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Druley: Batavia wrestler Birkhaug 'a different athlete'

Batavia junior 160-pound wrestler Jake Birkhaug shoots every day during the season.

There isn’t a basketball in sight.

“Swore it off,” Birkhaug said. “No more.”

This time, Birkhaug is honoring the shot as the offensive backbone of only one sport after losing his sophomore season to a broken right ankle suffered during a pickup game. The Bulldogs couldn’t be happier. Birkhaug enters tonight’s home dual against Kaneland with 20 victories and is fresh off a fifth-place finish at the Upstate Eight Conference tournament.

His comeback hasn’t come without incident, however. Birkhaug strained his right shoulder last week, which affected his tournament run but isn’t feared to hinder him during next month’s state series.

At conference, the condition also worked in his favor. Facing Streamwood’s Darell James in the fifth-place bout, Birkhaug won, 6-0, behind a sly style that hinged on baiting James into working his offense before sprawling to execute a counterattack.

Birkhaug extended a successful recent history with James, which included a 1-0 victory Jan. 17 in a UEC River dual. His effort at the conference tournament helped Batavia to a fourth-place finish in the 14-team field.

“Going from not wrestling last year to coming back into the room, I’ve become a different athlete entirely,” Birkhaug said, “and for the better.”

Soto set for big roll: IHSA winter state tournaments kick off this weekend, bringing the first of many tales of long-term dedication coming to fruition.

Geneva senior Jason Soto fits into the “dialed-in” category, to be sure. He just hasn’t resided there as long as some peers.

“As a kid,” Soto said, “I might have bowled a handful of times until freshman year.”

Not far removed from teaching himself to bowl – much like his father, Mark – Soto will descend on the IHSA boys bowling state tournament at St. Clair Bowl in downstate O’Fallon beginning today. His average has hovered between 210 and 215 this season.

Soto’s supporters include Vikings coach Jordan Zimberoff, who never met a youth league he didn’t like growing up but attended Glenbard South years before the first bowling state series in 2003.

“I’m glad that they’ve been able to expand the opportunities,” Zimberoff said.

And how. The IHSA added a regional component to the traditional sectional-state format this season as 202 schools entered the state series – double the ’03 total of 101.

While 19 of the 24 state qualifying-teams hail from along or north of the Insterstate 80 corridor, the drive south is a familiar one for Chicago area bowlers. Zimberoff hopes Soto’s success makes St. Clair Bowl or Rockford’s Cherry Bowl – site of next month’s girls state tournament – a destination for any Geneva students on the fence about extracurriculars.

“We’re very much used to taking people who are just recreational bowlers and trying to turn them very quickly into someone who can compete on the high school level,” Zimberoff said.

Check out Saturday’s Chronicle for more about Soto, whose uncle, Ray, is the lone state wrestling champion in Geneva history.

STCE Special Olympics b-ball back in action: The St. Charles East Illinois Special Olympics basketball team is set to face the Saints’ boys varsity at 6 p.m. Tuesday in one of the school’s latest community-building traditions.

In 2012, coach Pat Woods’ club filled in as the opposition when an ISO team from Naperville District 203 was unable to travel. The game was part of the schedule in 2013, and included raffles, cheerleaders and a bunch of Saints Superfans at full-throat.

Kevin Druley is a sportswriter for the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5347 or Follow him on Twitter at @kevindruley.

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