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Barnhart is a man on a mission: Win a state title

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CHAMPAIGN — He looked focused, eyes locked on every match happening in front of him, trying to pick up any little aspect that could help him in the next few days.

He looked relaxed, leaning back in Mahomet-Seymour's gym bleachers, taking up three rows with his arms resting behind him and his legs fully extended in front.

Most importantly, he looked like he was having fun, laughing with teammates and coaches and sporting a big smile in every conversation.

"I'm enjoying my last high school season," Centennial senior wrestler Jack Barnhart said. "Not that I didn't enjoy it last year, but there were some times where I took it too seriously. It's a high school sport. This isn't life or death. It's supposed to be fun. That's what I've been doing this year is making it fun."

Barnhart, the Chargers' undefeated heavyweight, had already punched his ticket to the IHSA state finals for the third consecutive season by the time the championship rounds started at this past Saturday's Class 2A Mahomet-Seymour Sectional, pinning his quarterfinal opponent in a little more than 60 seconds and his semifinal challenger moments into the second period.

His championship foe had to medically forfeit, giving Barnhart his second straight sectional title.

This allowed Barnhart to sit back for the rest of the meet — although, he would have rather wrestled — and watch as senior teammates Andon Beldo and Trevor Schoonover locked up third place in their respective weight classes to earn a spot alongside him inside State Farm Center starting Thursday afternoon.

"It's awesome," Barnhart said. "We get one more week for us three to practice and get better. Hopefully, we can all three place. Or win. That'd be awesome."

That's the goal this year. Barnhart placed fourth at state as a sophomore and sixth as a junior, both at 220 pounds. After bumping up to the 285-pound division for his senior season, his sights are set on standing atop the podium when state finals begin Thursday. He enters as the favorite, having compiled a 40-0 record. Only one other wrestler in the 285-pound 2A bracket, Crstyal Lake South senior Andy Burburija, is undefeated. Burburija, who could potentially meet Barnhart in the state championship match, is 32-0.

"I've placed twice, but I don't want to place anymore," Barnhart said. "I want to be in the finals, and I want to win."

'I just use that for motivation'

Going into his junior season, Barnhart had expectations of doing something only one other Centennial wrestler ever had before. Whenever he walked through Coleman Carrodine Gym, he'd look up at a banner of Justin Cardani, a current Illinois wrestler who won a 2A state title at 106 pounds in 2017 and another 2A state title at 113 pounds in 2018.

"I looked up there, and I was like, 'It'd be really awesome to have one up there of me,'" Barnhart said. "It's definitely something I've thought about before. It would mean a ton to me. Coming back after I graduate and being able to see that up there, it'd be really cool."

This was one year removed from being one of the surprises of the 2022 state finals, a little-known sophomore wrestling his way to fourth place, the first Centennial sophomore to ever place at state.

Once Barnhart saw he could compete with the state's best, his work ethic and development took off. He entered the 2023 state finals as the top seed at 220 in the 2A bracket with a record of 36-2.

Centennial senior Ettavias Holmen-Anderson, Barnhart's practice partner the last three years who fell one win short of qualifying for state this season, said Barnhart earned the right to be confident heading into the final meet of last season.

"I'm envious in a way," Holmen-Anderson said. "I wish I could have that type of talent because not everyone does, and I know that. At the same time, I know he works hard for it. He comes to practice, and he works hard. Even though his matches don't last that long, he makes sure he gives his all."

Centennial coach Andrew Nyland expected Barnhart to reach the semifinals last year without any problems, and that's exactly what happened, as he breezed through the first two rounds. That's where things were going to get more difficult. But Nyland was still confident his star junior would come out on top.

Barnhart had that same belief, and that's why it came as a shock when he lost 6-4 in the semifinals to Washington's Justin Hoffer, the eventual state champion.

"My plan was to win," Barnhart said. "Obviously, you've got to be careful with that and not be like, 'Oh, I'm just going to walk through this tournament,' and that's not what I was thinking. I knew it was going to be challenging, and I think I was prepared. Sometimes, it just doesn't fall your way."

Nyland said Barnhart made a couple "silly" mistakes that cost him the match, and he "lost his head" toward the end. That compounded into the consolation semifinals, where Barnhart fell 7-6 to Bremen's Alex Jackson. Again, his mind wasn't quite right.

After that loss, Barnhart walked off the mat and got sick in a nearby trash can, something Nyland had never seen from him before.

"I think he wanted to be done," Nyland said.

The only match left was a fifth-place bout against Mattoon's Leo Meyer, whom Barnhart beat earlier in the season. At that point, there was nothing left to prove, and Barnhart's head was not in it. He decided to take a medical forfeit and settle for sixth place.

"I let the last match get in the way of the next one," Barnhart said. "I'm not happy it happened, but there are some positives I took out of it, just knowing that no matter what happened in the past, you can always change the future. I just use that for motivation."

'Deal with success and failure'

The story of harnessing that competitive drive and working through everything sports can throw at you comes from his childhood. Barnhart's father, Justin Barnhart, remembers the exact moment his son developed that spark.

"At 5 years old, he comes to me and says, 'Dad, I want to wrestle,'" Justin recalled. "I said, 'Do you know what that means? We're not talking WWF or WWE. This is different.'"

Jack knew what it meant, and he was serious. He was always a bigger kid, and he had "quite a bit" of success in his early stages. With that success came confidence, which set him up for an emotional wake-up call not even two years into his young wrestling journey.

