John Hardey got a Texas-sized dose of reality when he joined the Sterling wrestling team.
Hardey, a senior, moved to Sterling this past summer after 2 years at Canyon High School in New Braunfels, Texas. He came with his father, Scott, an engineer who accepted a job in Princeton.
At Canyon High, which has an enrollment of nearly 2,000 students, Hardey was one of the best wrestlers in a program that was only 4 years old. He wasn't sure what his record was last season, but noted he was considered the second-best wrestler on the team and was a sectional qualifier.
The Sterling coaching staff knew a little bit about Hardey, as he grew up in Dixon and was a youth wrestler there until leaving after the sixth grade. He wrestled for Brad Bishop, brother of Sterling coach Charlie Bishop and Dixon coach Chris Bishop.
"On the coaching staff there were quite a few smiles, because we had heard he was a pretty good wrestler in Texas," Sterling assistant coach Kevin Heller said. "You just don't get a good wrestler coming into your program under those circumstances all the time."
Once the 126-pound Hardey got on the mat, however, it became clear he had a ways to go. His practice partner was sophomore 113-pounder Isaac Anderson, a state qualifier as a freshman. Anderson regularly got the best of Hardey in practice.
"The intensity up here is a lot higher than it was down there," Hardey said. "They're just really good up here."
"To get a varsity spot on our team, he found himself going against state-caliber kids every day, and it was an eye-opener," Heller said. "I told him, I want to help your game, I want to help coach you, but what did you learn in Texas? He just laughed at me and said, 'Obviously not much.'"
Practicing against Anderson helped Hardey realize he had to raise his game, and the Sterling coaches began a deconstructing and building back up process that has taken virtually the entire season. Hardey was a willing participant.
"He's very coachable, wanted to learn," Heller said, "and didn't bring that stigma with him, Well, this is the way we did it in Texas, so I'm going to do it my way. He wanted to learn our style of wrestling to compete, and it's taken him all year for it to click."
The two moves the Sterling coaches have taught Hardey that he has taken to the best are the turk, a move where the wrester gains control with his legs, and the chicken wing, where an opponent has an arm pinned behind his back. Hardey is particularly fond of the chicken wing.
"You get him back here," Hardey said, demonstrating the move, "and you just go to town."
A turning point for Hardey came on Jan. 16, when he won his first home match, a pin of Rock Falls' Chip Devers to help the Golden Warriors to a 38-31 dual meet victory. Hardey had been 0-3 at home, and thought he was cursed by the spotlight used to highlight the bouts.
Now he sports a 15-12 record, including a third-place finish at this past Saturday's Rock Island Regional. He's shooting for third or fourth place at the Rochelle Sectional, which would secure his spot in next week's state tournament.
That's heady stuff for an athlete teammates affectionately call 'Tex' and is perhaps better known for keeping everybody loose than making opponents lose.
"He can always make anybody on our team laugh," Anderson said. "He made this team a lot better just by having everybody having fun, and he's the start of it all."
High school: Sterling
FYI: Golden Warriors' 126-pounder, has a 15-12 record and is a sectional qualifier. ... Went to school in New Braunfels, Texas for 2 years before transferring to Sterling. ... Grew up in Dixon. ... Also attended schools in Decatur, Texas; Washington, Ill. and New Braunfels, Texas before moving to Sterling
Class 2A Rochelle Sectional
When: 4:30 p.m. Friday (preliminaries); 9 a.m. Saturday (semifinals); 2 p.m. Saturday (finals)
Where: Rochelle High School
Local wrestlers: 106 – Jaden Urrutia, Sterling; 113 – Isaac Anderson, Sterling; 126 – John Hardey, Sterling; 132 – Trent Brinkmeier, Dixon; 138 – Kylian Lally, Dixon; 160 – Bryant Lilly, Sterling; 195 – Josh Villareal, Sterling; 220 – Will Canales, Sterling; 285 – Curtis Lilly, Sterling
Wrestlers to watch: 106 – Riley Sweetland, LaSalle-Peru; 113 – Kyle Akins, Sycamore; 120 – B.J. McGhee, Rock Island; 120 – Kenny Baldridge, Morris; 152 – Austin Culton, Sycamore; 160 – Alex Friedman, Pontiac; 170 – Martex Cox, Peoria Central; 195 – Jake Davis, Sycamore; 195 – Jordan Ladd, IVC; 220 – Lucas Joseph, East Peoria
Advancement: Top four finishers in each weight class advance to state tournament