AURORA – Johnny Jimenez breezed in from an afterschool study hall earlier this week, shot through the doors of the Marmion wrestling room and answered the casual questions about where he had been.
Within moments, the senior 126-pounder from St. Charles had changed out of his uniform and into garb more suitable for the mat. The accessories included a firm stare that seems to be perpetual.
Jimenez must finish in fourth place or better at this weekend’s Class 3A Hinsdale Central Sectional to have a chance at his fourth career state championship. Eleven athletes accomplished the feat before him, and two others with whom he has ties are bidding for the same glory this month.
All this occurs to Jimenez, who is bound for Wisconsin win or lose, yet he insists it rolls away from his consciousness whenever he assumes his stance. The same way everything else does.
“I kind of try to keep it like it’s not too big of a deal,” Jimenez said. “I don’t want to psyche myself out, so it’s just another match. I’ve been to the state finals before, so I don’t like always making it a bigger deal than it should be.”
His teammates know the drill, but then again, leaving Jimenez’s success off their lips is easier when they’re shooting for their own. Marmion captured the first two state titles in program history in 2010 – Jimenez’s older brother, Nico, triumphed at 171 – and the Cadets have been a podium staple ever since.
Johnny Jimenez has progressed through the lineup during his run, beginning at 103 pounds in 2010-11 and moving up a weight class each season. The Cadets jumped from 2A to 3A in that span, but that hardly has fazed them.
Jimenez’s mat room demeanor remains a reflection.
“I can feel that he kind of beats up on me a little more than he usually does,” said senior 113-pounder Anthony Bosco of St. Charles. “He’s definitely in the right mindset going into this tournament.”
Second-year Cadets coach Ryan Cumbee knew a little about Jimenez’s budding reputation upon joining the progam from his alma mater, Providence, where he had been an assistant.
Jimenez had wrestled just 23 matches as a sophomore – the season before Cumbee arrived – after recovering from a midseason appendectomy. Cumbee believes part of the reason Jimenez is wrestling full seasons again hinges on the fusion of cultures in the Cadets’ mat room.
Cumbee respected the technical style that already prevailed at Marmion, but wanted to incorporate some Providence grittiness. The Celtics’ Mark Ruettiger, incidentally, was the state’s first four-time champion from 1978 to 1981.
“At Providence,” Cumbee said, “you had more of that South Side, tough mentality, where you won a lot of matches just because you wanted it more or you were just a little more mentally tough.”
In December, Jimenez channeled that edge in part by relying on his past. A fifth-place finish at the Walsh Ironman Tournament in Ohio offered a midseason setback, albeit one Jimenez knew he could beat.
Jimenez calls his most memorable match his title bout as a sophomore, when Rock Island’s B.J. McGhee held Jimenez’s leg late in the third period. With McGhee set to hit a high-leg trip for a clinching takedown, Jimenez escaped and scored his own deciding takedown just ahead of the final buzzer.
“Big matches like that that you have in the back of your mind kind of helps a lot to make you work harder just so you can feel that feeling again,” Jimenez said.
Jimenez enters sectionals at 35-3, losing twice to out-of-state opponents. Among his 10 high school defeats, just two have come against Illinois foes. Dakota senior Josh Alber – who hasn’t lost a prep match yet and is the favorite in the 1A bracket at 132 – turned the trick both times, including a 3-1 victory this season.
Alber, who Jimenez counts as a friend, also has defeated Glenbard North senior Jered Cortez, the third athlete vying for a fourth state title. Cortez, also a 132-pounder, won the first of his crowns as a 112-pound Marmion freshman before transferring.
Jimenez preceded Cortez in the Cadets’ lineup in those days. Three years later, he’s giving Marmion practices the same tenacious treatment.
“It’s the fun part of the year,” Jimenez said. “Coming to a close, getting to the end and state’s always the best tournament and a fun tournament. Just excited that it’s finally here.”