In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine any team having a better Class 1A state wrestling tournament than the Althoff Crusaders had a year ago.
Led by 120-pound state champion Chase Bittle, the Crusaders were on the medal stand five times at the State Farm Center in Champaign last February. That performance was one of the best in many years by a team from the metro-east.
But it could have been better.
Senior Jarrid Braunagel and younger brother Danny Braunagel lost close decisions in their state championship matches, while Zac Braunagel and Max Kristoff both placed fifth in their weight classes.
“It was a great tournament for our wrestlers. Our athletes went up and wrestled to the best of their ability, and as a coach, that’s all I can ask,” Crusaders fourth-year coach Josh Harper said. “We were right there with Jarrid and Danny (Braunagel) as well. They both wrestled great matches against top kids. They were close matches where we just came up short. But everybody gave a great effort.”
With Bittle, one of the top grapplers in the state in any of the three classes, returning for his junior year, along with Kristoff and Danny and Zac Braunagel, the Crusaders are a good bet to be in the medal hunt again during the 2016-17 season.
Bittle, who has lost only one match in his first two years at Althoff, should be a heavy favorite for a second-straight title, at either 120 or 126 pounds.
“Chase is just a wrestler who has a lot of ability, but he works very hard in the offseason and by wrestling in national tournaments. The success he has achieved and will continue to achieve is deserving,” Harper said. “He’s just a tremendous mat wrestler who has worked to become even better in the neutral position. He’s tall for his weight class, and he’s got a somewhat different style of wrestling. He’s lost one match in two years. He’s one of the best we’ve had go through here.”
Bittle leads a group of Althoff matmen in the lightweight classes who don’t have a lot of experience. Isiah Bernal, Matthew Minick and Josh Humbert are competing for mat time in the 106- and 113-pound weight classes. Although new to high school wrestling, all three have competed in club wrestling.
Bittle and Anthony Frederico will wrestle at 120 and 126 pounds.
Max Kristoff (132 pounds) and sister Gracie Kristoff (138), the children of former Southern Illinois University great Kip Kristoff, are both solid fundamental wrestlers.
“They have been around the sport their entire lives,” Harper said. “I think Max will have a great season, and Gracie, although she gives up some in strength when she wrestles against the boys, is able to hold her own very well.”
Codi Harris and Cam Wicks are battling for the starting spot at 145 pounds, while Austin Carey (160) will also be a top competitor.
Zac Guerrero (170) will also see time in the lineup, while Andrew McElligot (195-220) and Gage Rainey (285) round out the Crusaders’ roster.