Looking around the wrestling room all season, Marist junior Conor Phelan could see the talent up and down the RedHawks lineup.
Phelan was proud to be among that lineup, but more than that, he felt the need to prove he belonged.
“A lot of my teammates definitely seem superior to me in a lot of aspects,” Phelan said. “I proved that I belong in that lineup with them. I love all my teammates, but I really wanted to prove something.”
At the state meet, Phelan did just that and closed out his junior year in style, defeating Bradley-Bourbonnais’ AJ Mancilla with a fall in 1:57 to finish in third place at 182 pounds.
The state meet was held Feb. 16-18 at the University of Illinois’ State Farm Center in Champaign. The state championship and medal rounds were held Feb. 18.
Phelan finished the season with a 34-16 record.
“It felt really satisfying. It felt everything I was doing all year finally paid off,” he said. “It cleared a lot of doubt out of my mind, personally.”
Phelan was one of four medal winners for the RedHawks. Senior Peter Marinopoulos finished as state runner-up at 195 pounds; senior Luke Liberatore finished fourth at 220 pounds; and sophomore Will Denny took fourth at 145 pounds.
Phelan took control late in the first round. In a blink, he took Mancilla down and pinned him. Phelan also defeated him in the quarterfinals.
“My only goal this year was to place,” Phelan said. “After I wrestled the same kid in the quarters and got that win, I was out in the open, and I was having fun. I felt like I was in his head, if anything. I knew I was probably the most relaxed person in this whole tournament right now. I had nothing to lose.”
For Liberatore, the fourth-place finish was a fitting close to a hard-fought high school career. He battled through knee injuries in his freshman and junior seasons, but he came back strong for his senior campaign.
“It was a few times that I wasn’t sure if I should continue with wrestling,” Liberatore said. “I blew up my knee freshman year, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to wrestle again. I had surgery, and it’s been 100 times better ever since. I talked to my counselor, and he talked me through it. He said, ‘It’s your last season. Go finish it.”
Liberatore lost a close 4-3 decision to Plainfield North’s Leonardo Tovar and finished his senior season with a 34-12 record.
Liberatore’s brother, Jacob, was also a state qualifier for Marist at 170. Luke plans on wrestling in college.
“It’s crazy to be here,” said Luke Liberatore. “This place is just huge. There are so many people here and just competing against the top people. My brother and I, we’ve competed for years at national tournaments, state tournaments over time. You get used to it, but being here at state is kind of crazy for the both of us.”
Denny wrestled at 138 for most of the season before bumping up to 145 just before the state playoffs.
“I was having trouble making weight at 138, so it was the week of regionals I made the move up to 145,” Denny said. “It definitely was a really hard decision. I had to trust my gut. I went back and forth, but I’m happy with the outcome.”
Denny lost via a fall in the first round to Belvidere North’s Antonio Alvarado. He finished the season with a 27-8 record.
Last year, he lost in the blood round at state, just missing out on the medal round.
“Fourth isn’t what I wanted, but I learned from it. It’s just fuel for the fire,” Denny said. “I’m definitely happy with it, and I’m going to enjoy it. I’m happy with getting fourth place this year against some tough opponents. I’m excited, and I’ll definitely be back, hopefully, in the finals next year.”
Marinopoulos (Cassell) lost in the championship match to Libertyville’s Cole Matulneko. On a first-round takedown, Marinopoulos appeared to have suffered a head injury and was quickly pinned.
Marinopoulos, a University of Illinois recruit, compiled a 20-1 record in his senior season. As a junior at 195 pounds, he finished as state runner-up.
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