Centennial's Cardani is staying close to home

Centennial's Cardani is staying close to home

CHAMPAIGN — Ed Mears saw the talent in Justin Cardani but not the size when the latter arrived at Centennial as a 85-pound freshman.

But when Cardani told the Centennial wrestling coach his goal was to wrestle in the Big Ten, Mears knew the possibility would exist. Cardani simply had to play the long game.

"He told me he knew freshman year I wasn't going to win state or make it to state that year because of how small I was," Cardani said. "But he told me, 'You have to go win a state title junior and senior years to get looks from bigger schools.'"

Cardani did just that last year, dominating his way to a Class 2A 106-pound state championship. Cardani surrendered only one point to his opponents leading up to the state-title match and finished with an undefeated 45-0 record en route to News-Gazette Wrestler of the Year honors.

And two weeks ago, he received the reward for that accomplishment: A scholarship offer to Illinois. He accepted right away, and the senior will sign on to wrestle for Jim Heffernan's program today during a ceremony at Centennial.

"I knew that I always wanted to go to Illinois because it was a great program with great coaches and wrestlers, and it was close to home," Cardani said. "It was just a matter of being able to. ... When I got an offer, I decided I knew I wanted to go to Illinois."

In his final year of high school, Cardani will finally move out of the smallest weight class. This year, he'll try to conquer the 113-pound weight class and will also wrestle periodically at 120.

Cardani showed he has elite talent on a national scale during a hectic summer this year, earning All-American honors at Fargo Nationals. He fell in the semifinals of the United World Wrestling qualifying tournament, in which the winner qualified for the world championships.

In college, he'll move up to 125 pounds. Cardani, though, isn't worried about his ability to fill out.

"I know college will be good for me because they'll have a lifting program and a nutrition program that can help me become bigger and stronger," he said, "which I'm not really worried about because I know that I can be that big entering college."

In college, Cardani knows that steam-rolling the field won't be possible, even if he reaches his goal of winning an NCAA championship.

He has one more year to leave his mark, though, at the high school level, and Centennial's first-ever wrestling state champion plans to take full advantage.

"My goal is basically to kind of do the same thing as last year and just dominate everyone," he said. "Don't get nervous at all, push myself, and no matter what match it is try to score as much I can, just dominate everyone and just go up and try to win as many matches as I can."