Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2013, 8:28 pm

Maple Leafs look to seize their opportunity

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By Daniel Makarewicz, danmak@qconline.com

Photo: Douglas Cottle | PhotoNews
Geneseo’s Hunter Grau battles in his Class 2A 120-pound state wrestling match at this year’s IHSA Individual State Wrestling Tournament. Grau and his Geneseo teammates will now begin dual state-tournament action in Rochelle on Tuesday against East Peoria.
GENESEO -- As soon as the bus stopped, so did the history bid.

Upon arriving at the Class AA Rock Falls Sectional on a Tuesday evening 18 years ago, the Geneseo wrestling team learned the event was postponed. Jon Murray, then an assistant coach, remembers thinking to himself that the delay would be rectified and the dual-team sectional would be completed.

"We didn't realize the severity of it at first," said Murray, the current Geneseo head coach. "We never saw it coming that they were going to cancel the whole thing."

A lawsuit filed by Chicago Mount Carmel tried to overrule the Illinois High School Association's decision that it was disqualified from the state series for competing in too many tournaments in 1995. The legal hassle forced the postponed of the sectional that night before the IHSA ultimately canceled the Class AA series.

No dual-team state tournament meant Geneseo's run was over.

"When it finally came down," Murray said, "it was a shock."

Eighteen years passed before the Maple Leafs had another chance to reach this level.

"There are years where other teams are so far ahead of you that it's not as realistic," Murray said. "Now, our time has finally come. It's a new, exciting feeling."

Winning the Class 2A Rock Island Regional title two weeks ago puts Geneseo one win away from its first-ever state tournament berth. All the Maple Leafs need to do is outlast East Peoria in the Rochelle Sectional on Tuesday.

A win means a state quarterfinal appearance, something no Geneseo boys' team other than football has accomplished.

"We have an opportunity to go far," Geneseo 220-pound senior Cam Panicucci said. "We're excited."

Rewind three months. Expectations outside the Geneseo wrestling room did not have this team reaching this point and certainly not winning more than 20 duals. There was some solid pieces coming back, but question marks with a roster relying on youth made it seem the Maple Leafs were a year away.

What followed was a stretch in which the Maple Leafs won the Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference West Division title as they finished the regular season with a 21-2 mark. Geneseo's two losses came against Class 3A regional champion Machesney Park Harlem and Iowa Class 3A state qualifier Pleasant Valley.

"We're excited for the opportunity," Murray said. "I hope we're 'on.' If every kid up and down the lineup shows up for every match, then some cool things can happen."

All this is similar to 18 years ago. Geneseo entered the sectional dual against DeKalb with confidence and seven state qualifiers.

The conclusion to that season was a canceled state series and lingering frustration.

Those emotions give way to hope and excitement.

Geneseo only had three state qualifiers and one medalist, but its lineup is built on quality at each weight. The Maple Leafs have outlasted opponents because they consistently have 14 individuals who can consistently win.

"We just have solid wrestlers," Panicucci said.

With that creates some excitement the Maple Leafs can do special things.

"We're living in this buzz right now," Murray said.

All that needs to happen is the sectional actually happening.

"We've had a good couple weeks of practice getting ready for this opportunity," Murray said. "We'll be ready."

Nothing, at the moment, appears to be stopping Geneseo's run.

"I just have a good, positive feeling," Murray said. "There's something about the newness of this. It's history. You can't help but be excited."


Mercer County going for repeat

A year after taking third in the Class 1A dual-team tournament, the Mercer County wrestling team seeks a repeat trip.

The Golden Eagles will face Harvard in the Byron Sectional at 6 p.m. on Tuesday.

"The last several weeks, we've wrestled well," Mercer County coach Jeremy Finch said. "Right now, we have confidence."

Regional champions for a second consecutive season, Mercer County competes in a familiar setting. With armed with experience, Finch said the Golden Eagles enter the sectional with "confidence" based on the finish they earned last year.

"We came into the season knowing we'd have a target on our back," Finch said. "For us, we go into the sectional knowing this is our goal and we've been there before."