Belleville West senior DeMechico Spraggins had done his job.
Improving to 45-1 following his 12-5 win over Howard Beatty, of Waubonsie Valley, in the 138-pound final at the Class 3A Moline Sectional, Spraggins was feeling good as the Maroons made the 260-mile trip home that Saturday night in late February.
Then on Sunday, Spraggins saw his road to that elusive state title had two major obstacles -- 2012 132-pound state champion Sal Annoreno, of Bartlett, and the No. 1-ranked wrestler at 138 pounds, Cullen Cummings, of Downers Grove North.
"When I saw my side of the bracket with Annoreno and Cummings, it makes your heart drop a little bit. But it just makes you want to work a little harder,'' Spraggins said recently. "I was ready for it and I was really ready for the Cummings match. That was the one I was looking forward to since he 'beat' me at the Hinsdale Central Tournament.
"He beat me, but he really didn't beat me. I got called for three stalling calls and he won the match.''
But wrestling in his final state tournament the following weekend at the Assembly Hall in Champaign, nobody was going to beat Spraggins. Not this time.
After disposing of Annoreno (5-3) in the quarterfinals and dominating Cummings (8-4) in the semifinal, Spraggins captured the one title that eluded him for so long when he beat Juwan Edmond, of Hinsdale Central, 12-4 in the state title match.
As the final buzzer sounded, Spraggins jumped into the arms of Maroons coach Al Sears, then climbed the Assembly Hall stairs to celebrate with his family and friends.
After placing second (103 pounds) as a freshman, second (119 pounds) as a sophomore and fourth (132 pounds) as a junior, Spraggins was finally on top of the hill as a state champion.
"I turned it up a level or two heading into the postseason. I knew this was my senior year and my last chance and that I had to go hard every day in practice. I knew that if I went hard, there probably wasn't anybody who was going to beat me,'' Spraggins said. "I think it's better when you win it your senior year. If you win it as a freshman and then don't win it again, it makes you look bad.
The state title also puts the finishing touch on the best high school wresting career in Belleville West history and earns Spraggins a share of his third Belleville News-Democrat Wrestler of the Year honor.
Spraggins, who finishes his prep career with a 165-11 record, shares the honor with Highland heavyweight Tanner Farmer who won the Class 2A state title in the 285-pound weight class.
The state title was also the first for Sears in his coaching career at West. A former All-American at SIU-Edwardsville, Sears said he and Spraggins had their disagreements, but this season -- and more specifically the second half of the year -- he noticed a change in Spraggins.
Sears knew his 138-pound star was on a mission and nobody was going to stop him.
"I really wasn't nervous at the state tournament this year. I knew he was just so focused and had worked so hard that I almost knew he was going to win it.
"He had a tough draw. Maybe the toughest draw at the state tournament. But you've got to beat everybody in your bracket to be a state champion anyway.''
Sears said Spraggins just became a complete wrestler -- both mentally and physically this season.
"Mech has always had the talent to be a state champion. He's beaten state champions every year of his career. I just think it was a maturation process,'' Sears said. "He's been blessed with so many God-given gifts -- speed, strength, balance -- and he's developed the knowledge.
"He's a true student of the sport who loves what he does. But then again, it's easy to love something when you are 165-11 in your career.
If Spraggins has his way, his career is just beginning. The Maroons senior is leaning heavily toward attending Arizona State University on a wrestling scholarship next season. He plans to major in business management.
Spraggins hopes the state title is just a prelude of things to come.
"To win a state title is a good first step. But a lot of people have won state titles. I want more,'' Spraggins said. "The ultimate would be to be an All-American and win a national championship at the college level. That's what I want.
"Every level gets tougher. From little league to high school got tougher and I'm sure high school to college will be even tougher still. I'm ready for the challenge. All you have to do is stay focused on the dream and work hard to achieve it.''
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at 239-2661 or firstname.lastname@example.org