BLOOMINGTON – It was the No. 1 goal from the very first practice. And the Champaign Central Maroons never forgot it, ending each workout with the chant Big 12 champs.
Maroons coach Jeff Scott targeted a conference title not only because he thought it was reachable, but because it had been sooooo long. Forty-one years ago, to be exact.
Scott and his wrestlers were reminded of that fact every time they looked at Central's title board for their sport at school and saw no entries since 1967.
"For us, it was trying to put our name on the board," Scott said. "We were trying to be a part of history."
Which made what happened Saturday at Robert Frank Sports Complex that much tougher to swallow for the Maroons. Leading by 9 1/2 points entering the day's final round, Central was unable to hang on in the stretch-run chase for the team championship.
While Bloomington was winning eight of 11 first- and third-place matches, the Maroons were 4-7 in those same bouts. The result: Purple Raiders 231 points, Central 225.5.
"It's a heartbreaker," Scott said after his runner-up Maroons, who went 9-0 in Big 12 dual meets this season, fell just short of the conference feat they prized most.
"We really thought we could get it done today. I thought our kids had a great effort. We lost two or three overtime matches. That made a huge difference. If those go your way, it's a different result. But that's wrestling."
Perhaps no wrestler exemplified how determined the Maroons were than Kaleb Ingersoll. After sustaining a knee ligament strain Jan. 17, the senior's return by the Big 12 meet was in serious doubt. But the two-time conference champion decided to give it a go, and though clearly far from 100 percent, contributed fourth-place points at 125 pounds.
"He was really not supposed to wrestle," Scott said. "But him and his family made a decision to help us. And it was a warrior-like performance. I don't know if I've seen one in 13 years (of coaching) quite like it."
Of the seven Maroons who reached the finals, three won titles.
Aryn Gilenson, the 2007 Big 12 champ at 125, repeated at 130 by pinning Centennial's Nick Congdon with one second left in the first period. The Maroon junior trailed 4-2 before making his winning move.
"I just stayed calm and waited for him to make a mistake and then capitalized on it," Gilenson said.
At 152, Central senior Brandon Smith edged Danville's Alonzo Bender 5-3 with a takedown in overtime.
"Really nice win for Brandon against a kid I think is a great (1)52-pounder," Scott said.
Brandon Ward notched Central's other title, a hard-fought 5-2 decision against Bloomington's lanky 6-foot-3 Chris Hale at 171. A year after losing 3-2 in the same final, the Maroon sophomore said he was determined to avoid a repeat.
"I came back thinking .... 'I'm not leaving without the gold,' " Ward said.
Fifth-place Centennial advanced four wrestlers to the finals, with Cam Pickett earning a title at 135. In a title bout with pinball-like scoring, the Charger junior outbattled Central's Kofi Bazzell-Smith 16-12.
"I got a little scared in the middle that I would lose," said Pickett, who clung to a 13-12 lead before scoring the match's final three points.
Pickett's aggressive, free-wheeling style can be scary for his coach, too.
"It's typical of how Cam does things," Ed Mears said. "He lets it go on the mat. He gives up some points that I wish he wouldn't give up, but it also helps him get the points that he does. He's pretty fearless."
Urbana senior Zack Kulczycki, the Big 12 runner-up at 145 last year, didn't fall short this time. The second-seeded Tiger dominated the final period – scoring all five points – en route to a 9-2 victory against top-seeded Tony Troemel of Normal Community for the 145 crown.
"I wrestled a little stiff at the beginning," Kulczycki said, "but I loosened up once I got a lead."