MONTICELLO — Passing by the Monticello High School wrestling room during the team’s first practices in early November, you could have thought the program was in some trouble.
Those early practices of the season had just half the typical complement of wrestlers while the other half were taking part in the Sages’ run to the Class 3A state football championship — a run that that kept them busy through Thanksgiving.
“We had 18 non-football players and 18 football players, so we were pretty thin,” Monticello coach Andy Moore said. “There’s always been a pretty good mix of: I want football players and (Sages football coach Cully Welter) wants wrestlers, and we all work together.”
The Sages hope success on the gridiron can translate to success on the mat in the postseason, which begins Saturday at the Class 1A Tolono Unity Regional.
As one of the larger non-football players, senior Seth Menacher, who wrestles at 182 pounds, had trouble finding a practice partner.
“It was strange," he said. "I was the biggest kid in here so I never had any practice partners. One of the coaches worked with me and it was just getting used to not having those other kids that are there to push you.”
Junior Ethan O’Linc, who wrestles at 132 pounds, could see a difference when the football players returned with a title in hand.
“It was a struggle for a bit for the first few weeks but with all the football players you could sort of see that they were more jumpy and more peppy,” he said.
Moore said good football and wrestling programs go hand-in-hand.
“I will take football success every year because it is teaching (the wrestlers) all the accountability and the responsibility of competing and all the other valuable life lessons,” Moore said. “Coach Welter runs such a good program that I know when I get them in here they will be in pretty good athletic shape and their minds where will be where they to be because they know what it takes and they know how dedicated they need to be to have that success.”
One of those returning football players was junior Matt Kerr, who is currently the No. 3-ranked wrestler at 195 pounds by illinoismatmen.com, and is eager to begin the postseason after missing last year’s sectionals due to illness.
“Last year I had mono and I wrestled at regionals to get to sectionals but I couldn’t go on,” he said. “This year I’m trying to be smarter. Keep working hard and don’t get ill. Don’t stay outside so long. I don’t want to miss out on this year.”
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Kerr has been making the most of his time this season, building a 30-2 record and first-place finishes at the Cumberland Skull & Crossbones Tournament and the Princeton Tournament. His victory at Princeton was a rare accomplishment.
“He’s only the third wrestler in our school’s program to win at Princeton. It’s quite a feat,” Moore said. “There are weight classes where five out of the top-10-ranked guys in the state are competing. He beat some really good kids and ended up on top of the podium.”
Moore was impressed with Kerr’s reaction to his setback at last year’s sectionals.
“Even at the time Matt was looking ahead at this season and started setting his goals and obviously he is a competitor and has a whole lot of desire to be at the top,” Moore said.
O’Linc (31-8) has qualified for the state tournament the last two seasons and Menacher (29-6) is looking for his first trip, but both grapplers reached important milestones this season in their development as team leaders.
“Ethan and Seth both got their 100th career wins this season,” Moore said. “(Ethan’s) our energy guy, if he’s quiet and sitting still you know something is wrong with him. He is always full of energy all the time, light-hearted, even before his matches.
“(Seth’s) determination and work ethic showed a big improvement this year and he has the respect from his teammates as a leader because of the way he carried himself in the room this season.”
O’Linc was a match away from placing in last year’s tournament and this year he has become more aggressive, which could be seen in his 100th victory match.
“It was a memorable match because I never go a match with the other guy not scoring and me winning by points," O'Linc said. "They will normally get a takedown and then I will pin them. But this time I won 15-0 which was a memorable moment for me.
“This season I’ve improved at (neutral position). I used to never shoot and now I’m starting to shoot a lot more."
O’Linc's exuberance for the postseason is contagious.
“I’m so excited. I really can’t measure it. I’m so happy that it’s this time of the season,” he said. “You see how all the wrestlers devote their entire season to get here and you get to watch your teammates and see how far you can go and see how far you have come. “