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St. Charles North

UEC champion East wrestling 'getting better and better'

St. Charles East 145-pound wrestler Jake Mende was one of six individual Saints champions Saturday, helping the team to the Upstate Eight Conference title.
St. Charles East 145-pound wrestler Jake Mende was one of six individual Saints champions Saturday, helping the team to the Upstate Eight Conference title.

ELGIN – Elgin High School sold discounted mattresses in its foyer Saturday, a fundraiser that tempted some wrestlers competing for Upstate Eight Conference titles in adjacent Chesbrough Fieldhouse.

"Over the break, I was going to go to the mattress and take a little nap," St. Charles East senior 138-pounder Isaiah Vela said, "but …"

It was probably best Vela didn't give in. After winning the UEC team title behind six individual champions, the Saints aren't nearly ready to rest with next month's state series on deck.

"Wrestling is kind of like a roller coaster; there's highs and lows," East 145-pounder Jake Mende said. "At the end of the year, we're always trying to peak, and I feel like this is the first step in that. And I feel like from now on, we should be getting better and better, so that's our goal."

Anthony Rubino (113), Ryan Valesh (132), Keone Derain (152) and Ramon Lopez (160) joined Mende and Vela atop their respective podiums. Lopez scored his title with a fall, while the rest of his teammates earned decisions.

Batavia (Connor McKeehan, 220) and St. Charles North (Kolbe O'Brien, 106) also produced champions. Batavia's Noah Frazier was second at 195.

The Bulldogs finished fourth out of 14 teams, but collected their first accolade earlier in the day when McKeehan – who notched his first career tournament win – was named the event's Ed Washington Sportsmanship Award winner.

"That was really neat, you know. It's another one of those things that just reminds me of why I do the sport," McKeehan said. "It's a grueling sport, you know. You go through periods of time where it's like, 'Why am I doing this? Why am I here?' Winning that award and then finally winning a varsity tournament, those are two big reminders of, 'This is why I wrestle. This is why I do this sport. This is why I stuck with it. This is why I'm still around.' "

O'Brien, 30-5 in his debut season, continued a strong run with a fall and two tight decisions in his tournament bouts.

"I'm confident with what I'm doing," he said. "The new coach [Ben Hummel] has helped, and it's competitive in practice."

Geneva's top finisher was runner-up Mike Huck, who challenged Mende for the third time since last season's conference meet but suffered his third loss in that span, a 4-3 decision.

Mende won, 2-0, when East defeated Geneva in mid-December as part of its second consecutive UEC River duals sweep.

"I thought Mende controlled the pace of the dual meet, and I thought Huck controlled the pace of this meet," Vikings coach Tom Chernich said. "A good match."

At 160, Batavia's Jake Birkhaug encountered an even more immediate case of deja vu, having just defeated Streamwood's Darell James – his opponent in the fifth-place match – 1-0 last week.

Birkhaug scored a 6-0 decision this time despite a tender right shoulder he aggravated Friday.

"My right arm doesn't have the strength it usually does," Birkhaug said. "I was able to bait him into shooting instead of shooting myself, so that was able to offset some of that."

A little while later, McKeehan escaped being pinned to his own shoulders when he sprawled instinctually off his back and on top of Neuqua Valley's D.J. Warkenthien late in the bout.

McKeehan insisted he didn't know the score entering the third period – it was 6-4, Warkenthien – and sounded like he was of similar mind in assessing his path to a fall in 5:40.

"It's one of those things where I'm not really sure if I did that as much as the wrestling side of me just kind of took over, and there it went," McKeehan said. "I caught him in a funky place and I didn't even think I'd be able to keep him there, and then I ended up pinning him. I don't know. That was just, 'Wow.' "

Several East fans showed their own excitement over a banner day in which nearly half the team captured one of 14 conference titles.

Plenty of smiles and pictures went around, but the Saints still were telling themselves they wanted the same scene in Champaign (individual state tournament) and, ideally, Bloomington (dual team state).

"We're looking pretty strong as of today," Vela said. "Hopefully, we come out on top."

After that, lying down will be acceptable. The Saints will probably want the nearest mattress, anyway.

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