'This team's kind of coming into its own'

Feb. 3—TOLONO — Key graduations haven't changed the expectations for the Unity boys' wrestling team.

The Rockets' relatively young group is well aware of the program's tendency to wrestle deep into the IHSA postseason.

"It's been fun to finally kind of see this team grow into itself," coach Logan Patton said. "We've yet to have our full lineup on the mat, from 106 (pounds) to heavyweight. ... Everybody is on weight. Everybody is going the right way. This team's kind of coming into its own."

Ten teams are set to compete on Saturday in a Class 1A regional hosted by the Rockets, including the local likes of Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin/Armstrong-Potomac, Clinton, Hoopeston Area, Monticello and St. Joseph-Ogden.

Thayden Root — the lone senior to regularly crack the Rockets' lineup, at 175 pounds — sees it as a chance to kick the postseason off on the right note.

"There've been a couple of matches that I've lost, unfortunately, that I think I could have done better on," Root said. "I've been working on that in the room and I've been trying to get as best as I can before the postseason happens."

Root knows what it will take to make a deep run in the IHSA individual state finals, from Feb. 15-17 at State Farm Center. His older brother, Kyus, capped his senior season with a fourth-place effort at 170 in 2023 to complement a title-winning effort from fellow senior Nick Nosler at 195.

"It's definitely been in my family for a long time," Root said. "My dad never did it, but he put me and Kyus in it and we've been doing it ever since I was little. He's been the bigger brother, the better guy for a while, but I've been trying to beat him."

Unity's younger wrestlers enter the postseason with an idea of the journey ahead, too.

Hunter Eastin, who placed eighth at 182 as a sophomore in 2023, knows from experience.

Others, like 132-pound sophomore Hunter Shike, are looking to take the next step.

"I think there's been a great leap," Shike said. "Maybe not in terms of my wrestling skill, but just the confidence you gain from not being as scared to go out and wrestle from my freshman year to now and being able to have confidence in my coach and how he's prepared us."

The Rockets have been without their full array of weapons for much of the season until now. Patton chalks it up to injuries and, in Shike's case, extracurriculars related to FFA, 4H and livestock exhibitions.

A good problem to have.

"Hunter knows that he's going to go wrestle in college and only this, this and this college (he can go to) because of what his major is," Patton said. "As a sophomore, I know I wasn't thinking like that."

Shike missed a dual against Oakwood and the Sycamore Invitational in early January to compete in agriculture events. The Rockets placed eighth among the 26-team field at Sycamore. Otherwise, Shike is 33-5 on the season.

"I've had some buddies come out and help me on some tasks if I ever need help in the barn," Shike said. "Even Patton coming out and me and him feeding the pigs or something together."

Others on the Rockets' roster could be primed for a surprise run through the postseason.

Enter Taylor Finley.

"I think he'd be the biggest shock in the tournament, not in a bad way," 165-pound junior Ryan Rink said. "It'd be good to see him there."

Patton's group isn't thinking too far ahead to the dual team postseason, which it can advance to the next stage of by winning Saturday's regional.

In his estimation, it's a matter of getting there first.

"We're just focused on Saturday," Patton said. "That's my number one concern is winning a regional and getting as many guys through as possible."

Others in the Rockets' program are already on their way: Unity's girls' program now boasts six wrestlers.

Phoenix Molina — whose father, Juan, was the Rockets' last individual state champion prior to Nosler — claimed a regional championship at 235 on Jan. 27 ahead of the sectional tournament on Feb. 9-10 at Peoria Richwoods.

"She's got a girl that she's 1-1 with in the sectional semifinals and a girl that she's 1-1 with in the finals," Patton said. "That heavyweight weight class is wide open.

Wrestling — which boasts 40 athletes overall this season — fits naturally into a winter sports landscape at Unity. The Rockets' basketball teams are a combined 37-12 as of Feb. 2.

"It's fun to watch the energy that they bring," Patton said. "(Boys' basketball coach) Matt Franks is doing a phenomenal job, (girls' basketball coach) Dave Ellars just got into the hall of fame, who is a wrestler. His name's on the board. His name's on the banner out there. I like to throw that out there."

Not all of the Rockets' matches on Saturday will be on their home mats.

Patton prefers to keep the team's practice mats in the training room intact. The program solicited help from the National Guard to supply some extra mats.

A home basketball game on Friday night isn't expected to be a detriment, thanks to help from the Rockets' dedicated group of parents.

"It'll be a good experience to be able to wrestle at home for regionals," Root said. "Some good competition and we'll be able to have that feeling of comfort for it being at home."