Evanston state-qualifier Ramin Abraham began season hating wrestling

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When you walk into the Evanston wrestling room and look to the right, 10 framed pictures stare back at you. Each is an image of a Wildkits great, an individual state champion on the mat.

Ramin Abraham wants to one day see his face on that wall.

The sophomore made it to the Class 3A state tournament at 220 pounds after finishing second at the Conant Sectional. At state he lost his lone match, 3-1 in overtime to Quincy senior Tyree Williams. Williams was one of 13 seniors in the weight class, and the other two wrestlers were juniors. Though he lost, Abraham was the only underclassmen to qualify at 220 pounds.

It’s not just that Abraham is young; he never wrestled before last year, and this season was his first experience on varsity. Abraham said that early in his sophomore season, he didn’t even enjoy the sport and even thought about leaving the team.

“I missed practices this year because I didn’t like wrestling,” Abraham said. “In the beginning of the season I didn’t work hard. I hated it, I hated wrestling.”

That doesn’t exactly sound like a wrestler who went 35-4 and was his team’s lone state qualifier. But Abraham’s primary sport is soccer: He grew up playing it, first in his native Syria, then in Lebanon where his family moved to avoid war. His family immigrated to Evanston more than a year-and-a-half ago, and Abraham joined the junior varsity team as a goalkeeper.

Abraham said he didn’t know much about wrestling growing up, and that it’s far less popular in Syria than it is in the U.S. His parents didn’t attend one wrestling match this season, and he said his mom is scared he’ll hurt himself in the sport, though she also has made fun of him for wearing a singlet.

Evanston wrestling coach Rudy Salinas said he believes Abraham agreed to wrestle out of duty to the school and the program: The team needed someone to wrestle at 220 pounds, and Abraham was its best option. He went through the motions of training, but his heart wasn’t fully in it. When it became clear that Abraham had the chance for a special season, Salinas had a talk with him.

“After that, things started to click,” Salinas said. “Part of it is he’s a competitor and he doesn’t like to lose. It’s really difficult to have a perfect season in wrestling. Once he endured his first couple of losses and we talked about how it wasn’t about the losses, it was about improving, he embraced that.”

Abraham asked Salinas if he was capable of being all-conference. When that was in reach, he asked if had the potential to win conference. Then the regional tournament. He did all three. After Abraham clinched the trip to state, Salinas told the team during a practice to “face the champs,” where they all look at the wall of photos. It helps to organize the team for drills, but also reminds them of what they’re working toward. Abraham joked with his coach that the next time he told someone to face the champs, they’d be looking at him.

“I’m class of 2019,” Abraham said. “I want to come back in 2020 and see my picture on the wall. That would be amazing.”

The most recent addition to the wall is Jeffrey Brown, who won the Class 3A 285-pound title in 2010. Brown first met Abraham in the summer of 2016 at a soccer camp where Brown’s brother and Abraham were attending. Wildkits soccer coach Franz Calixte introduced Abraham to Brown as a wrestler with big potential.

In December, Brown was home for the holiday break from Winona State, where he is working on his undergraduate degree. He spent a week working with the Evanston wrestling team, often wrestling against Abraham. He helped Abraham with technique, telling him to focus on perfecting a few moves instead of learning many. He also shared his own story: He was a football player first who found a passion for wrestling.

“I wanted to help him realize his potential in the sport and how good he can be,” Brown said. “It was similar to my situation: Football was my forefront but wrestling went hand and hand with it.”

Brown talked about Abraham’s big performance in the soccer state playoffs in the fall when he came off the bench just for the shootout in both the sectional semifinals against New Trier and the sectional final against Glenbrook North. Abraham made two saves each time and helped the Wildkits win both games. Brown wanted Abraham to see he’s got the potential to be great in both sports.

“I would tell him, ‘Those are things you can do in wrestling, you can have those moments in wrestling,'” Brown said. “This doesn’t mean he has to give up soccer, because he can also be good at wrestling.”

