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Memories from the Hall

While furiously typing away on my computer keyboard late Saturday night at the state wrestling tournament in Champaign, my wife, Gwen, tapped me on the shoulder and pointed toward the Assembly Hall floor.

Each of the championship 285-pound bouts in Class 1A, 2A and 3A were tied 1-1 deep into the third period. It was a fitting ending for the event filled with thrills and spills, heartache and heart-warming tales.

None of the heavyweight bouts involved a participant Sauk Valley Media covers, and quite frankly, I didn’t need another championship to write about. There were six of them, and with this year’s later starting time of nearly 8 p.m., I didn’t wrap everything up until nearly 2 a.m.

Even the cleaning crew has cleared out before I did, but I had plenty to write about from what I had witnessed.

Take the 182-pound final, for instance. Newman’s R.J. Troye had lost three times this season to Dakota’s Jake Apple, including the Byron Sectional final when Troye blew a 4-0 lead in the third period. I thought that defeat might crush him, but as it turned out, it only galvanized him.

Troye’s strategy was to not get tied up with Apple on the mat, as he would likely have trouble escaping. Troye went for takedowns, and he scored two of them in the final minute to pull out a win.

When I approached Troye later, I apologized to him for identifying him as Nate Troye, his older brother and a former Newman wrestler, in Saturday’s paper. R.J.’s response: “It’s an honor to be compared with my brother. He’s my inspiration for being here right now.”

A classy move, in my book.

Two more Newman champions, 152-pounder Brian Bahrs and 132-pounder Maxx Hubbard, were equally gracious.

Bahrs won the last of three meetings against Mercer County’s Zach Nelson, then praised his crestfallen opponent as the best wrestler he’s ever faced.

Hubbard, whose stated goal was a state championship after three previous state appearances, credited his father, brother and cousin with pushing him over the top in reaching his goal.

Again, two cases of thinking of others ahead of themselves.

Then there was the one Newman finalist who didn’t win a title, 120-pounder Garrett Webb. He faced who for him turned out to be an unbeatable foe, Dakota’s Jake Alber. They met eight times in high school, and Alber, a sophomore, beat Webb, a senior, eight times.

It would have been easy for Webb to duck me and other reporters after a tough defeat. Instead, he fielded multiple questions, gave thoughtful answers to each and then went on his way. It’s easy to be chatty after wins, but to handle a tough situation in defeat, well, I have as much admiration for that as anything.

Equally compelling were the two Morrison state champions, twins Mark and Matt McDonnell.

Mark had won a 140-pound state title in 2011, but a broken wrist suffered just after Christmas looked to be a huge obstacle in his quest to repeat. Would the wrist heal in time for the postseason? If he got medical clearance, would it hold up?

He returned to action at the Princeton Regional, and a bandage reinforced with tape around the damaged wrist was a constant reminder of his situation. It was hard to tell, however, he was dealing with any sort of problem.

With the possible exception of the state semifinal bout against Seneca’s Alex Valentine, in which McDonnell briefly found himself on his back at the end of the second, he was never in much danger of losing a postseason match.

The only match McDonnell did lose this season was to 160-pound champ Billy Chancey of Reed-Custer, at the Champaign St. Thomas More Tourney when he went up a weight class to challenge himself.

With two firsts, a second and a third at state, McDonnell established himself as Morrison’s all-time best wrestler, as well as one of the area’s best ever.

The image I’ll remember of Mark is standing in the aisle near the first row of seats, near the Assembly Hall floor, as close to the Class 1A championship mat as he could get. He was rooting on Matt in 195-pound title bout.

Matt had had a good wrestling career at Morrison, but came up short in his quest for state tournament berths until he was a senior. He wasn’t about to be disappointed again and dispatched four opponents on his way to the title.

After a few more rounds of interviews, it was time for me to get to work. Five champs, one runner-up and a lot of great memories – not a bad way to spend a Saturday night.

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