CHAMPAIGN – Marmion senior Johnny Jimenez earned his first IHSA state wrestling title as a 103-pound freshman in Class 2A.
That was three years and three weight classes ago, in which time the Cadets also jumped to 3A.
The University of Illinois' showcase indoor sports venue also switched names in the interim, adding to the litany of changes to occur since Jimenez started making himself comfortable here.
On Saturday, the constant emerged for a fourth and final time. A St. Charles resident now competing at 126 pounds, Jimenez ascended the top of a podium again, the latest trip courtesy of a 5-1 victory against Glenbard North's Jon Marmolejo in the finals.
"Those last few seconds were the best seconds of my life," Jimenez said. "Knowing after that second takedown that I finally did it, it really was so heartwarming and I got really emotional because I was so happy with everything I've done these past four years."
The Wisconsin-bound Jimenez, 42-3 this season and 162-10 in his career, became just the 12th wrestler in state history to earn a fourth career title. A few minutes later, 132-pounders Josh Alber of Dakota (1A) and Jered Cortez of Glenbard North joined him as the 13th and 14th.
Jimenez has ties to both, having been Cortez's Marmion teammate in 2010-11 while enjoying a friendly rivalry with career unbeaten Alber for nearly a decade. The mutual admiration – like the standing ovations at State Farm Center (nee Assembly Hall) – was bountiful. Especially from Alber, the only in-state athlete to defeat Jimenez in his junior and senior seasons.
"Oh, man. Yeah," said Alber, a Northern Iowa recruit. "I've been wrestling Johnny since I was in third grade. We've been battling back and forth. You know, I've got the best of him the last two, but I have a ton of respect for him. He's the greatest competitor there is. He's a gamer. And I can't wait to see how he does in college. I'm glad that he's going 125 and I'm going 133 so, you know, we can cheer for each other now."
Aurora Central Catholic senior Eddie Gonzalez, the Chronicle area's other finals competitor, lost the 1A title match at 285.
Defending champion Josh Wallick of Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley/Fisher won by fall in 50 seconds, matching the first-period pin he scored against Gonzalez in the Plano Invitational finals in mid-December.
"He was able to shoot on me and power in and pin me," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez (31-7) seemed to come to grips with the result quickly while keeping a pulse on perspective. He became ACC's first state placer since 2007, when older brother Jesus took fourth in Class A at 285.
John "JB" Winkle, uncle of Batavia freshman Seth Winkle, was the Chargers' only other runner-up, taking second at 155 in 1979.
"I'm really happy for what I've done so far, what I did with my career," Gonzalez said. "It feels good."
Six of Marmion's nine qualifiers left as place-winners. Trace Carello (152), Nathan Traxler (182) and Lucas Warren (220) each finished fourth, Nick Ferraro was fifth at 170 and Josh Meyers took sixth at 195.
Ferraro, a senior from Elburn, earned Marmion's lone victory of the consolation finals with a 16-8 major decision against Mt. Carmel's Dru Worker. The Cadets hope the result is a harbinger of things to come; Marmion faces Mt. Carmel in a team dual sectional at Marist Tuesday night.
"I'm looking forward to wrestling him again," Ferraro said.
Ferraro improved to 3-0 against Worker this season, including a victory in a dual at Marmion in mid-January. The Cadets defeated the Caravan, 40-30, on their senior night then, winning nine of 10 contested bouts. Marmion forfeit four matches, but since has returned to full strength.
Less than optimal success at individual state – by lofty program standards, anyway – leaves the Cadets even more primed to improve on last season's runner-up team finish.
Marmion received a big boost just before the state series when Warren returned from a lower back injury that sidelined him for much of the season. The sophomore from Sugar Grove started his freshman season strong before a back fracture kept him out for the stretch run.
"I'm excited. I'm real excited. I'm looking forward to helping my team out since I missed the whole dual season already," Warren said. "I'm glad I could be back for it. I'm looking to help them. I think we'll go deep."
Jimenez relishes the chance to extend an already decorated career. He wasn't but a few minutes removed from defeating Marmolejo – whose only two losses this season came to his friedly rival – when he was talking about Mt. Carmel.
"Back on the mat tomorrow," he said. The Cadets planned to stay overnight Saturday and work out Sunday at Illinois' Huff Hall, where Jimenez's older brother, Nico, a former Cadets state champ, competes as a member of the Illini.
Opponents realize what they're getting into when they face Johnny Jimenez.
Glenbard East senior Dayton Olson, who pushed him in the third period of a 10-6 quarterfinal loss Friday, also was Jimenez's first victim en route to his 120-pound title in 2013. Olson delivers a scouting report that sounds all too familiar to most who have faced Jimenez, who won two IKWF state titles before entering high school.
"He doesn't feel as strong as other wrestlers, but his technique is on point," Olson said. "His technique is perfect."
That attribute showed up again in the title bout. Leading, 3-1, in the closing seconds, Jimenez averted trouble one last time when Marmolejo attempted to clutch Jimenez's upper body and go for a throw. Jimenez countered the move for a clinching takedown.
"I lowered my hips," Jimenez said, "and wrestled smart."
Jimenez's preparedness helps illustrate a confidence that sticks with anyone who's ever sweated through a workout with him. Or led one.
Cadets coach Ryan Cumbee possessed a working knowledge of Marmion before joining the program from Providence entering the 2012-13 season. One matter firm in his mind: Jimenez never lacked composure.
"Johnny's completely dialed in," Cumbee said. "There's not much I need to say to him. Just keep him going the way he's going, and he's going to do some special things."
The Johnny Jimenez Victory Tour won't be much of one, and not just because of his humility. Jimenez knows he can't afford to unwind with the Cadets still pushing for team goals.
There's one last podium he wants to climb. It's only part of his fabric.