Fenwick falls to Plainfield North in OT after controversial call

Read on ChicagoTribune.com. This story also was printed in the Sunday, November 21, 2016, edition of the Chicago Tribune.


 

Fenwick senior quarterback Jacob Keller dropped back on fourth-and-15, watched the game clock expire and heaved the ball down the field, his team up 10-7 and on the verge of its first-ever state title appearance. The Friars sideline and fan section erupted in celebration, havingly seemingly won their Class 7A semifinal Saturday. But the game was not over; intentional grounding was called.

The officials — incorrectly, as it would turn out — gave Plainfield North the ball back for one final untimed play. After minutes of sorting out where to place the ball, Plainfield North took over possession at the Fenwick 5-yard line and kicked a game-tying field goal to force overtime.

Fenwick got the ball first, and senior running back Conner Lillig punched it in from 1 yard out to give the fourth-seeded Friars a 17-10 lead. Plainfield North junior Dillon McCarthy scored a third-down touchdown run to cut the score to 17-16, and instead of kicking the extra point, the visitors went for two. McCarthy took the handoff, bounced outside and found the end zone, giving the 16th-seeded Tigers the 18-17 win.

The IHSA issued a statement Saturday night indicating the game officials had made a mistake at the end of regulation but said the result would stand: “Per Rule 3-3-4 in the 2016 NFHS Football Rules Book, the game should have concluded on the final play of regulation and the untimed down should not have been awarded. IHSA by-law 6.033 clearly states that ‘the decisions of game officials shall be final.'”

The IHSA also apologized to the Fenwick team and community.

After the game, Fenwick coach Gene Nudo questioned the ruling after the intentional grounding.

“I won a lot of games in the Arena League throwing the ball into the stands on the last play of the game,” Nudo said. “Our kids did not deserve to lose the game today, that’s the bottom line. As shallow as it sounds, it’s all on me. They deserved better.”

For Fenwick (11-2) it was a heartbreaking loss, and many players were in tears leaving the locker room. For Plainfield North (11-2), the celebration on the Triton College field in front of the stunned home Fenwick crowd was electric, and some players and fans were crying with joy.

“All the seniors, once they scored and we got the ball, they said, ‘We’re going for two,'” Plainfield North head coach Tim Kane said. “It was like our guys just knew we were going to score there. … I’ve been around football a long time. I haven’t seen anything crazier.”

Fenwick got the ball back for its final drive when Tigers junior quarterback Brady Miller was intercepted at the Fenwick 5-yard line by Lorente Blakeney with 1:34 remaining. Earlier in the drive, a Tigers touchdown pass was called back because the receiver had stepped out of bounds before the catch. After Fenwick’s first-down play, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Kane moved the Friars to the 20, but Plainfield had two timeouts to keep hope alive.

Keller, who was named first-team all-state, finished the game 16-for-28 for 178 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Senior Jack Henige caught a touchdown for the Friars, and junior wide receiver Mike O’Laughlin finished with eight receptions for 102 yards. Plainfield North senior running back Tyler Hoosman had 78 yards rushing.

Plainfield North advances to play second-seeded East St. Louis in the 7A state championship game at 4 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

Pitching Depth Creates Optimism for North Shore Country Day Baseball Team in 2015

The North Shore Country Day baseball team advanced to the sectional finals for the first time in its history this season, and with all its top pitchers returning in 2015, the Raiders expect to build upon that success.

The Raiders came into the year with a fairly inexperienced pitching staff. Two seniors, Chris McCarren and Ian Meyer, had significant experience on the mound, but McCarren suffered a shoulder injury and Meyer moved to the field primarily. North Shore was forced to rely heavily on its younger arms.

There were some struggles early on.

The Raiders’ No. 1 starter, Gordie Rohrbach, had issues at times keeping the ball over the plate.

