Friends, family and hardcore fanatics


This past week’s local sporting expedition took me 11.3 miles north to the Byron 1A wrestling sectional. A 1A wrestling sectional can attract up to 3,000 fans per session and Oregon and Byron are about the only facilities among the 43 schools that feed into it capable of handling it.

In fact, I venture to guess this particular sectional gets larger crowds than anything in 2A or 3A. With the larger schools, one would think it would be the other way around.

Not so. Smaller communities in the northern part of the state where wrestling has always had a proud heritage, support it like nowhere else in Illinois. It truly is grass roots with friends, family and hardcore fanatics.

Credit to these folks, as wrestling could be the toughest of all sports to spectate at. Unlike other sports that operate on set times, wrestling usually goes on a rolling schedule, dependent on mat availability and how long each bout takes.

I’ve covered it for 25 years and still can’t crack the code on when the best time to show up is. Another drawback for these hardy fans is long slogs in the bleachers, even though Byron went from wooden bleachers to a more comfortable plastic type.

Let’s take the sectional for example. On Saturday, action started at 10 a.m. with a break in the action at about 1 p.m. By IHSA rules, the gym must be cleared and fans must wait another hour before being re-admitted, thus being forced to pay twice.

Anyone who sticks it out for the whole day has a full eight-hour shift in. That doesn’t count “windshield time”, as some schools hail from as far as the Quad Cities area.

With non-stop action on multiple mats, there is always something to see, though the real payoff comes when a wrestler from your town steps into the ring.

Another observation from 25 years is that wrestling truly is an intersection of family and friends. I see kids that I used to cover that are now helping coach their own kids. I see fans from neighboring towns cheering on each other, except when someone from the hometown is on the mat.

Compared to most other high school sports, wrestling in more like the Wild West when it comes to coaching. Many a program welcomes “volunteer” coaches, often a former wrestler or dad.

I couldn’t imagine that flying on a football or basketball staff. On an aside, I came from an era where in all sports, only teachers within the school were allowed to coach.

However, schools were more insular back then. Nowadays, they welcome outside involvement more readily.

Because of its competitive nature and its grass roots feel, the individual wrestling sectional remains one of my favorite events of the year. The dual sectional, not so much.

In analyzing the results, it was the Woodstock Marian show with five champions and three other state qualifiers. Since 2018, Marian had plenty of appearances in state 2A dual meet.

With a declining enrollment (389 actual, 641 multiplied), Marian has fallen under the 1A cutoff of 738, but still maintains a 2A quality program as evidenced by their domination at Byron.

Byron, which will face Marian in the dual sectional, had but a third and fourth place finisher. Byron and Stillman Valley were the hard-luck teams of the sectional, as both had four wrestlers each one win away of advancing downstate.

On the positive, one of Byron’s qualifiers, 33-14 freshman Brody Stien caught a huge break when a higher-ranked wrestler from Sandwich did not make weight Saturday and couldn’t compete, opening up the door for Stien to grab that final spot.

Trying to rebuild its program to what it was used to be, Oregon qualified three wrestlers for state, a big improvement over a time not long ago when they couldn’t get a single person out of the regional, albeit a tough one that year.

“It can be like the old days again at Oregon, with all the young kids we have coming up and the roomful of coaches we have,” Coach Justin Lahman said. “It’s huge getting the older coaches back.”

Finally, congratulations to Sectional Grand Marshals Chris Bonnell and Mike Elsbury.

Chris is a behind-the-scenes guy that exemplifies what makes our area special for wrestling. He fell in love with the sport as an eighth grader in Amboy and carried it over to Byron when he moved there as an adult. The whole time, he stood ready to help at whatever was needed to promote and build the sport at all levels.

Next week, it is basketball talk, as the girls post season will be well underway and the boys cranking it up.

Andy Colbert is a longtime Ogle County resident with years of experience covering sports and more for multiple area publications.