When the SLUH Wrestling team stepped up to the mats at Northwest High School for the District Tournament last weekend, they had no idea of the brutal adversity they would face. For two straight days, the Jr. Bills fought relentlessly against tough competition, sustaining several injuries and ultimately ending their season in heartbreaking fashion.
Five Jr. Bills boldly stepped up to the tournament for SLUH, which included familiar teams like CBC, Eureka, Oakville, and Parkway South. The District Tournament was double elimination, meaning that even if a wrestler lost his first match, they would have a second chance to push on into the bracket. Unfortunately, most of the team couldn’t capitalize on the extra match.
Junior Connor Whalen (132), who had been a source of inspiration for the team in past meets, was first up for SLUH. He hoped to set the tone for a SLUH success story. Instead, his first match was a grueling onslaught.
Whalen fought hard in the first period, sustaining several offensive blows from his Lafayette opponent. His defensive skills shined until midway through the second period, when he took a blow to the head and began bleeding. With a notch in his armor, Whalen lost his first match to pin in the third period. Afterwards, Whalen limped away. It wasn’t the start anyone had hoped for.
Unfortunately, senior captain Jack Onder (152) saw similar results, even though his match started differently. Wrestling against an opponent from Parkway South, Onder brought the intensity right away. He came out heavy on offense and his opponent was caught off gaurd. When the initial shock wore off, though, Onder had a more difficult time. His opponent found opportunities to go on the attack and Onder wasn't as ready. He survived all six minutes, but mistakes later in the match gave the win to his opponent on points. Later, Onder learned he had sustained a concussion during his match. SLUH was 0 for 2, and quickly declining in health.
Even senior Cayden Owens struggled in the early round. For the district bracket, he competed in the 220 weight class, which was around 20 pounds more than his own weight, preferring his chances in that group over the effort needed to watch his weight to fit into the 195 class.
In his first match against Oakville, Owens had trouble scoring points. As time began to expire and Owens saw that the points were in his opponent’s favor, he grew desperate for a pin and went in for a trip. He almost got the move off, but his opponent reacted at the last second and turned on Owens, sending him to the ground. That match ended in a pin.
Senior Alex Nance (170) and Junior Pau Thang (182) were SLUH’s remaining wrestlers. Nance struggled to connect on offense in his first round match while Thang’s keen wrestling sense was not enough to overcome his opponent’s height advantage. Both lost their matches on points, pushing the Jr. Bills to a frustrating 0-5 in their first matches.
“It was a rough start,” reflected Nance simply.
A spark was needed, and luckily Owens and Nance rebounded strong. Nance, needing two wins to make it into day two, overcame the nerves and scraped his way through the herd. Owens, needing just one win to compete in the next day, played smart and obtained a methodical win. They were the only Jr. Bills to progress further than the first round.
Nance’s second match was a big win. Wrestling against Marquette, he spent a majority of his match on top of his opponent, dictating the match. He came close to putting his opponent in a cradle and earning the pin three separate times, but the refs never gave it to him. Still, he won 7-2 in dominant fashion.
Nance’s third match came down to the wire. Down 1-2 against a Secman wrestler, Nance came up clutch and won on a last second move to single leg his opponent to the ground, earning two points. In the final five seconds, he had clinched his spot on Saturday.
Owens earned a dominant win too. Against a Jackson opponent, Owens led 6-0 heading into the third period. A strong final period sealed the deal for Owens and he ended with his opponent flat on the ground.
Heading into their matches on Saturday, Nance felt confident.
“If anything, there was a lot of electricity and high energy for me after losing one match and then winning two to make it to the next day. I was really excited because I worked to get there and I was proud of myself,” he said. “Tons of nerves too, because these were the matches that would get us to state, one last time.”
Saturday was not kind to the Jr. Bills, though. Neither wrestler was able to earn a win as the previous night’s struggles began to creep back into the picture.
Owens’ Saturday match could not have been more frustrating. He and his Eureka opponent started out aggressive and stayed level on points throughout the match. At this point in the bracket, Owens' weight disadvantage was becoming evident, though. His opponent was bigger, but Owens’ athleticism kept him in the fight for a while. Late in the third period, he found himself down by one point. Anxious to earn something, he started taking rapid fire shots. One by one, Owens went for the double, then a single, for anything he could, but his opponent felt it before he could capitalize. The Eureka wrestler managed to stall for the remainder of the time by letting himself get pushed out of the ring. Owens, visibly frustrated, could do nothing to stop the stall and the match ended in a loss. After making the state tournament last year, he couldn’t find the same magic this year.
Nance, despite staying in the fight for several minutes, couldn’t escape a pin and also lost. Still, both wrestlers finished in the fifth to eighth place range for their District and didn’t have any meaningful matches for the rest of the weekend. Nance, though, estimated that Owens would have earned fifth and himself sixth if the matches had actually been wrestled.
The District Tournament capped off a unique season for the Jr. Bills. This year’s team was big, but not very experienced. They relied heavily on senior leadership throughout the season, which featured several brutal matches, a few statement wins, and some unfortunate losses. Still, Nance thinks that they accomplished their goal.
“With the cards we were dealt, I think that we harbored the next generation,” he said. “Every kid got to go out there and feel what it's like to wrestle. Hopefully it sparks something new for the program and makes it bigger.”
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