SYCAMORE — There were a whopping 18 Times-area wrestlers who started this past weekend with a dream of qualifying for the state meet that begins next Thursday at the State Farm Center in Champaign.
But only four of those grapplers realized that vision following the IHSA Class 2A individual sectional tournament that concluded Saturday evening here at Sycamore High School.
Ottawa had three wrestlers qualify for a trip to Champaign, Streator qualified one, while Sandwich was unable to advance any competitors.
Pirate senior Ethan Harsted fared the best, finishing second at 126 pounds, while senior teammate Rafael Munoz followed in third at 120. Ottawa sophomore Luke Fleming came in fourth at 106 while Streator senior Mike Dunkleberger did the same but at 145 pounds.
All four will make the trip south later this week with Harsted qualifying for his fourth appearance in four tries as a prep wrestler.
Harsted (36-2) – the No. 2 ranked grappler in Class 2A at 126 according to the Illinoismatmen.com – reached the sectional title match after receiving a first round bye and then besting Canton's Jackson Swank (30-10) after a 13-2 major decision in the quarterfinals. Next, Harsted easily defeated Ashton Kellett (33-6) of La Salle-Peru in the semis via a 10-1 major decision.
He then faced No. 1 ranked Austin Macias (30-3) of Burlington Central in the championship bout but fell 7-3 after an extremely hard fought match.
"He (Macias) is a great wrestler and he took me down right off the bat which I should never have let happen," Harsted said. "I kept it close, but he just wrestled better than I did today. I didn't medal last year at state after getting second place as a sophomore at a lighter weight. I'll just take it one match at a time when I get there. I'm happy to be going again in my senior year."
Munoz (38-7) will be making his second trip to Champaign after earning a fifth-place medal last year at the 113 pound weight class.
This year at 120, Munoz defeated Sycamore's Nicholas Lockhart (4-10) in the opening round after a 19-4 technical fall, followed by a narrow 1-0 decision against L-P's Seth Antle (31-10). But he then lost a tough 5-1 match to eventual champion Zeke Hulet (34-8) of Washington before ending his tournament with a 4-1 decision over Boylan Catholic's Dathan Wickson (20-9) in the wrestle-back semifinals and a 5-0 triumph once again over Antle in the third-place matchup.
"I barely beat him (Antle) in the quarters yesterday so I knew today I really had to open up my offense," Munoz said. "I was able to do that a little more and now I'm going back to state again. Hopefully, I can medal again like last year which is my goal. I'll continue to work hard and give it my best next weekend."
Fleming (32-8) started off the sectional by besting Geneseo's Liam Barlow (15-19) at 106 with a 17-1 tech-fall followed by a tight 7-6 victory against Washington's Abe Hinrichsen (37-3). But he then dropped a tough 6-2 decision to eventual second-place finisher Landen Pfeiffer (38-3) of Marengo before beating L-P's Ayden Sines (33-6) in the wrestle-back semis. Fleming then fell to Hinrichsen 10-6 in the third-place match but will still make the trip to Champaign for the second straight time at the same weight class.
Dunkleberger (32-6) will be Streator's lone representative at state making his first appearance on the grand stage after forging out a pair of 145 pound early round victories over Belvidere's Braydon Payne (17-12) with a 4-2 decision and L-P's Tony Marshall (28-7) after a 5-3 thriller. Dunkleberger then lost to eventual champion Blaize Punke (38-2) of Washington after a 12-3 major decision before beating Chanse Ridgeway (26-8) of Bloomington 7-3 in the wrestle-back semifinals.
He then fell in the third-place match after getting pinned by Marengo's Kenny Reed (35-11) at 3:41 of the second period.
"I tried to get a cradle after I got off to a pretty good start against him (Reed)," Dunkleberger said. "But he caught me on his hip and got me. It's still a great feeling for me going to state for the first time. It's a dream come true, a once in a lifetime experience and it's the best thing that's happened to me by far in wrestling."
For Sandwich, the Indians just missed state qualifying in two weight classes as sophomore Jackson Murphy (24-11) fell to Rochelle's Ehren Metzger (28-8) in the 152 pound wrestle-back semifinals before junior brother Wyatt Murphy (26-11) dropped a heart-breaking 2-1 triple overtime decision to Dixon's Clint Schielein (26-12) in the 182 pound wrestle-back semis — both one win away from state qualification.
"Overall for the weekend, I thought the kids came out and performed very well even though we didn't get anybody to state," said veteran Sandwich coach Josh McCarty. "We fell a little short at the end. Hopefully, this hurts a bit for us being one win away from state in two matches. That's the type of pain we need to use as motivation for next year."