East Peoria seeks mat success

Bryan Veginski
Jacob McCartney, top, an East Peoria senior, was 31-10 and qualified for the Illinois High School Association Class 2A wrestling state tournament a year ago. One of the Raiders' key returnees, he also was a Mid-Illini Conference champion.

The East Peoria wrestling team was ranked in the top 10 last year.

Senior Jacob McCartney thinks that is a realistic goal this season as the Raiders gear up for their season opener Tuesday vs. Normal West.

“We were sixth (in Class 2A) last year. I can’t see why we can’t do that again this year,” said McCartney, the 120-pound Mid-Illini Conference champion and an Illinois High School Association state qualifier in a 31-10 campaign.

East Peoria had a remarkable 2013-14 season in which it went 19-1 in duals before placing second in the league and second at its own regional.

The Raiders have a lot to work with from a talent standpoint, but also need to hope for the best with injuries, eligibility and other issues that can arise.

“We have a lot of kids back,” EPCHS head coach Phil Johns said. “But a lot of luck goes into a wrestling season.”

Senior Clarence Gomez also was a state qualifier and second-team all-league at 170. He was a regional champion like McCartney while compiling a 33-8 record.

“Overall, everything is going pretty good,” said Gomez, who has a goal of placing at state. “Our team looks pretty strong this year.”

Bryce Sandoval, a senior, was a conference champ and regional title winner as well at 145.

Sandoval noted he is farther along this year and his confidence has grown.

“I’ve gotten back into things pretty quick,” he said. “I feel pretty good about this year.”

McCartney, Gomez and Sandoval all will stay in their same weight class or move up one spot.

Junior Phoenix Stuart was second-team all-M-I a season ago, as well as sectional qualifiers.

Junior Nick Spokely and senior Evan Betz also advanced past the regional stage for East Peoria.

The rest of the varsity roster includes: seniors Justin Bicknell, Justin Doty, Jason Wells, Manuel Garza, Samuel Hoffman, Karson Klyber and Jacob Lovell; juniors Richie Messer, Thayer Stanford, Karson Richardson and Devin Worrick; and sophomore Chris Henricks.

The Raiders were the conference runner-up for the fourth year in a row.

They were 5-1 in duals last winter and lost narrowly to five-time champ Washington, 192.5-186.5, in the winner-take-all league tournament.

The Panthers are the favorite to extend their title streak, but East Peoria plans to do everything it can to knock off Washington.

The Raiders host an intriguing Mid-Illini triangular Dec. 5 in which Washington and Pekin are present. Those are the probable top-three squads again in the conference.

“I believe it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” Johns said of a wrestling year.

Casey McWhirter, a four-time all-league selection, including three times on the first team, was a key graduation departure.

Fellow Class of 2014 athletes Drew Foster and Tony Hall also received multiple all-M-I awards.  

Nearly opposite of the East Peoria boys basketball team, the wrestlers have no home matches after mid-Decemeber.

The Raiders appear five times in Allison Gymnasium in a 13-day span, culminating with Senior Night Dec. 15 vs. Petersburg PORTA, before hitting the road permanently.

The most notable addition to an enhanced season slate is a Jan. 24 triangular in Lombard with state power Montini and Pontiac.

The Broncos have 12 dual team state titles in the last 15 years, including the last seven in 2A.

“We beefed up the schedule to prepare for the postseason,” said Johns. “This team can handle that schedule.”