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|Mooseheart sophomore Jeff Leigh (top) prepares to pin Christian Liberty's Max Stapleton in their 132-pound consolation match in the IHSA Class 1A Alden-Hebron Regional.
Mooseheart senior Chris Schwartz (top) sets up his pin against North Boone's Devin Rapp in the 152-pound semifinals of the Alden-Hebron Regional. Schwartz defeated Rapp and finished second in his weight class.
Hebron, Feb. 8 – Practice in the next week is going to have a "regular season" feel to it, despite it being the second week of the postseason because the Ramblers' wrestling room is full of athletes whose postseason is very much alive.
Mooseheart finished its strongest regional performance in years when the Ramblers qualified five wrestlers from Saturday's IHSA Class 1A Alden-Hebron Regional. Qualifiers for next weekend's Byron Sectional include Jeff Leigh (132 pounds), Chris Schwartz (152), Joe Feemorlu (170), Humberto Esparza (182) and Ricky Crawford (220.) Of those five, only Feemorlu has wrestled in a sectional before.
"They wrestled well today," Mooseheart coach Mark Johnson said. "I think the big key for them today is that a lot of them really wanted it. It turned out nice for them today."
Mooseheart's success rate was high in the regional. Feemorlu, Esparza and Crawford each finished first while Schwartz was second. Leigh survived in a third-place match – where only winners advance. The Ramblers had a sixth wrestler competing in the championship round – but Juan Rojas fell in his consolation match and saw his season end.
Mooseheart last qualified five wrestlers from a regional in 2006. Given each individual's regional success, the Ramblers finished third in the team race behind regional champion Rockford Lutheran and second-placed Genoa-Kingston. Byron's sectional is still one of the strongest in the state and this is the third straight year the Ramblers have headed to a sectional against schools from that area of the state.
"Anytime you go west of Mooseheart, you're going to come across schools that have big traditions in terms of wrestling," Johnson said. "Wrestling's been around a long time here and it's almost a different wrestling world when you come out here. It's nice that we've been here before. We've been to Byron and now we're more prepared."
The championship round began well for the Ramblers when sophomore Leigh pinned Christian Liberty's Max Stapleton after just 57 seconds of the first period of their consolation match.
"It's actually amazing," Leigh said. "I don't have any other word to explain it."
Leigh displayed aggressiveness in his match, took the match directly to Stapleton and worked for a very quick pin.
"That was what (Johnson) told me to do, go for the takedown right away and try to get the pin," Leigh said. "I guess I'll be nervous (next week), but right now, I'm just happy."
That aggressiveness was something Johnson wanted to see in his team on Saturday – and even when they lost, they still tried to take the initiative to their opponents.
"We talked about it this week, being aggressive," Johnson said. "For some of them, you come up here and you lose, you're done for the year and you're looking at next year. We talked about wrestling the best you can in the match you have, and then look at the next one."
Next to wrestle in the championship round was Rojas, who lost in an 18-1 technical fall to Genoa-Kingston's Jason Bray. Schwartz also showed aggressiveness in his championship match with Wheaton Academy's Alex Budzisz – but was pinned after 52 seconds.
Mooseheart's final three wrestlers were all victorious – and all pinned their opponents.
Feemorlu started the streak when he pinned Aurora Central's Danny Mowka after 42 seconds to earn his second straight sectional trip.
"This is amazing," Feemorlu said. "I've got a lot of teammates who support me, just like I did last year. Ever since the season started, (Johnson) told me I needed to stop being a defensive wrestler, be more aggressive and be an offensive wrestler. He said defense was only going to take me so far."
Feemorlu, a junior, had a breakout sectional in 2013. He advanced deep into the wrestlebacks and was eliminated in a triple overtime match.
"It's a very big step," Feemorlu said. "I started off last year winning regionals. It's great to win it twice in a row. It's a good start, because it gives me confidence."
Esparza had the longest wait of all Mooseheart wrestlers before he took to the mat. Only two wrestlers were entered in the 182-pound class – Esparza and Rockford Lutheran's Elias Fambro. After waiting all day to wrestle, Esparza needed 33 seconds to pin Fambro and claim the regional championship.
"It didn't matter if I won or lost," Esparza said. "I just wanted to go out there and wrestle. I didn't even think I'd make it this far. But I tried in practice every day and it pays off."
Despite being a sophomore, Crawford is Mooseheart's most experienced wrestler, having competed in youth wrestling since he was 9-years-old. He claimed the regional championship when he pinned Rockford Lutheran's Joey Harezlak 1:10 into their match.
"It can't get any better than this, moving on to sectionals," Crawford said. "I just had to lock down and have my focus."
Competition in Byron begins on Friday and concludes Saturday. Johnson has never had a state qualifying wrestler in his years as Mooseheart coach.
"I think every year, we've added a wrestler to the sectionals," Johnson said. "Last year was four and this year, we have five. It was a good day for us today."