FRANKLIN PARK – Leave it to Jake Mende’s parents to do what several high school wrestlers couldn’t Saturday – catch the St. Charles East senior 145-pounder in a sheepish moment.
Shortly removed from descending the podium with a third-place sectional finish and a berth in this weekend’s Class 3A state tournament in Champaign, Mende eventually agreed to a few pictures with his folks.
Kevin and Charlene Mende must have been as surprised as anyone watching at Leyden that day. Rarely, if ever, does their son hesitate in the vicinity of a mat.
“Because of wrestling, I feel like I’ve been able to come out and be more confident,” Jake Mende said. “There’s life values I’ll take away from wrestling that will help me the rest of my life.”
That’s a pretty lofty statement, to be sure, but it certainly doesn’t mean Mende is discounting his upcoming matches at the University of Illinois’ State Farm Center.
If anything, the wrestling virtue at his greatest command has fueled Mende throughout a 33-8 season that now includes his first career state berth.
“I mean, Jake’s a workhorse,” junior 152-pounder Keone Derain said. “He’s got a good mentality and he’s always determined. I like that about him. He’s a good partner.”
Mende often spars with Derain and senior 138-pounder Isaiah Vela – like Derain, a repeat state qualifier – in the Saints’ mat room.
He has seen both athletes put in their share of time during workouts, although not always as a varsity teammate. A four-year wrestler, Mende defeated former Saint Nick Giovenco in a wrestle-off during his junior season to take control of the Saints’ spot at 138.
He lost a 4-2 decision to Glenbard East’s Josh Martin in a consolation semifinal at sectionals last year, finishing 14-7 and falling one victory short of state.
“That was probably some of the motivation that had me come back this year,” Mende said.
Mende encountered Martin once more at Leyden, this time in a semifinal. The result was the same, as a 10-6 loss sent Mende to the backdraw, but it hardly sapped his spirit.
A late takedown in his consolation semifinal against Conant’s Gus Karapanos secured a 4-3 victory and assured the top-four finish that punched Mende’s ticket to state. In addition to his own personal goals, Mende said he adopted the plight of Geneva junior Mike Huck during the Karapanos bout.
Karapanos earned a third-period fall against Huck one round earlier to end Huck’s season, the narrative for which could not exclude a mention of Mende. Mende earned close victories against Huck at the Saints-Vikings dual, in the Upstate Eight Conference tournament and again at regionals.
“After he lost that match, I was kind of wrestling for him,” Mende said.
Mende began wrestling in elementary school, keeping up with the times in an athletic family. His older sister, Heather, is a sprinter at Valparaiso, while younger sister Lauren is a Saints sophomore cheerleader.
“TWO!” – the number of points awarded for a takedown – is by far the most popular outburst from wrestling fans in Champaign. Mende yearns to hear it early and often this weekend.
“He’s turned it on,” Saints coach Jason Potter said. “He’s worked his butt off to get to this point.”
Whether his season ends on a podium or elsewhere, Mende wants that last part to resonate. Pictures or not, it’s part of his enduring image.
Here’s a glance at Kane County Chronicle-area qualifiers for the IHSA state wrestling tournament, to be held today through Saturday at the University of Illinois’ State Farm Center in Champaign:
ST. CHARLES EAST
Isaiah Vela, Sr., 138 pounds (39-4)
Jake Mende, Sr., 145 (33-8)
Keone Derain, Jr., 152 (41-5)
Connor McKeehan, Sr. (27-7)
Mitch Bradberry, Jr. (23-12)
Anthony Bosco, Sr., 113 (33-8)
AJ Jaffe, So., 120 (34-8)
Johnny Jimenez, Sr., 126 (38-3)
Trace Carello, So., 152 (152)
Sam Breen, Sr., 160 (15-5)
Nick Ferraro, Sr., 170 (31-10)
Nathan Traxler, So., 182 (32-8)
Josh Meyers, Sr., 195 (33-7)
Lucas Warren, So., 220 (10-2)
Justin Diddell, Sr., 285 (32-9)
AURORA CENTRAL CATHOLIC
Eduardo Gonzalez, Sr., 285 (28-6)
Joe Feemorlu, Jr., 170 (13-4)