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Barnhart on verge of state title; same for Inman, Capansky, Eastin, Cuppernell

Feb. 17—CHAMPAIGN — Jack Barnhart put it best.

"At this point, it's survive and advance," Barnhart said. "It doesn't matter how you get it."

The Centennial senior heavyweight was talking about his Thursday night quarterfinal match of the Class 2A state wrestling finals against Rockford East's Lee Smith, a match at State Farm Center that Barnhart barely won 6-5. It was a back-and-forth battle in which Barnhart had to fight back from an early deficit and secure a late takedown to retake the lead, all while his nose leaked with blood.

The favorite of the 285-pound weight class admitted he didn't wrestle his best match and Smith had a solid plan for him, but he was right. The only aspect that mattered was the final score, and Barnhart clapped his hands and showed some emotion as the final buzzer sounded.

"Wrestling is one of those sports where it could go either way a lot of times," Barnhart said. "I knew I was better than him, so I just kept going and found a way to win, and that's what matters. A lot of guys here are seniors, and it could be some of their last chances to wrestle, so everyone's giving their all out there. It makes the skill gap a lot smaller because everyone wants to win."

The gritty win moved Barnhart to Friday night's semifinals, where he wrestled East Peoria's Jose Del Toro, whom he had beaten twice before. Barnhart reached this stage last year but let the pressure get to him and lost his last three matches to place sixth at 220 after taking fourth the year prior.

This time, he left no doubt, pinning Del Toro in just 1 minute, 43 seconds to finally reach the championship match and make sure his decorated senior campaign with the Chargers will see him trying to become only the second Centennial wrestler to win a state title.

"A lot of pressure off myself now," Barnhart said. "Now, it's just one more match. ... I'll be nervous when I go out there, but I'm just excited."

Barnhart has approached his senior season differently. He feels the pressure and acknowledges the expectations, but he hasn't let it bother him. His mind is clear, and he's ready for whatever outcome is in store for him on Saturday night when he faces fellow unbeaten Andy Burburija (35-0) of Crystal Lake South.

"The big thing for me is not making it something bigger than it is," Barnhart said. "When you do that, you put yourself at a disadvantage. For me, it's just another match."

Hoopeston duo shares success

It's been more than a decade since the Hoopeston Area wrestling team had multiple athletes place at state.

With juniors Angel Zamora and Ayden Larkin's Class 1A quarterfinal victories on Thursday night, they guaranteed themselves a top-six finish in their respective weight classes, rewriting the Cornjerker history books.

"I guess we're marking ourselves with Hoopeston history," Zamora said. "That's what keeps me going through the matches is holding myself to that higher standard."

The teammates and close friends took different routes to the state finals. Zamora had been to state before, making the quarterfinals at 160 pounds a year ago with Larkin watching from the stands, and he came into this season with loftier goals in mind.

Zamora, now at 175 this season, pinnned each of his opponents in both the 1A Unity Regional and 1A Olympia Sectional to reach state.

Larkin, at 157, had to work a little harder. He took a runner-up finish at regionals and then placed fourth at the sectional meet to become his weight class' final state qualifier.

"Last year, I had to take this path alone," Zamora said. "All I wanted was to have someone to do it with, and now I get to do it with my best friend."

They didn't stop there. Zamora continued his dominance, taking a 20-2 win by technical fall over Coal City's James Keigher in his preliminary match and pinning Mt. Zion's Vincent Fiore in 3 minutes, 38 seconds in the quarterfinals. Larkin emerged with a 5-2 win against Seneca's Gunner Varland and an 8-6 win against Newman's Daniel Kelly.

"I came to watch (Zamora) last year, and not being able to get on the mat helped a lot with pushing forward," Larkin said. "Not really seeing my name in the rankings and predictions and then seeing how I'm doing is an eye-opener." But neither Zamora or Larkin will get a chance to wrestle for a state title. They both took three-point losses — Larkin losin 9-6 to Oakwood/Salt Fork senior Bryson Capansky and Zamora losing 13-10 to Manteno senior Carter Watkins — to end their championship chances.

But coming one match shy of the finals was still special.

"I have a chance to make some more school history. That's what I'm pretty excited for," Zamora said. "I just want to keep my name in these Hoopeston books."

Around the area

Unity is sending both its semifinal wrestlers to the finals after Kaden Inman at 144 won an exciting overtime match 3-2 by ultimate tiebreaker against Sterling Newman's Carter Rude and Hunter Eastin at 190 bested Vandalia's Kaden Tidwell 6-3.

"Emotions are high, especially after losing in the blood rounds last year," Eastin said. "I'm trying to live up to what Nick Nosler did last year, winning it all. ... A lot more nerves going into the semifinals because if you lose, you don't go to the state finals."

Eastin will face a familiar foe in St. Thomas More senior Brody Cuppernell. Cuppernell clinched his second straight state title shot after he won a 6-1 decision against King senior Calvin Savage. Cuppernell finished second last season at 195, losing to Nosler in the championship match.

"Tired right now. I'll go home, get a good night's sleep, come and make weight (Saturday) and just lock in," Cuppernell said. "I know it's going to be a good match. Hunter Eastin got me twice this year and I got him once. I'm going to get him again."

Capansky made sure Oakwood/Salt Fork will have one athlete vying for a state title after he beat Larkin. Teammate Grant Brewer lost a 13-4 major decision to Olympia senior Bentley Wise on Friday night.

"I know that my hard work would have paid off eventually," Capansky said. "I didn't expect that it would take this long, but I'm so happy that it did take this long. I wrestled my match and was as confident as I possibly could be."

Danville won't get a shot at having its first state champion since 1958. Senior Phil Shaw IV fell short in his 2A semifinal match at 175, losing an 8-3 decision to Rock Island senior Amare Overton on Friday night. But Shaw could still place as high as third on Saturday.