ROCKTON, Ill. — Four Hononegah wrestlers enter the IHSA Class 3A state tournament, each with unique stories and aggressive goals to achieve.
The tournament gets underway Thursday at 5 p.m. in Champaign, with the action wrapping up Saturday. The quartet of Indians includes heavyweight Tony Cassioppi, Blake Zalapi (220), Jordan Shahrikian (182), and Aaron Leppert (132).
Any Indian wrestling story must begin with Tony Cassioppi, the top heavyweight in Illinois and one of the best in the country. Cassioppi, who finished third in state last year after losing to the eventual champion in the semifinals, is undefeated at 44-0 and hasn’t been challenged this season.
“I’m going in there just like it’s any other tournament,” Cassioppi said. “Last year I treated it like it was something special and I think that kind of hurt me. They are just guys down there, and I’m confident in my ability.”
Hononegah coach Jason Glodowski spoke in terms that you simply never hear from a coach. “I don’t think there’s anybody down there that can hold water with him,” Glodowski said. “In my opinion, the second-best kid is Zach Nemec, the kid he had in the sectional finals. Tony won by technical fall less than three minutes into the match. It wasn’t even close. I’ve never been this confident about a wrestler. Unless something insanely bad happens, like an injury or he gets caught on a fluke move, he should be fine. I think he’s seen the best of the best this state has to offer.”
Playing the role of the underdog will be Aaron Leppert, a first-time qualifier who has a family legacy to continue.
“My grandpa finished second in state and my dad placed fifth,” Leppert said. “So those are some big shoes to fill. They are both at every match I wrestle, and they are there to tell me when I did great and when I stunk. Overall, they are just a great support system for me.”
Glodowski said Leppert, a senior, has a difficult bracket t contend with.
“132 is stacked this year,” Glodowski said. “As a coaching staff, our main goal was to get Aaron down there with a chance to compete. Now, he’s there, and we’ll see what happens. Aaron has competed with some of the best guys and he’s always kept it close. He has to show up, and he has to wrestle perfect.”
Zalapi faced a year of adversity recovering from two broken feet. He returned in late January and has won all 10 matches he’s wrestled. Ranked third in his weight class, Zalapi has only one goal. “I’m going down there to win the state title,” Zalapi said. “In my mind, I’m the best wrestler in the state at 220. I’m not close to 100 percent, I’ve got a lot of bumps and bruises on me. But I’m going down there to prove that I’m the best.”
Glodowski said his expectations are set high for Zalapi.
“I expect him to be on the podium,” Glodowski said. “I feel really good about him. We’ve seen the top two kids this year, and our backup Tate Poole wrestled both of them. Blake is a different caliber wrestler and I know he can compete. He’s wrestled deep into this tournament two times, he’s wrestled at the national level and he knows the pressure and knows the stage. He’s got to be perfect and the guy who messes up first is going to lose the match. That’s what happened to him last year, and he remembers that well.”
Shahrikian is dealing with injury issues of his own. Of particular concern is his shoulder
“Technique-wise, Jordan is fantastic,” Glodowski said. “He’s a top-tier guy in his class. He’s been injured all year, and shoulder is everything in ties and riding, it’s hard to overcome. He got caught last week in the semifinals because Jordan just didn’t have the strength to turn him. He got caught and he’s ticked off about that. I think he’s going to wrestle with aggressiveness and determination, and I think he gets on the podium.”
Shahrikian’s said he’s set to enjoy meeting unfamiliar opponents. “I seem to do better when it’s guys I haven’t wrestled before,” Shahrikian said. “My first-round opponent, I have no real idea about. I don’t worry about anything they are doing or have done, I’m focused on the stuff I do well.”
A landslide favorite. A legacy-extending underdog, and two warriors battling though pain. It promises to be an interesting weekend in Champaign.