A point to prove

A point to prove

CHAMPAIGN — Good luck pulling Justin Cardani away from the wrestling mats.

Ever since the Centennial senior captured a Class 2A state championship at 106 pounds last February, he's perfecting his craft like a kid with more to prove.

Even after committing to Jim Heffernan's Illinois grappling program for next season. Even after competing at the Junior Greco-Roman National Championships and Cadet/Junior National Championships during the summer.

And even after moving up to 113 pounds and collecting a 35-0 record this season, which Cardani will take into Saturday's 2A Mahomet-Seymour Regional.

"I love wrestling," Cardani said simply. "Every opportunity and chance I have to get better, I take it."

It's paying off for the confident youngster, who's rated No. 1 at 113 in 2A and holds victories over a pair of ranked foes this season — Peoria Notre Dame sophomore Tristan Daugherty and Antioch sophomore Alex Barbarise.

Cardani has also competed at 120 during various points of the season, most recently pinning Westville/Georgetown-Ridge Farm 120-pounder Mason McBride on Tuesday.

"It helps me because it gets me better matches," Cardani said. "The guys at 120 are pretty strong. If I can beat a strong 120-pounder, I should be able to beat a 113-pounder."

Cardani has had little trouble with that during his final season with the Chargers, continuing his strategy of piling up as many points as possible. But don't take that to mean the high-schooler thinks he knows it all when it comes to his mat exploits.

"Just his intensity of getting in pre-practice and wanting to get going and wanting to ask questions," Centennial coach Ed Mears said. "It's such a breath of fresh air to see that from a kid that's so talented, that he still wants to learn more."

Cardani has soaked up lessons from Mears and assistant coach Dave Cardani, Justin's father. That has shown in the younger Cardani's rise through his prep career.

After missing out on a short trip to State Farm Center as a freshman, Cardani took part in a pair of 2A state matches at 106 in his sophomore season. They ended with a 12-3 major-decision loss and an 8-1 decision, cutting his initial state tournament stay short.

"Being a freshman, I knew I always wanted to (be a titlist)," Cardani said. "But there was always a doubt in my mind. Once I got to sophomore year, it really became a reality, and I just had to push myself to the brink and not give up."

Those last two words haven't been in Cardani's vocabulary since leaving State Farm Center as a sophomore. He finished his junior season 45-0 and allowed just two unintentional points — during a 5-2 state-final decision against Lemont's Kyle Schickel.

Entering this week, Mears said he noticed an immediate difference in Cardani with just 11 matches separating the future Illini from another crown.

"I didn't even have to know it was regional week on Monday. The kid went to a different level of focus," Mears said, "and it drips on to other kids, wanting to work harder. He wanted extra and wanted more, and he was driven (at practice) on Monday."

That Cardani's approach to wrestling seems to affect his teammates is important to the youngster. Centennial did not have an individual state champ in the school's history until Cardani finished the job last season. Now, he wants to do everything in his power to put some fellow Chargers in position to compete the same way later this month at State Farm Center.

"I'm really looking forward to regionals because ... one of my big goals is helping all my teammates make sectionals," Cardani said. "I'm kind of confident in my regionals. My goal is to really help push my team."