In many ways, John Vosholler’s performance Tuesday in the final match of the Vandalia Dual Team Sectional personified the 2008-09 Vandals wrestling team’s season.
Nobody gave the young and inexperienced Vosholler (17-21) much of a chance to defeat Benton’s T.J. Tomshack (25-6) in the 125-pound bout.
But the feisty Vosholler caught the state-ranked Tomshack off guard – much like the Vandals did the competition during what many felt would be a rebuilding year – pushing Tomshack to the brink of defeat.
But, ultimately, Vosholler’s valiant effort – much like his team’s during a 19-5 season that included the program’s 15th straight regional title – wasn’t quite enough to push the Vandals to a fifth-straight IHSA Dual Team State Tournament appearance, as Tomshack held on for an 8-6 decision that clinched the Rangers’ first-ever Elite Eight appearance with a 34-28 win over the Vandals.
Vosholler had Benton fans counting down the final seconds of the night’s final match, as he scored a takedown to pull within two points of the lead with just under a minute to go. He then had Tomshack hanging on for dear life in the final 20 seconds.
A pin would have sent the Vandals back to state, but Vosholler simply ran out of time.
"He fought his heart out," Vandals coach Jason Clay said. "He got the takedown and had the cradle locked. He just couldn’t quite get it turned."
Vosholler’s performance didn’t surprise Clay. After all, the sophomore wrestled Tomshack tooth-and-nail before falling 5-3 recently in the Vandalia Individual Sectional.
"That’s the kind of kid he is, he’s got a big heart," Clay said. "I knew if it came down to the end and it was close, he was going to give us all he has."
The Vandals performance during the 2008-09 season didn’t surprise Clay, either.
"We exceeded other people’s expectations, but not mine," said Clay of a team that overcame the loss of seven senior starters, including six state qualifiers. "Our goal all along was to go to state and place."
The Vandals’ ability to prove the doubters wrong made the season a particularly enjoyable one for Clay. But, by the same token, that fact also made the season’s conclusion all the more difficult to accept.
"I told them that I just hate the fact that it’s ending, because I’ve had so much fun this year," Clay said. "Everybody wrote us off as being totally terrible."
Despite the disappointment of barely missing out on state, Clay gave credit to Benton (19-1).
"I think their kids wanted it, and I give them credit for wanting it," Clay said.
"I thought they wrestled a perfect match," Clay added. "There kids didn’t give up bonus points in certain weights to our better kids, and they got some bonus points.
"They won a couple that I felt were going to be close matches. There were about four swing matches, and they won all four of them. If we get one of those, we win."
The Rangers raced out to a commanding early lead by winning the first two matches of the night.
The night’s opening match pitted state qualifiers Anthony Coney and Damon Wilson in a 130-pound bout. Coney came out strong, scoring an early takedown for a 2-0 lead. But Wilson, ranked 10th in the state, scored the final nine points of the match for a convincing win.
Benton increased its lead to 9-0 with a pin in the 135-pound match, but Jake Harris got the Vandals on the scoreboard with a pin in the 140-pound match before Alex Foster evened the score at 9-9 with an 11-7 win in the 145-pound bout.
The Rangers regained the lead, 12-9, with a 9-3 victory in the 152-pound match before taking their biggest lead of the night, 17-9, with a pin in the 160-pound bout.
Jake Etcheson drew the Vandals to within two points of the lead, 17-15, with a big pin in the 171-pound match, but the Rangers added to their lead with a 9-1 win in the 189-pound bout.
The final score in that particular match was not indicative of how close the bout actually was, as Caleb Walton was unable to capitalize on an early scramble before falling behind.
"I thought the 189 match was big," Clay said. "In that early scramble, we had a chance to take him down and put him on his back, but the kid battled out of it and we never got any closer."
Jacob Whalen got the Vandals back on track with a 9-2 win in the 215-pound match, coming within an eyelash of recording a pin on at least three occasions.
"He’s a first-year kid, putting people on their back in a big dual – the situation didn’t get to him at all," Clay said. "That bodes well for the future. He’s a battler and he’s got a big heart."
Senior Devin Cook then gave the Vandals their first lead of the dual, 24-21, with a huge pin in the 285-pound match. Trever Pyle extended Vandalia’s lead to 28-21 with a 14-3 major decision in the 103-pound bout.
But Benton’s Jordan Parola, ranked fifth in the state in the latest 112-pound rankings, rolled to an 11-3 decision against fellow state-qualifier Justin Hill in the next match, pulling the Rangers back to within three of the lead, 28-25.
"I thought that 112 might be another one we could get, but that kids pretty tough," Clay said.
The Rangers then took the lead for good, 31-28, with a pin in the 119-pound match.
Clay made a few lineup changes that paid off for the Vandals, as Etcheson and Cook each moved up a weight class and recorded pins, while senior David Downs saved Vandalia a point by avoiding a pin despite going up a weight class to take on a state qualifier.
But Benton’s ability to not only win a handful of matches Clay figured could go either way – and pick up bonus points in matches they were favored – proved to be the difference.
"I think if Benton wrestles that way at state, I think they have a great chance to go up there and bring home a trophy," Clay said.
Despite all the turnover, that was the Vandals’ goal all year long. And Clay hopes Tuesday’s bitter defeat will push the young Vandals – who lose just four seniors – to do just that in 2009-10.
"Sometimes you need to get re-motivated," Clay said. "Sometimes you think things are just going to happen if you just show up, because you’re Vandalia, you’ll win the meet. But you’ve got to earn it."