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Eastin bests Cuppernell again to claim state title

Feb. 18—CHAMPAIGN — As soon as the IHSA Class 1A state wrestling tournament brackets were released, the 190-pound championship match might as well have already been set.

In the top half of the bracket was Unity junior Hunter Eastin, the No. 1 seed with a record of 46-6. In the bottom half was St. Thomas More senior Brody Cuppernell, sporting a record of 35-3 as the returning 195-pound state runner-up.

The two had already met three times leading up to state. Cuppernell won the first meeting, a 10-4 decision during the regular season when the Illini Prairie Conference teams met. Eastin won the next two, 6-2 in the 1A Unity Regional final on Feb. 3 and 7-4 in the 1A Olympia Sectional championship on Feb. 10.

Eastin vs. Cuppernell Part IV was bound to premiere Saturday night at State Farm Center, and no one was surprised when that's exactly what happened after they each picked apart their first three opponents.

"If I had to wrestle anyone in the finals, I would want to wrestle him," Cuppernell said of Eastin ahead of their bout. "He's my buddy, but when we're on the mat, we're not buddies anymore."

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They shook hands as rivals to start their title match on Saturday night inside State Farm Center, and by the end, they were embracing each other as friends again after Eastin got the best of Cuppernell for the third week in a row with a 5-2 victory to win a state title.

"It's so much fun. Wrestling with your friends makes it so much better," Eastin said. "Both of us have put in the time and hard work to get here. I just happened to put in a little more time."

Cuppernell's loss marked the second straight year he's fallen to a Unity wrestler in the state finals, as he lost to Nick Nosler to end last season. He was in tears shortly after walking off the mat, but he later came to peace with how he finished his high school career.

"If I had to lose to anyone, it's him," Cuppernell emphasized of Eastin. "It was a dogfight. I gave it all I've got. I have no regrets. ... I might not have won state, but I still have a lot of people supporting me and I've shared great memories with that I'll never forget."

Cuppernell also hugged Unity coaches Logan Patton and Josh Inman afterwards. He's one of 27 area boys and girls who qualified for the individual state tournament and works with Patton Trained Wrestling in the offseason. Patton had two of his guys facing off Saturday night, and he said he would have celebrated just as hard if Cuppernell won the match.

It's a sense of community area wrestlers have built through Patton Trained, where everyone has a mutual respect for each other because they see firsthand how hard they work to improve their craft.

When St. Joseph-Ogden junior Holden Brazelton, a Patton Trained wrestler, won a Class 1A Olympia Sectional title at 132 pounds on Feb. 10, there was a sea of Unity team hockey jerseys cheering him on. Not something you'd typically see out of rival schools.

"It's that love for the sport and love for the grind. Everybody embraces that grind in our room," Patton said. "We'll put the rivalries aside when it's time. I hope I win, but when it's all said and done, it goes back to that brotherhood. Everyone just rallies around each other."

Nosler's championship in 2023 came one year after Lexi Ritchie — Patton's first state champion since he took over the Unity program in 2013 — won a 155-pound title for the Rockets in the IHSA's inaugural girls' state wrestling tournament. The Rockets have now had six years in a row with at least one state finalist. Eastin's win made it three years in a row with a state champ. When asked if they're setting a new standard, Patton nodded with a grin and said, "I'd be OK with that."

If Eastin has anything to say about it, it'll be four consecutive years this time next season. His goal this year was to follow in Nosler's footsteps, and now that he's done it, he's already looking ahead to 2025.

"I'm going to surpass him next year," Eastin said.

And Eastin had to get in one more friendly dig before taking his spot atop the podium Saturday, sending a message to some former Unity wrestlers.

"I've surpassed my brothers," Eastin said of his older brothers who were superb Unity wrestlers as Patton and Inman laughed and clapped at the comment off to the side. "I'm going to be better than them forever."