For Eli Pannell, wrestling comes down to the joy of six.
The Fulton senior 220-pounder doesn’t want three team points for a decision, four points for a major decision, or five points for a technical fall. It’s all about picking up six points for a pin. In 27 of 30 bouts this season (not including two wins by forfeit), Pannell has achieved that goal.
“It gets more points for the team, so I’m always looking to do that,” Pannell said. “It just makes me feel a lot better if I can physically dominate someone.”
Pannell (32-0) does not have a pet move that he looks for to finish off an opponent. He has enough tricks up his sleeve that after feeling out an opponent for a minute or two, or perhaps into the second or third period, the inevitable usually happens.
“I just find whatever moves are going to work against an opponent and go with that,” Pannell said. “Sometimes that takes a little time.”
Pannell already owns Fulton’s single-season pin record, when he went for 29 as a junior. He’ll soon be looking to extend that mark, first the Class 1A Byron Sectional on Friday and Saturday, then at the IHSA State Tournament to be held Feb. 14-16 in Champaign.
The Steamers’ career record for pins is 85, held by 2011 graduate Zach Ryder. Pannell currently has 81 pins and 113 career wins.
Steamers head coach Chris Grant noted he isn’t one to necessarily teach his wrestlers to go for a pin every single time. Instead, it’s about racking up points. With Pannell, however, his normal rules don’t necessarily apply.
“My coaching philosophy is takedowns win championships,” Grant said. “If you can take somebody down, you’re never going to lose. Eli, he’s a pinner. I call him ‘The Pin Master’ because he takes guys down and they can’t get up. They can’t get away.”
Unlike a lot of elite wrestlers, Pannell hasn’t been groomed since a young age for success. He picked up the sport in seventh grade at the urging of Todd Fleetwood, father of twins Tyler and Taylor Fleetwood, who graduated last spring from Fulton after decorated wrestling careers.
Pannell had gravitated toward football, and had dabbled a bit with baseball in junior high, but gave that up when the combative nature of wrestling grew on him.
“I’m not very hand-eye coordinated, so I like the contact sports a lot more than baseball or other sports like that,” said Pannell, who plans to either play football or wrestle at a yet-to-be-determined college.
Pannell has been a 4-year wrestling starter for Steamers, and his junior season was a breakthrough. He wound up 38-8 competing at 195 pounds and earned a sixth-place medal at state. That, however, was less than satisfying.
He needed an ultimate tiebreaker to win a quarterfinal bout against PORTA’S Will Heikes, then fell 4-3 to Clifton Central’s Justin Coggins in the semifinals. He later lost his final two consolation bracket bouts to wind up sixth.
“I was one point away from making it to the finals last year,” Pannell said. “That was a real heartbreaker, and I took it pretty bad. I didn’t wrestle good my second match [against Heikes], and my third match was against the No. 1 seed [Coggins] – the kid that was supposed to win state – and I lost that match by one point.
“Winning state would be awesome this year. I was close to that level last year.”
To up his game, Pannell tries to always make sure he’s the aggressor on the mat. In general, forcing the action favors the wrestler doing the forcing, one way or another.
“If you push the pace, you should always win a match,” Pannell said. “I don’t really shoot that much, but I like to push people out of bounds, stuff like that. If they’re not working, I like to let the ref know they’re not doing anything.”
Pannell’s two most high-profile wins this season have come against the same wrestler, Princeton’s Chase Tatum. Pannell won a 2-1 decision in an early-season dual, then a 6-1 decision in the finals at the Sherrard Regional on Saturday.
Pannell is ranked No. 2 by Illinois Matmen, while Tatum is No. 3. The No. 1 wrestler in that weight class is Beardstown’s Chad Grimm.
Pannell has first-place medals from the Erie-Prophetstown, Sterling, Polo and Kewanee tournaments this season. The title that really interests him, however, will be decided on Saturday, Feb. 16, in the State Farm Center in Champaign.
“I want to be the No. 1 wrestler in the state,” Pannell said. “I want to prove myself in any way I can.”
And that’s just fine with Grant, who lets Pannell be the pinning machine he’s grown accustomed to being.
“As a senior and a leader of this team, go out, do your thing, throw the big throws, throw them to their backs, and get the six points for the team,” Grant said. “If you can break records with your pinning, who am I to hold him back?”
FYI: Owns a 32-0 record and is ranked No. 2 at 220 pounds in Class 1A by Illinois Matmen. … Has 27 pins in 30 contested bouts this season. … Has 81 pins and 113 wins in his career. … Placed sixth at 195 pounds at state as a junior. … Younger brother Max and cousin Jake are also on the Fulton team.