"No one likes to lose, and he'd tear up," Justin said. "It was a great opportunity for him to deal with success and failure, learn work ethic and perseverance and develop grit and resilience. All the things you want your kids to have and take with them for the rest of their lives."

Fast-forward to today, and Jack is a two-time All-State football player, a two-time All-State wrestler and is poised to make another run at a state title.

"It has been awesome," Justin said of watching his son grow up with sports. "Jack is the football player he is today, the wrestler he is today, the man he is today because of youth wrestling."

'He's an absolute monster'

After only losing twice all year, Barnhart ended his junior season with three consecutive losses. Rather than continue to let it fester, however, he got back to work.

First on his offseason agenda was a decision. The IHSA bumped the 220-pound weight class down to 215 pounds, so Barnhart could either cut back to make the new weight or bulk up to compete in the 285-pound class. Knowing he wanted to wrestle in college, and knowing the college weight classes would make him cut even more if he decided to go the smaller route, he committed himself to competing as a heavyweight.

Nyland believed being a smaller heavyweight would actually be an advantage. Barnhart has proven to be just as strong, if not stronger, than everyone he wrestles, and he's bound to be more nimble, as he walks on his hands during practice warmups.

"He might be 40 or 50 pounds lighter than all the other guys out there," Nyland said, "but he moves two or three times as fast at the minimum."

Barnhart started training with Patton Trained Wrestling in Tolono, led by Logan Patton, the coach at Unity High School who has helped the Rockets become one of the most successful area programs year in and year out. He partnered with Nick Nosler, a 1A state champ at 195 pounds for Unity last year, who pushed him every day.

Barnhart competed in the Greco Roman Junior National Championships in Fargo, N.D., this past summer. He lost to Navarro Schunke from South Dakota in the round of 16 and placed 12th, just one win away from earning All-American honors.

He felt ready for his senior season with the same goal in mind.

"Finishing what I started," Barnhart said. "I've been pretty successful in my high school career so far, but I haven't gone over that next step. For me, it's getting that next step, which is winning a state title."

Holmen-Anderson said he's seen a heightened level of focus from Barnhart this year. That confidence is still there, but he's much more self-aware and locked in to what he has to do.

"This year, he's not as much in his head," Holmen-Anderson said. "Yeah, he's confident — you need to be confident if you want to push to that level — but he knows he's not the biggest and baddest. He knows there's more out there, and he's prepared to go in."

Barnhart's headspace became even more free Jan. 22 when he verbally committed to play football and wrestle at McKendree University. Earlier in the season, he was still unsure which sport he wanted to pursue, and this gave him the opportunity to keep doing both at the Division II school in southern Illinois.

"He's free of stress and ready to just go out there and wrestle," Nyland said. "I think he's just as determined as he was last year. He's just mentally lighter. He's not worried about everything. He just goes out there and wrestles, and he looks like he's having fun."

It's led Barnhart to his 40-0 season, and his opponents have no issue talking about what makes him so special. St. Thomas More senior heavyweight Robbie Vavrik wrestled Barnhart in early January at the Twin City meet and said his goal was to just survive the first round.

"He's a beast," said Vavrik, who went 34-7 and qualified for a Class 1A sectioanl. "When we wrestled, I was 270. I can bench 360, deadlift 500, whatever. This guy comes in at 232 that day and just bullies me like I'm no one. ... His strength and speed, for a heavyweight, you don't see that. He's an absolute monster out there. He's incredible."

'He's a gentle giant'

As intimidating as Barnhart can be for his opponents, he's one of the more approachable kids you'll meet. When there's still work to be done on the wrestling mat, he's locked in, pacing back and forth with headphones in and a blank look on his face. But when he's done, he's always talking and cracking jokes.

"He's lighthearted, a bit of a goofball, almost always in a good mood," Nyland said with a laugh. "He might look big, but he's a gentle giant. He's not going to hurt anybody."

Along with his athletic prowess, Barnhart has a 3.97 GPA, showing that his work ethic transcends sports and letting his parents breathe a little easier when thinking about their son tackling two sports in college.

Justin Barnhart credits the "outstanding" teachers, coaches and friends Jack has surrounded himself with for the quality young man he's become.

"When you put yourself around good people and do the right thing, good things are going to happen to you," Justin said. "My wife and I can't take credit for all of that. It takes a village to make that happen."

Jack is a guy who likes to play video games to blow off the steam from his constant activity.

He's a guy who grew out his curly hair that he didn't know he had "just to see how it goes," joking that he could go bald soon.

He's a guy who loves to play guitar. He started playing in middle school, learning "all sorts" of genres, which is why he likes listening to all kinds of music.

"It just looks cool," Barnhart said of why he picked up guitar. "When you see people playing guitar, you're like, 'Wow, that's awesome. I wish I could do that.' I was pretty bad at first, like with anything. I kept putting time into it, and I'm decent now. The time you put in is what you're going to get out of it."

'What I've done since I was little'

Barnhart still thinks about that state semifinal loss from a year ago occassionally, but it doesn't bother him as much now. It's not something he's going to forget, but he knows he can't change it. All he can control is his preparation, and he believes he's done all he can to put himself in the best position to reach his goal this weekend.

"In previous years, I would have worried a little bit and let things get to me," Barnhart said. "I'll be nervous, but as soon as I step out there, I'm just doing what I've done since I was little. Just going out there and trying to score points. However the cards fall, they fall."

He's had the perfect season to this point, undefeated and feeling more confident and liberated than ever. If there ever was a time to hang another banner next to Cardani's, it's now.

"If he goes out there and wrestles his match," Nyland said, "I don't think there's any problem he'll take home a title."