Meet the 2018 N-G Wrestler of the Year | Centennial's Justin Cardani

Meet the 2018 N-G Wrestler of the Year | Centennial's Justin Cardani

CHAMPAIGN — Justin Cardani has left no doubt he's the greatest wrestler in Centennial High School history.

He holds two IHSA state championships — the first coming in 2017 at 106 pounds, the second this season at 113 pounds.

He compiled a 91-0 record over his junior and senior campaigns as a Charger.

And he pushed teammates from alongside the mat, being joined by two at last February's state tournament.

Cardani is The News-Gazette's repeat Wrestler of the Year after cruising to his double-title feat. He became only the second-ever wrestler from a Champaign high school to accomplish the feat, joining Bob Shelby, who won state titles at 180 in 1967 with Champaign High and then again in 1968 when it became Champaign Central.

But one could talk for days about what Cardani achieved in that powder-blue singlet. It's impressive, no doubt. He'll be "that guy" who Centennial wrestlers look up to for who knows how many years.

When Cardani discusses how much he loves suiting up for some competition, he isn't just talking about his time spent with the Centennial program. No, there's much more to it than that.

"I've always wrestled in the offseason," Cardani said, "because I love wrestling and wanted to wrestle any chance I had."

Even that, however, doesn't tell the whole story of just how many hours were put in by a kid who entered his prep career weighing less than 100 pounds and built himself into a high school wrestling legend.

'He was very small'

Ask Cardani to drop names of non-IHSA wrestling events or groups he's been tied to, and one's head could spin in an instant.

"Preseason nationals. Indiana nationals. Team Illinois. Super 32," Cardani said casually. "A bunch of freestyle tournaments that aren't at a national level, and some that aren't freestyle."

Let's start at the beginning, though, with the Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation. Cardani's first contest under the IKWF flag came on Jan. 20, 2008, according to his Track Wrestling profile.

In that year's Jon Davis Memorial IKWF Kids Open, Cardani captured the 43-pound crown among 7- and 8-year-olds, representing Champaign Kids Wrestling.

This wouldn't be an anomaly for Cardani in grade school. That aforementioned Track Wrestling profile displays 17 more weight-class triumphs in various tournaments — IKWF-organized and beyond — before Cardani entered seventh grade.

So it's no surprise he caught the eye of two men he'll work alongside as a University of Illinois wrestler beginning later this year.

"Being undersized at the time, he kind of had to compete harder than his counterparts," said Bryan Medlin, Illini wrestling's director of operations since 2017 and Team Illinois wrestling's cadet and juniors leader since 2003. "From the first time I saw him, every year he's gotten better."

Jim Heffernan, who soon will be Cardani's college coach with the Illini, said the future state champion had been on his radar "ever since he was a little kid — or a young kid, I should say."

"He was very small growing up," Heffernan said. "Justin still looks like a young kid physically, but he has really good wrestling skills."

High school eventually showed up on Cardani's horizon. And while he was still slight as a middle-schooler — relatively speaking — he was only ramping up his efforts on the mat.

Seventh grade brought about a runner-up result at 62 pounds in the IKWF state championships. Eighth grade included a 74-pound title in the same event, avenging the prior year's loss to Southside Stallions' Anthony Schickel.

"I think with our kids club, it's benefiting local kids," Heffernan said. "And that's part of the goal here is to build wrestling in central Illinois."

So, Cardani exhibited ample success against foes within his own state prior to entering the prep scene. But how could he do beyond Illinois' borders?

'Tip of the iceberg'

Pretty well, it turns out.

Several of Cardani's "offseason" months away from Centennial saw him working with Team Illinois on such stages as the Cadet Freestyle Duals, Junior Greco-Roman National Championships and USMC/USAW Junior Freestyle or Greco-Roman Nationals.

Cardani previously has admitted he was always anxious during his high school matches. That was taken to a different level with Team Illinois.

"It's very nerve-wracking because it's not just Illinois kids," Cardani said. "It's going to be every single state. It's the best of everybody."

Even with that in mind, Cardani showed well across multiple tournaments.

During the 2016 Cadet Freestyle Duals, Cardani posted a 4-0 record at 106 pounds to help Team Illinois to a national title. He went a perfect 3 for 3 in the 2017 Junior Greco-Roman National Championships to push his club to a similar outcome.

There also were a pair of top-seven finishes at two different USMC/USAW showdowns in 2017.

"I don't think I would be where I am without (Team Illinois)," Cardani said. "It's just what got me prepared physically and mentally. It got me prepared for high school."

Medlin simply sees a hardworking pupil getting what was coming to him. Usually, that phrase is used in a negative light. Not with Cardani.

"That's the cool thing about wrestling — you can have a nontraditional body style, then put it together and do really well," Medlin said. "It's the tip of the iceberg right now. He's got a good head on his shoulders and a great work ethic."

For all the times Cardani has had his hand raised after a bout, though, there's one diverging moment that sticks out to Medlin as a beacon Cardani had arrived nationally.

Cardani and Julian Tagg of Ohio squared off in the 2017 UWW Cadet and University Nationals at 106 pounds. Earlier in the year, Tagg won an Ohio state championship as a freshman. This was a widely-known foe for Cardani to handle.

And Cardani nearly did handle Tagg. The final score was 8-7 in favor of Tagg.

"Even in a loss, you can see a guy close the gap on a kid like that," Medlin said, "and he's going to continue to close it. It isn't about maybe in that one loss he showed his potential to compete with national-caliber wrestlers, but his real potential years down the road."

'It'll be a great fit'

That's where the University of Illinois comes in.

Cardani will join former Rantoul standout Demarius Smith and St. Joseph-Ogden standout Wesley Kibler as area athletes on the Illini roster. Heffernan said he projects Cardani to redshirt his freshman campaign in order to adjust to the NCAA-minimum 125-pound weight class.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Just look to Cardani's favorite athlete, former Illini B.J. Futrell.

According to Heffernan, Futrell walked onto the Champaign-Urbana campus in 2008 weighing roughly 119 pounds. The future Team USA member would go on to qualify for the NCAA Championships three times and close his Illini career grappling at 141 pounds.

"I joke with the other coaches who think (Cardani is) going to be a career 125-pounder," Heffernan said. "I don't know that he will be. I think once he starts catching up and getting some muscles, I think he might have a bit of growth in him."

Heffernan admits he's still upbeat about Cardani's college career even if that prophecy doesn't come to fruition. And the athlete is pretty optimistic, too.

"I think I can come in as a freshman and just work my butt off," Cardani said. "Just keep working and help the guys, and just push them with my workouts."

And that's the story of Justin Cardani the wrestler. He just wants to keep working, to keep improving.

One wouldn't get that from every two-time state champion. Then again, Cardani isn't just a two-time state champion.

"As far as I'm concerned, Heffernan recruits some high-quality character guys," Medlin said. "Somebody that's going to go in the room and work hard and go the extra mile. I think he's got potential, and it'll be a great fit."

Cardani agrees. But for as much as he's done beyond Centennial, it would be a disservice to overlook just what he's meant to the Chargers.

And even as he moves on to Illinois, he's not done trying to be part of coach Ed Mears' program. What's a little extra effort on top of his other exploits?

"Honestly, if I had to tell the (returning Chargers) something, just don't give up," Cardani said. "They're doing the things they want to do, but it's how hard they want to work themselves, how hard they need to push themselves."