“In the beginning of the season, [Rohrbach] had trouble throwing strikes,” Meyer said. “In one game he walked eight guys in four innings.”

A small adjustment helped turn things around.

“I’ve always been focused on speed, and I’ve always had control issues,” Rohrbach said. “I dialed it back two-to-three miles per hour, and for hitters that’s very slight. But for me, it made all the difference.”

By the playoffs, Rohrbach had come into his own as a leader on the mound for the Raiders, throwing over 120 pitches twice in the postseason and tossing a complete-game shutout against rival Parker in the Class 2A North Shore Country Day Regional final on May 24.

Sophomore Jackson Gray is another player who gained valuable pitching experience for the Raiders in 2014. He started the Benedictine Sectional semifinal against Holy Trinity on May 28 and is expected to be the No. 2 starter next season.

“[Gray] throws about 50-50 with his curveball and fastball,” Meyer said. “If he gets stronger, he’ll blow away hitters.”

Junior Andrew Case, who had some restrictions on the mound after returning from Tommy John surgery, should see an expanded role in 2015.

“He should be 100 percent by next season,” coach Paul Kosinski said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to unleash him.”

And top reliever Connor Watrous is expected to contribute even more after coming in as a closer frequently as a freshman.

“Connor came in late in a lot of games,” sophomore catcher Alex Nickel said. “Next year he’ll start more.”

The Raiders are happy to have made the historic playoff run — they fell to Westmont 6-4 in the sectional final Saturday to finish the season 15-12 — but they’re far from satisfied. With the experience of this season and an offseason of development, improved pitching depth should make them even more formidable.

“We’re going to have a lot of pitchers who can pitch in the playoffs and give us quality innings,” Rohrbach said. “This year we really only had two pitchers throw in the postseason in me and Jackson. Next year we should have four or five.”

“All of them gained huge experience,” Kosinski said. “That will make them all that much more confident next season.”

 

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Jack Yalowitz Keeps Loyola baseball Team in Game Until Ramblers’ Bats Come to Life

ELK GROVE VILLAGE — It took six innings for the Loyola baseball team’s bats to get going in its regional championship game with Elk Grove, but the arm of junior Jack Yalowitz led the Ramblers until that time came in Saturday’s 16-2 win.

In the bottom of the first, Yalowitz got out of a no-out, bases-loaded jam with a strikeout and an inning-ending double play. He followed that with two more strikeouts in a one-two-three second inning.

After the Ramblers scored three runs in the top of the third, Elk Grove came back with two runs against Yalowitz in the bottom of the inning and had a chance to score more with a runner on first and only one out. Again, Yalowitz got the Grenadier batter to hit into a double play. He wouldn’t allow another run the rest of the game.

“That’s what this team needed out of [Yalowitz] today,” Loyola coach Nick Bridich said. “Having the experience to put the team on his back and say, ‘This ball is mine. Coach, I’m not coming out of this game, I want this.’ You love hearing that out of your guys.”

Two consecutive scoreless innings brought Loyola to bat in the top of the sixth. After a first-batter flyout, the Ramblers had seven straight batters reach base before out number two, a sacrifice fly. By then, Loyola was up 9-2, and three more hits in the inning increased the lead to 11-2.

“We were confident at the plate and were seeing the ball really well,” said sophomore designated hitter Thomas Smart, who finished with four RBI. “And we came through in clutch situations.”

With potentially just six outs remaining in its season, Elk Grove needed to have an answer to the Loyola flurry. Instead, Yalowitz pitched another perfect inning, striking out the second and third batters.

“I felt stronger as the game went on,” Yalowitz said. “We kept putting on runs, and I just kept putting up zeros on the board.”

Loyola kept hitting in the seventh, adding five more runs on six hits to make it 16-2.

Yalowitz stepped back on the mound in the bottom of the inning to earn the complete-game win in the Class 4A Elk Grove Regional final. He tallied another strikeout, his seventh of the game, for the second out. He allowed just six hits and one walk on the day.

