Chase Bittle, of Althoff, and Cole Witzig, of Triad, came inches away from winning Illinois High School Association state wrestling championships a year ago when they finished second in their respective weight classes.
Stronger, faster and with another year of experience under their belts, Bittle and Witzig are poised for that last step.
Two of 41 local wrestlers who qualified for the state tournament at sectional competitions last weekend, Bittle and Witzig begin their quest to become champions on Thursday when the ‘16 Illinois State Wrestling Tournament begins at State Farm Center in Chamnpaign.
The Class 1A 113-pound state runner-up a year ago, Bittle improved to 41-0 for the season and 90-1 for his career last week by winning the 120-pound division at the Carterville Sectional.
“What makes Chase so good is that he’s just solid in all areas of wrestling,’’ Althoff coach Josh Harper said. “Whether he’s on top, on the bottom or in the neutral position, it doesn’t seem to matter. He has been pushed a couple of times by strong kids, but he just has a knack of getting out of tight situations.”
Bittle and four Althoff teammates will make their 2016 state tournament debut on Thursday when first round Class 1A preliminary round matches at 1 p.m. Class 2A wrestlers begin at 3 p.m. with the Class 3A preliminaries beginning at 5 p.m. and concluding the first day of action at State Farm Center.
Quarterfinals in Class 1A are set for 8:30 a.m. on Friday with Class 2A and 3A matches to follow. The semifinals are set for 7 p.m. on Friday with state title matches set for Saturday at 6 p.m.
Bittle is one of two Althoff wrestlers ranked first in their respective weight classes. Senior Jarrid Braunagle, third in the state finals the last three years, is ranked first in the 138-pound weight class. Twin brothers Danny (145 pounds) and Zac (170) are also ranked in their respective weight classes.
Freshman Max Kristoff (126) is the fifth Althoff wrestler competing.
“We’re looking to bring home five medal winners. I know it’s a lofty goal, but if we wrestle the way we can and have all year, I see no reason why we can’t,” Harper said. “Max (Kristoff) really showed me something last week when he lost his first match then won four in a row in the consolation bracket to advance. He’s a tough kid.’’
Freeburg senior Cooper Secker, a sectional champion at 126-pounds, will also be in the medal hunt.
Foster looks to bounce back
Top ranked in the 152-pound weight class for much of the year, Belleville West senior Nick Foster looks to bounce back from just his second loss as he leads the way for local Class 3A wrestlers.
Also ranked among the top 10 152-pound wrestlers in the nation by several publications, Foster lost to Trevell Timmons of Lockport 3-1 in his final at the Bolingbrook Sectional.
“That isn’t the way Nick (Foster) has wrestled all year. He goes after his opponents. He’s agressive and doesn’t wait. On Saturday, he sat back and let Timmons control the match,” West coach Joe Rujawitz said. “But its like I told him. If you are going to have a bad match, its good to have it in the sectional and not in your first match state. He will bounce back. I’m sure we’ll see the Nick Foster we’ve seen all year this weekend at the state tournament.”
The Maroons other state tournament qualifier — sophomore Garrett Bass — has his hands full with his first round match in Austin Gomez of Glenbard North. Gomez (38-1) is the No. 1 ranked 126-pound wrestler in the nation.
“Garrett got a tough first round match,” Rujawitz said. “But its like I told him. I want him to go out, have fun and give it everything you’ve got because you have nothing to lose. If you lose, you are almost guaranteed a wrestleback. You can follow him through thedrfaw and still earn a medal.”
Other local Class 3A wrestlers to watch include O’Fallon’s Alek Ziegler (106) and Mason Hewitt (182), Edwardsville senior and sectional champion Chris Prosser (170), Dewayne Hill (220) of Belleville East and Kyle Thompson (160) of Granite City.
Witzig leads a quartet of Knights
A two-time medal winner and Class 2A state tournament runnerup a year ago at 170 pounds, Triad senior Cole Witzig has a tough road to a possible state title this weekend according to his dad — Triad coach Russ Witzig.
“Cole’s got a tough first round match but the kid is beatable. I think 170 is without question one of the toughest weight classses you will see this weekend — especially in Class 2A,” Russ Witzig said. “If he wrestles the way he can, he’s got a chance to get to the finals although he will have a very tough opponent in the semifinal as well.”
Fellow sectional champions and Triad teammates Merik Fulton (132) and John McKinney (195) along with senior Matt Sarhage (220) also figures to be in the medal hunt this weekend. The Knights took home four medals a year ago from Champaign and all four wrestlers this year have legitimate chances.
Another wrestler looking at a possible state title is Highland junior Trent Rakers who enters the state tournament 38-0 at 160 pounds. Rakers is the second seed according to the 160-pound bracket.
Other sectional champions with hopes of earning medals are Waterloo senior Austin Stewart (152 pounds) and Christopher Tucker (113) and Tyler Dunn (126) both of East St. Louis.