Pekin wrestling champions again behind four first-place finishes

The Pekin Panthers had a dominant performance from their wrestling program at the North English Sectionals of February 3. Eight of the 12 who competed are moving onto Districts, and four of the eight took home first-place finishes. When the points were all tallied, the Panthers finished out on top, with their second straight first-place finish as a team in as many weekends.

All they do is win, or that's at least been the case recent for the Pekin wrestling program. As the stage gets even bigger and the field begins to narrow, they continue to excel, which led them to winning the sectional wrestling meet in North English on February 3.

Twelve wrestlers suited up in hopes of continuing their season, and eight of them will be moving onto districts, inching closer to the State tournament. Of the eight who are advancing, four of them dominated their way to the top of the podium.

Tyler Gillum (113-pounds) was the first wrestler for Pekin to compete. After receiving a bye in the first round, Gillum got matched up with English Valleys' Timmy Stecklein. Gillum ended up getting pinned in the second period of that match, and then was pinned late in the first period of his next match, which ended his day and likely his season.

Logan Sieren got things back on track for the Panthers in the 126-pound weight class bracket. The much older senior went up against a freshman from HLV, and though Sieren had fewer matches under his belt this season, still came out on top with a pin late in the second period. From there he faced off against Iowa Valley for the championship, in a match that went the distance. Sieren came out on top of a 10-8 decision and was the first Pekin wrestler to podium on the day.

Zach Hammes followed that up with a run himself in the 132-pound weight class bracket. Hammes made quick work of his opponent after getting a bye, taking him down in the first period. He did just the same in the first-place matchup, pinning his man at the 1:31 mark in the dual, and taking home the top spot.

"They're focused, we've been working on a lot of the mental stuff this week more so than the wrestling," Panthers coach Al Chapman said. "You could see it in some of the guys' eyes. We had several of them who'd never won a tournament get a medal in this sectional. I'm super proud of that and hope to keep them rolling."

The next bracket of 138 pounds also had a podium finish, as Drake Harbison took second place. He won his second-round match by way of pin in the middle of the second period, setting himself up for a matchup with Nick Ives of Sigourney-Keota for the title. He wound up losing that match in an extremely close 5-6 decision, and then took second place by beating the man he'd already beat by way of a rule.

Hunter Conger had a similar approach to getting the runner-up in the 145-pound weight class bracket. He beat his first opponent narrowly, by way of an 8-7 decision, but was then quickly pinned in the championship match. He took second place via a ruling by facing the same opponent twice and was the fourth to advance.

"We want to keep this going, sending eight to districts, we can ride off of that," Chapman said. "We wanted to build off the momentum from winning conference, and now every Saturday will begin to get tougher."

Keaton Baayen gave Pekin another champion as he wrestled his way to the top spot in the 152-pound weight class bracket. Baayen still had fresh legs in the title match, as he was able to pin his opponent in under 30 seconds. The first-place matchup provided some drama, with a slow first period of no scoring. The same thing happened in the second period until Baayen was able to pick up some points late. Just when his opponent was starting to climb back into it, he remained calm on the mat and then quickly whipped around to take two points. In the same swift move, Baayen flipped his man on his back and pinned him down.

Kaden Baker was the final Panther to stand atop the podium as he competed in the 160-pound weight class bracket. Baker was able to pin his opponent late in the first period, which set him up for the first-place matchup. In that dual, he ended up going the distance and came out on top of a 5-1 decision.

Jordan Hixson (170-pounds) was the second Panther not to advance onto the following weekend. He faced off against Sigourney-Keota's Nate Schuster in the first round, in a relatively energetic match early in the day. Hixson wound up winning a 12-3 decision, but for a duration of the match the score was much closer. He then wound up losing his next match, which also went the distance, but was on the shorter end of a 9-14 decision.

Skyler Juhl (182-pounds) was up next for the Panthers, giving himself a chance at first but wound up in second place. Skyler matched up with Cael Hester of English Valleys and beat him 22-7 in commanding fashion. He was then pinned very quickly in the championship match, losing to his Iowa Valley opponent who touted a 50-1 record. Skyler and Hester linked up again for the second-place match, and by rule Skyler was awarded the higher spot.

Mason Juhl (195-pounds) followed suit in a runner-up finish for the Panthers. Mason took down Sigourney-Keota Mac Conrad in the second round with a 12-6 decision, but then was pinned late in the first period of the championship match. Conrad and Mason were matched up again for second-place, with Mason winning by rule.

Ethan Cookey (220-pounds) and Kaden Pollock (285-pounds) were unable to move on to districts, and most likely saw their season come to an end. Though Cooksey touted a winning record, he found himself matched up with Kaleb Reeves of Sigourney-Keota and was pinned midway through the first period. From there he went on to lose a 2-14 mid-match decision to English Valleys' Noah McCammant. Pollock went the distance in his lone match of the day but fell short of a 1-4 decision to Sigourney-Keota's Sam Fowler.

"I didn't anticipate this at the beginning of the year, but it's something you dream about," Chapman said. "The guys have grasped what the coaches have thrown at them and we're having fun. We've broken so many records and still have a lot in front of us we can still do, that's what these guys take pride in."

The Panthers will get the week to focus and prepare themselves for Districts, which are held at Pleasantville on February 10.