The East Peoria wrestling team put an exclamation point on its season Feb. 2.
The Raiders won the Class 2A Morton Regional, the program’s first title at that level in eight years.
“It felt great for the kids, the school, the community,” EPCHS head coach Phil Johns said of the regional title.
Johns is grateful for the athletes at East Peoria.
“They look up to me and buy into what I have to say. I treat each one equally,” he said.
The Raiders knocked off Washington, Illinois Matmen’s then-fifth-ranked team in 2A. The second-place Panthers won the regional the previous three seasons.
“That started us off right for the postseason,” said senior Kade McDonald, who was the runner-up in 195 pounds to earn one of East Peoria’s nine individual sectional berths.
The Raiders rose all the way to No. 8, a five-spot gain, in the Feb. 6 Illinois Matmen poll.
Additional state-rated teams Notre Dame and Central also competed at Morton.
East Peoria responded positively from the previous week’s disappointment of losing the Mid-Illini Conference title to the Panthers.
Among the topics Johns talked with the squad about were coming back from a loss and the wrestlers believing in themselves.
He took the grapplers into the hallway at Morton to scan the various regional plaques the Potters earned over the years.
Johns told the team it would leave with Illinois High School Association hardware, and the Raiders made that statement a reality.
“What it came down to was the extra guys,” said 220 senior Lucas Joseph, one of four East Peoria regional champions.
It was pointed out sophomore Jacob Lovell’s pin of Washington’s Kyle Stratton in the 170 class clinched the championship for the Raiders.
The team had 12 wrestlers place in the top four.
Assistant wrestling coaches Zach Fleming and Ryan Hacker combine with Johns to offer a unified message.
After many close calls in recent seasons, East Peoria broke through to win a regular season and postseason tournament title in 2012-13.
”That shows us hard work and perseverance pays off,” said Johns.
On Tuesday, East Peoria will make its second trip this month to Rochelle for a match against No. 5 Geneseo.
If the Raiders can get past the Maple Leafs, they will earn a slot in the quarterfinals of the dual team state final in Bloomington for the first time in school history.
“Everyone on the team feels extremely confident going into that,” Joseph said.
Like McDonald and Joseph, senior Austin Harper first focused, along with the rest of his teammates, on the individual state series.
Page 2 of 2 - “If I wrestle to my ability, I can make it into the top four and make it to Champaign,” regional champ Harper said Feb. 6 as the wrestlers prepared for the first voyage to Rochelle.
The trio of 12th graders will get a bonus week with their teammates.
“It’s nice the season won’t end right after state,” McDonald said.