CHAMPAIGN – Ever since Brandon Smith, a Champaign Central senior, started wrestling, his parents have been his biggest fans.
They have been at every meet he has wrestled since seventh grade, and stood proudly beside him when he was honored during the Maroons' last regular season home meet.
On Saturday at the Central Regional, however, Smith's parents were absent. His mother had been taken to a Peoria hospital where he thought she would have to have emergency brain surgery.
Before she was transported, she left her son specific instructions – to stay in Champaign and wrestle well.
"She wanted me to be here, and she wanted me to wrestle, so I thought that I should be out here and honor that," said Smith, who won the 152-pound title. "It was just a matter of making sure that I was focusing on my match and not the other things that were going on."
Smith's teammates and coaches reassured him, saying prayers with him Friday night while the team set up for the tournament. Aunts and other family members attended the match in his parents' absence while friends videotaped his match for his mom.
"A kid has either two choices there: they are either going to be an emotional wreck and can't wrestle," Central coach Jeff Scott said. "Or they're going to wrestle so much better because they are doing it for Mom."
Smith fell in the latter category, earning a takedown about 10 seconds into his match. His teammates seemed to draw from his energy.
Kaleb Ingersoll (119), who was competing well for the first time since injuring his knee a few weeks ago, won his third regional championship. Josh Middleton (140) and Kofi Bazzell-Smith (135) won their first regional crowns. Stan Adkisson (heavyweight) ended the night on a positive note with a win.
Central tallied 224 1/2 points for second place, while Mahomet-Seymour (249 1/2) took the team title for the 18th consecutive year. Centennial (129), Urbana (80 1/2) and Rantoul (74) rounded out the top five.
Twelve Bulldogs and 11 Maroons qualified for the sectional tournament next weekend at Normal West.
"It was a great effort up and down the lineup," Mahomet-Seymour coach Rob Ledin said. "We just rose to the occasion. It was definitely a tougher regional than it was last year."
The Bulldogs won four of the first five matches, including Jake Jarrett's victory at 103. Andrew Brewer (171) handed Central's Brandon Ward his first loss of the season. Ward defaulted halfway through the tight match.
"It was intense; there were a lot of emotions from the crowd," said Brewer, who said the Bulldogs' weekend treks to face Chicagoland opponents helped him prepare for the regional. "I give him all the credit with his record, but it's all about the competition you face, so I felt pretty confident."
All wrestlers who finished among the top three in their weight class advance to sectional.
It's a familiar sight for many of the winners, but for Smith who called his father in Peoria after the victory, the win had extra significance. It made his mother, whose condition was much-improved from Friday, proud.
"It has been a goal of mine all year to make it to state," Smith said. "And I hope that she'll be there to watch me. I'm just focusing on her (recovery) and on state."