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For Centennial's Barnhart, a perfect ending

Feb. 18—CHAMPAIGN — Jack Barnhart can smile now.

"It doesn't feel real," the Centennial senior said after claiming his long-awaited IHSA state wrestling title Saturday night. "I woke up praying for it. Now that I'm done, it's a weird feeling. Finally able to just enjoy it."

Clinging to a 2-1 lead, Barnhart defended a last-ditch takedown effort by Crystal Lake's Andy Burburija, the only other undefeated heavyweight in Class 2A, and turned it into a takedown of his own to secure the 4-1 victory, putting a bow on a perfect 44-0 season.

Barnhart stood up, pointed to the State Farm Center crowd and started clapping his hands as the realization of what he had just accomplished sunk in.

"Senior year, undefeated, home in Champaign. I get to celebrate with my family and friends and just enjoy it," Barnhart said. "This was my last high school match, and I don't really know if that's set in yet. It's hitting me now, but I couldn't be happier."

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Go ahead and celebrate, @Jack_Barnhart52 and @CHAR_GERS pic.twitter.com/XCmKIaw9NH

— News-Gazette Preps (@ngpreps) February 18, 2024

He finally let his emotions show, and that's because this championship was three years in the making.

Barnhart burst onto the state scene as a sophomore in 2022, surprising the competition by placing fourth in the 220-pound weight class, the first Centennial sophomore to ever place at state.

The following year, all eyes were on him.

He entered the state finals as the top seed in 220, having only lost two matches all season. After cruising through the quarterfinals, he had a mental slip in the semis, and he let it lead to three straight "heartbreaking" losses to finish sixth.

That offseason, he got to work, bulking up to the 285-pound division and competing in national tournaments. More importantly, he put himself in situations similar to his 2023 semifinal setback to ensure it wouldn't happen again.

"Jack's always had the physical tools, ever since he's been in middle school just beating up on dudes," said Unity coach Logan Patton, who trains Barnhart through the offseason with Patton Trained Wrestling. "He mentally prepared this season. He mentally put himself in tough situations this offseason to win this tournament."

Following another All-State season on the football field, Barnhart decided the wrestling team's regular practice schedule wasn't enough. Once the Chargers were done, Barnhart kept going. He'd do his own workouts, which included both wrestling and extra weightlifting.

"It's really been his whole life," Centennial coach Andrew Nyland said of Barnhart's work ethic. "He doesn't really do anything besides go to school, wrestle and sleep."

It all paid off in the end. Barnhart is officially a state champion.

He's now the second Charger wrestler to ever win a state championship, following the footsteps of current Illinois wrestler Justin Cardani, who won a 106-pound title in 2017 and a 113-pound title in 2018.

Centennial has a banner of Cardani hanging on the west wall of Coleman Carrodine Gym recognizing his achievement on the state's biggest stage. Barnhart used that banner as motivation through his quest to put his own next to it. He didn't think of it right after his win Saturday, but once he remembered, he couldn't wait to see it.

"It's coming," Barnhart said with a big smile as his eyes widened. "I'm going to have my picture up there, hopefully pointing to the crowd. I'm excited."