Adam Bowling’s teammates certainly felt he had scored himself a takedown.
So did the throng of red- and white-clad supporters sitting behind the Vandalia wrestling team’s bench Saturday at Moline’s Wharton Fieldhouse.
To such a degree, that both parties – almost in unison – extended two fingers to the air in anticipation of a pair of points that would have kicked off Vandalia’s 11th Elite Eight appearance with a momentum-seizing victory.
Problem is, neither of the referees officiating the match did the same. And their opinions were the only ones that mattered.
So instead of being awarded a takedown that would have not only given his team an early boost in their state championship rematch against Wilmington in the quarterfinals of the Class A Dual Team State Tournament – but given him revenge against Jake Murphy in a rematch of the previous weekend’s 145-pound state-title bout – Bowling would go on to suffer a heartbreaking 2-1 double-overtime loss after a Murphy scored an escape in the final extra frame.
The victory gave the Wildcats an early 3-0 lead, and they would never trail again, using the momentum from that controversial opening-match victory to cruise to a 31-28 win over the Vandals.
‘I kinda thought Adam had that takedown in overtime, but they didn’t give it to him,’ Vandals coach Jason Clay said. ‘That’s just the way it goes. You’ve got to live with what the official decides.
‘It would have definitely given us the momentum. But, you know, it didn’t happen.’
The Vandals (22-3) entered the match hungry to show Wilmington they were a much better team than the one that lost to the defending state champs 47-26 in a late-December showdown at the St. Thomas More Challenge.
VCHS did just that. Unfortunately, Wilmington’s improvement was evident as well, as a team featuring 10 state qualifiers and three state champs showed off its many strengths.
‘I told the kids that I thought we caught up to them a little bit,’ Clay said. ‘But I also think they kept improving.
‘I told the kids that, right now, they’re a little better than us. I think the better team won, but I thought we competed hard.’
The Wildcats maintained a narrow lead in the first half of the dual by avoiding pins in their weakest weight divisions (160-285), enabling them to cruise to victory with their army of state qualifiers in the lower weight divisions.
The final score was skewed in the Vandals’ favor by a pair of Wilmington forfeits following a match-clinching victory in the 130-pound bout.
Still, Vandalia can take pride in the fact that it came the closest to knocking off the Wildcats Saturday.
Wilmington (26-2) went on to a 38-29 semifinal victory over Lisle before taking its second state title in a row with a 36-23 win over Stillman Valley in the championship match.
At the same time, the loss was undeniably hard to swallow for a myriad of reasons.
Wilmington won its first state title a year ago by taking a tiebreaker over Vandalia after the two teams wrestled to a 29-29 draw in the championship match.
And Saturday’s loss was the Vandals’ fourth in as many tries against a team that is quickly filling the adversarial role filled by Lombard Montini a couple of years ago.
As a result, the Wildcats denied a Vandals team that has exceded each of its previous goals during a historic season an opportunity to achieve its ultimate goal.
‘It is tough for it to end,’ said Clay, whose team claimed a program-record five medals at individual state the weekend before. ‘But we have nothing to be embarrased about. I thought we came up here and competed hard. I don’t think the kids conceded anything.’
Moments after the stunning outcome of the marquee opener between Bowling and Murphy, the Vandals found themselves in an 8-0 hole after Jake Etcheson suffered a major decision setback in the 152-pound division.
Vandalia would counter with victories in four of the next six matches, however, as Curtis Hemminghaus (160), Matt Shroyer (189), Devin Cook (215) and Nate Stone (285) came away with wins in their respective bouts.
Hemminghaus picked up Vandalia’s first victory, rolling to an 8-3 decision over Tom Courtney. The senior took the lead for good, 4-2, with a reversal at the end of the first quarter.
Shroyer immediately scored a takedown in his match against Steve Cotham and cruised to a 12-3 major decision victory.
Cook then picked up a 2-0 win over Dino Saracco, scoring the only points of the match on a reversal midway through the third period.
Stone pulled the Vandals to within one point of the lead by taking a contentious 2-0 decision over Alfonso Dingilo, as Wilmington carried a slim 14-13 lead into the second half of the dual.
But you would have never guessed the foursome had emerged victorious based on their post-match reactions.
With Wilmington set to throw seven straight state qualifiers VCHS’s way in the lower weight divisions, the Vandals’ big guys were hoping to come through with far more decisive victories, taking the pressure off their teammates down the stretch.
‘We didn’t get bonus points in the matches we were better,’ Clay said. ‘Their kids did a good job of holding the score down in the matches we were better, just like our kids did against their better guys.’
Case in point: sophomore Anthony Wernle’s 103-pound bout. Wernle (19-15) had his work cut out for him against state-qualifier Alex Jones (34-10), but trailed by just two points, 4-2, entering the third. Jones would go on to an easy 8-3 win, but Vandalia managed to stay within striking distance, trailing 17-13.
Senior Josh Eller then came up with a big 2-0 victory over fellow state qualifier Garth Cartwright in the 112-pound match, as his takedown with 25 seconds remaining in overtime proved to be the difference, pulling Vandalia to within one point again, 17-16.
But Zach Ledbetter suffered a quick exit via pin in the 119-pound match, and Alex Foster came up short despite a valiant effort against 125-pound bout, putting Wilmington on the brink of victory.
Taking on 125-pound state champion John VanDuyne, Foster showed the competitive spirit that helped him qualify for state as a sophomore.
He trailed by just two points, 4-2, heading into the final minute, and nearly sent the match into overtime on two occasions in the final 20 seconds, using neck wrenches to put VanDuyne in a pair of unenviable positions.
But, like Bowling, Foster failed to get the calls.
‘In that neck-wrench situation, you really have to establish control,’ Clay said. ‘A lot of those are on the edge as far as whether or not they’re two (points). He was close a couple times, but I don’t really feel he ever had two.’
State runner-up Steve Heino followed by clinching the match for Wilmington with a 20-4 major decision victory over Jake Harris, giving the Wildcats an insurmountable 31-16 lead.
With the win intact, Wilmington coach Rob Murphy decided to forfeit the final two matches.
Though it was a wise decision in the grand scheme, Murphy’s tactics denied Vandalia seniors Cody Pyle and Kevin Paulding of a chance to wrestle in their final high school meet, assuring the day would end just as bitterly as it started for the Vandals (22-3).
The loss closed the chapter on the careers of Shroyer, Stone, Pyle, Paulding, Eller, Hemminghaus and Bowling, who will go down as one of the best senior classes in the program’s history.
Each of them won at least 34 matches, with six of them qualifying for state and five more bringing home state medals.
‘I told the seniors I’m proud of them,’ Clay said. ‘They sure have contributed a lot to the program. They were a special group of seniors.’
Still, the cupboard won’t be bare next year. Foster will lead a group of seven returning starters who should be able to build on the experience gained Saturday.
‘I thought our young kids stepped up and wrestled their hearts out,’ Clay said. ‘They wrestled them a lot tougher than we did earlier in the year.
‘I think with a few of the young guys getting up here and getting a taste (at state), that kinda fuels the fire to improve and work… I think we’ll be pretty competitive next year.
Though the Vandals came up short of the program’s second state title, they can look back on 07-08 knowing that they will go down as one of the best teams in the storied program’s history.
‘It’s been heck of a season,’ Clay said.