmate Nate Stone – who secured a spot in the 285-pound third-place match with a pair of wrestleback victories – a ‘Fab Five’ contingent of seniors guaranteed the Vandals would come home with five state medals, also a program record.
The previous record of three was set last year.
‘I’m extremely proud of them,’ said Clay of the unprecedented feats. ‘I know how much time and how much work they put into everything. It’s just nice to see it pay off for the kids that put in the time and effort.
‘Some days it’s flat out brutal in practice. We get after it, and the kids are willing to go through it and work, because they know this is what the result can be.’
But with unprecedented success comes the understandable desire for more unprecedented success.
And that’s why the Vandals exited Assembly Hall late Saturday night as disappointed as they were elated coming into the tournament’s final session.
The ultimate prize proved frustratingly elusive, as all four of VCHS’s state finalists came up short of state titles. Amplifying the Vandals frustration was the fact that three of their championship matches came down to the final seconds.
Bowling fell 7-5 in the 145-pound finals after narrowly missing a pair of takedowns that would have forced overtime against Wilmington’s Jake Murphy.
Eller also came close to forcing overtime against Byron’s Allen Fish in the 112-pound finals, but Fish escaped with a 1-0 victory.
Shroyer forced overtime with a buzzer-beating takedown against Mike Alberstett, but the Durand senior prevailed in the extra frame.
All told, Pyle’s title match, an 8-2 loss to Coal City’s Noah Roseland was the only Vandalia title match that didn’t come down to the wire.
‘It’s extremely disappointing,’ said Clay of the Vandals’ championship round. ‘But it’s not from a lack of effort. The kids fought hard. You can’t be disappointed with the kids, just disappointed with the outcome.’
To their credit, each of Vandalia’s championship-match representatives handled a disappointing finale to an otherwise historic weekend with grace, realizing – in the big picture – that they had accomplished something that no Vandals team before them had done.
‘It was awesome,’ said Eller of the Vandals coming home with five medals. ‘That’s the most we’ve ever had for The March, so it made me feel we have a really strong team. We’ve really worked hard together, and we’ve battled through the whole time.’
‘Getting four to the finals, we were all excited and talking about it,’ Shroyer said. And it was one of our goals, to be one of the best senior classes at Vandalia, because we have a storied program.’
Bowling hopes the momentum will carry over to this weekend, when the Vandals will have the task of upsetting top-ranked Wilmington in the opening round of the Class A Dual Team State Tournament.
‘It was the best our team has wrestled all year long,’ Bowling said. ‘Hopefully it’ll carry over to team state, and we can wrestle the same way.’
As proud as Clay was about his team’s historic semifinal round, he was equally proud of how the Vandals handled the disappointment of the finals.
‘They’re crushed – you know they are,’ Clay said. ‘But to handle those emotions like that and be mature, that makes me proud of them.
‘That’s another thing – you’ve got to learn to be a man, win or lose. Sometimes that’s life – you give it your all and come up short. That’s not the last time they’ll be disappointed by something. That makes me proud of them, the way they handled it.’