Cardani, Luffman repeat

Cardani, Luffman repeat

CHAMPAIGN — On fresh footing, perhaps the maneuver would've worked. Maybe Centennial wrestler Justin Cardani could've landed a celebratory backflip without a hitch.

"A little off," Cardani said with a laugh. "I felt like I wanted to do it just because, but my legs were so tired, it was hard to get up there."

Instead of falling to his butt after following through on the flip — that wouldn't be very becoming of a senior athlete who had just captured his second consecutive state championship — Cardani rolled into a summersault and playfully stuck out his tongue.

"It was fun," he said. "It's all about having fun."

Cardani had plenty of that Saturdaynight at State Farm Center after he dispatched Washington freshman Joey Cape by a 6-3 decision in the Class 2A 113-pound final.

The triumph followed his 106-pound success the year prior and left the future Illinois grappler the most decorated competitor in Charger wrestling history.

"He's been a great leader," Centennial coach Ed Mears said. "His record doesn't say everything about that kid. He is so good."

Last season, Cardani ended a 50-year Centennial drought on state titlists.

This year was all about two things: Cementing his legacy at the prep level, and leaving the Chargers in a better place than he found them.

That did leave some pressure on Cardani entering Saturday's bout, even as he carried a 48-0 season record and lacked an IHSA-sanctioned defeat since 2016.

"I was really nervous just because it was my last time out here," Cardani said. "But I turned the nerves into strength and just persevered."

Cardani needed only 11 seconds to jump ahead of his final high school opponent and stayed there over the remaining 5:49.

Even after Cape tallied a pair of late points to pull within 5-3, Cardani wasn't concerned.

"That didn't really matter at the time because of how much time was left," he said. "I was just getting anxious and just ready to win the next state title, honestly."

Even when Cardani had a title in the bag, it wasn't really official. The clock read triple zeroes after three periods, but four seconds were added as a result of the wrestlers tumbling out of bounds moments earlier.

"It was just more like a victory lap, honestly," Cardani said. "I knew nothing crazy was going to happen — just going back out there for a little bit longer."

Cardani is now the Chargers' only two-time champion, a point which briefly turned to comedy when it concerned the athlete's family.

Each state winner receives a large, hand-filled bracket from his weight class. Cardani's mother, Andrea, jokingly noted that if her son had fallen short of victory Saturday, they wouldn't have to find space at home for a second big bracket.

"Oh, yeah," Justin said. "She will. Of course."

Centennial's greatest mat man will also depart knowing teammates like juniors Cam Nesbitt and Dontaice Roberson, both state qualifiers this year, can continue leading the Chargers to greater heights moving forward.

In that respect, Mears is plenty proud of his pupil for racking up hardware at the highest prep level, but he's even happier with how Cardani has grown up under his watch.

"He is so good with the leadership and the quality person that he is," Mears said. "That's the part I'm going to remember for all time. It's been a quick four years. He's just unbelievable."

Next up for Cardani is making his mark with Jim Heffernan's Illini. Maybe he'll even get a chance to stick that backflip inside Huff Hall.

But he'll never forget a high school tenure that saw him miss out on state as a freshman and wind up atop the podium on the same stage twice within the next three years.

"It's always been what I wanted to do," Cardani said, "and now I just made it a reality. I ended up on top, which is the best feeling ever."

Luffman does it again. Luke Luffman isn't one for grand outbursts, whether they be positive or negative. So when a supporter encouraged the Urbana junior to smile Saturday as Luffman stood atop the Class 2A 220-pound podium, he wasn't budging.

This was even after Luffman captured his second consecutive crown by defeating Cahokia junior Jacob Bullock via an 8-7 decision.

"The only time I like to show emotion is directly right after (a match) for maybe five seconds," Luffman said. "Let it out in one big rush, and then just be composed."

Composure was critical for Luffman in a physical bout with Bullock. Luffman said he was headbutted multiple times, and Bullock capped the match with a last-second takedown attempt that mirrored a kick to the head.

"You're just trying to hold position as much as you can and control the center of the mat to the best of your ability," Luffman said.

Luffman entered this week's state tournament with a much greater sense of confidence than when he was at State Farm Center in 2017. Entering action Thursday atop the 2A 220 bracket was a strong starting point, and taking down his first three enemies by fall only increased the positive vibes.

But the future Illini wrestler knew nothing would come easily. He wasn't about to overlook an individual in Bullock who hadn't qualified for state before this year.

"I had a better understanding of what I needed to do," Luffman said. "But that didn't take away from me still having to wrestle sharp and just have fun."

Next up for Luffman, after a weeklong celebratory break, is training for a spot on the U.S. Cadet Team to represent the country overseas. Even with two state championships in the bank and international ventures on his mind, Luffman feels there's still room for improvement.

"I think I'm just going to have to continue the offseason stuff and just continue to progress," he said. "It's just having progress slowly and continuing to get better."