Unity wrestling

With Unity wrestler Nick Nosler holding the microphone and Unity wrestling coach Logan Patton in the background, fellow Unity wrestlers Kyus Root, left, and Hunter Eastin share a laugh during an interview with The News-Gazette on Tuesday afternoon at a back room inside the Rockets’ wrestling facility in Tolono.

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TOLONO — Growing up in Bismarck, Logan Patton knew about the Unity wrestling program.

He just knew it wasn’t all that good when Patton wrestled for Bismarck-Henning in the late 2000s.

“When we’d come over here to have a dual against Unity, you were kind of drawing straws about who takes a forfeit versus who wrestles,” Patton said. “They had about six to eight guys on the day. They were tough dudes, but you knew you could win on forfeits alone.”

That isn’t the case anymore. Patton, the Rockets’ coach since 2017, has helped completely reverse the narrative surrounding Unity wrestling since he arrived after previously coaching at Hoopeston Area. He remembers discussing the Unity job with athletic director and football coach Scott Hamilton, along with Unity Principal Phil Morrison, and two words kept coming up in their conversations: sleeping giant.

“You just knew it was coming,” Patton said this week during an appearance on ‘Extra Prep,’ The News-Gazette’s podcast devoted to area high school sports.

The sleeping giant is awake now. The Rockets just finished off a 31-6 record in dual meets this season and are poised to have several wrestlers not only qualify for the Class 1A state meet when it arrives at State Farm Center in Champaign on Feb. 16-18, but also possibly win state titles.

Then, don’t be shocked if Unity makes more noise the following weekend, Feb. 24-25, at Grossinger Motors Arena in downtown Bloomington. The venue hosts the boys’ dual team state meet and is also the host for the individual girls’ state finals, with Unity junior Lexie Ritchie a reigning state champion after she won a state title at 155 pounds last February.

This comes after Patton had three boys’ wrestlers — Tavius Hosley, Grant Albaugh and Nick Nosler — finish second in state in their respective weight classes last season and after the Unity boys placed fourth at the dual team state meet.

Nosler is back for one final shot at a state title he so nearly had last season at 195 pounds. The laid-back, long-haired future Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville wrestler is making good on his final winter representing the Rockets. He brings a 42-2 record into this Saturday’s 1A Le Roy Regional and has 147 wins at Unity. That’s the most wins in school history.

“I love winning,” Nosler said. “I can’t stand to lose at anything. Honestly, I keep with it because I like winning.”

Even though he is the best wrestler in Unity history to come through the program just in his sheer number of wins, it doesn’t mean the senior is apt to a little teasing from some of his underclassmen teammates.

“We goof around a lot before practice,” said Hunter Eastin, a sophomore who has compiled a 41-4 record at 182 pounds this season. “After practice, we mess with Nick and Nick’s shoes, specifically. They’re thrown up above the mats on the air vents. He usually has to throw another shoe at them, and he sometimes gets those stuck also.”

Eastin, Nosler and senior Kyus Root all suppress smiles when discussing this topic before Tuesday’s practice, but it’s true. Before starting his workout on Tuesday, Nosler had to go around the mats trying to get his shoes down from the air vents stationed about 20 feet above his head.

“Last year, we were pretty intense because a lot of those guys had been with me for four plus-years,” Patton said. “Right now, Kyus and Nick being our senior leaders, they’re a lot more laid-back than our senior leaders in the past. But they know once the music starts and we start jogging before practice, they flip that switch and we go compete. When it’s time off the mat, it’s a tight group of kids who have fun with each other.”

Like with Eastin and Root. Root has put together a 40-5 record at 170 pounds this season and is practice partners with Eastin.

“There’s times where me and him, we’re almost fighting each other, like a legit street fight during practice,” Root said. “Afterwards, we’re just messing around like nothing ever happened. When I look around, it’s like that for a lot of practice partners. They wear on each other, but then it’s like, ‘Hey, you want to go get some food?’”

The trio of Nosler, Root and Eastin have already hit 40 wins this season, but 13 of the Rockets’ 14 starters have winning records going into Saturday’s regional in Le Roy. Freshman Travis McCarter at 106 boasts a 31-10 record, while freshman Hunter Shike at 126 (31-13), sophomore Kaden Inman at 132 (30-13), sophomore Ryan Rink at 152 (31-14), junior Thayden Root at 160 (31-14) and senior Alex Abrahamson at 285 (36-7) have all posted high-quality wins this season.

A big roster for a small-school wrestling program is a boon, too, for Unity. Patton has a roster of 45 athletes this season, with several girls in the mix. Ritchie and senior Ava Vasey are two stalwarts in the girls’ program for the Rockets, while sophomore Riley McNeely, freshman Anna Vasey and freshman Phoenix Molina are the future. With a tie to the past, too, since Molina is the daughter of Unity’s last boys’ state champion. Juan Molina won a state title at 189 pounds in 1991.

“We’re excited, and it’s cool to see,” Patton said. “I didn’t know how I would feel about it, just to be honest with you, because I’ve coached boys my whole life. I didn’t know anything about the girls’ side of wrestling. With Ava and Lexi, they weren’t girls who were just trying a new sport. They were wrestlers. I think that’s why they fit in so well, and why we’ve got this group of girls in here. No matter who you are, you’re getting treated the same. You’re getting coached the same. Everything is equal across the board. I think they respect that, and that’s why the girls’ program is flourishing just like the guys is.”

A crucial assist in Unity’s rise in wrestling success in the past five years can be tied directly to the building Patton, Nosler, Root and Eastin are sitting in before Tuesday’s after-school practice gets going. A standalone wrestling facility opened for the Rockets in 2019, with the building situated just beyond an end zone at nearby Hicks Field. It has all the room the Rockets need to practice on, with boards fastened to various walls in the facility touting the program’s history, like state medalists and all-time wins leaders, along with old action photos of some past standouts hanging on the walls, too.

It’s all part of a master plan Patton envisioned when he arrived at Unity and one that is playing out in real time. Unity wrestling is now up there with the consistent success Unity football achieves in the fall and Unity boys’ track and field does in the spring.

“You knew there was something in the winter that could do the same thing as the fall and the spring,” Patton said. “They just needed the right dude, and the right people. I’ve got six to seven other assistants on this staff that has helped build this culture and what we’re about. The goal every year is to have multiple guys wrestling on Saturday night and on the podium at State Farm Center and then wrestling the following week at team state.”

Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at mdaniels@news-gazette.com.