Tommy Bordignon, Fran O’Malley, Jacob Frank, Smart and Yalowitz each collected three hits for the Ramblers, who finished with 21 hits in the game.

Loyola moved on to the sectional, which it hosts. The Ramblers will play New Trier at 5 p.m. Thursday.

“At this point in the year it comes down to confidence at the plate,” Bridich said. “We don’t expect to change anything [in the sectional].”

 

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Jewell Loyd Still Hungry for Title After Two Stellar Seasons with Notre Dame

In Jewell Loyd’s first two collegiate seasons, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team went 57-1 in regular-season games — the best record among any team during that time.

During those two years the team has won regular-season and conference tournament championships in the Big East (2013) and ACC (2014). However, the Fighting Irish have been unable to capture a national championship, falling in the Final Four twice to Connecticut.

Loyd, a 5-foot-10 guard and former Niles West standout, led Notre Dame in scoring as a sophomore at 18.6 points per game, and the Fighting Irish won all 29 regular season games by an average of 24.8 points.

“Our coaching staff is very competitive, and they bring in very competitive players,” Loyd said. “Even if we win by 20, they’re not satisfied. There’s always something we can be improving.”

Notre Dame defeated ranked opponents N.C. State and Duke for its first ACC tournament championship. But it was still a long way from reaching its goal.

“Our senior class had been to four Final Fours, so not making it back would have been a waste of a season for them,” Loyd said. “With Skylar [Diggins] gone and a young team, we wanted to prove people wrong and make it back.”

After winning its first four NCAA tournament games by double digits, Notre Dame beat ACC foe Maryland by 26 in the Final Four to set up a championship matchup with UConn.

“We didn’t take any team for granted,” Loyd said. “It’s a big test of your team, you get to see how mentally tough you are.”

Before the title game, Loyd said that she heard from Niles West coaches Tony Konsewicz and Mike Parker and some of her former teammates.

Notre Dame knew it would have trouble with UConn, especially with senior forward Natalie Achonwa out with a torn ACL.

“We knew it was going to be a tough game. They’re bigger than us, and that makes it tough to rebound for us,” Loyd said. “Natalie is a leader, and not having her out there hurt us.”

Notre Dame fell behind early in the first half, getting beat repeatedly on the inside by UConn. A pair of 3-pointers by Loyd trimmed Notre Dame’s deficit to 43-38, but UConn deflated the Irish at the end of the half with an offensive rebound and put-back. 

“We missed a box-out right at the end of the half, and we were kind of frustrated because that’s a simple thing,” Loyd said. “We wanted to come out and have some energy, but some people were shot dead. We hadn’t been in that situation before, and we definitely lost some mental toughness.”

UConn would go on to win 79-58 and capture its second straight NCAA championship. For Loyd and Notre Dame, it means another offseason of preparing to make another run at a national title.

“We’ll be fine. We lost our seniors, but we’re ready and motivated and we have athletic kids coming in,” Loyd said. “Our team had a chip on our shoulder this season, but we want to be good again and we want to get back.” 

 

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Talented Pitching Staff Behind Niles West’s Early Season Success

SKOKIE — The Niles West baseball team may be young, but a deep pitching staff is helping the Wolves make up for a lack of experience. 

Niles West has relied on its arms on the way to a 3-1 start.

“The pitching staff has kept us in games so far this season,” junior pitcher and infielder Blake Kons said. “Our offense has started to pull through late in games, but the pitching staff has been heavily relied upon so far.”

It started in the season-opener against Lane Tech on March 31. In his team’s 6-0 shutout victory, senior righty Cody Pazik struck out 12 through five innings. Kons fanned three over the final two innings. The pair allowed just two combined hits. 

In the second game, the Wolves gave up just a single run to St. Joseph on the way to a 8-1 victory on April 1.

“We came right back and beat a pretty good St. Joe’s club,” Niles West coach Gary Gustafson said. “We got pretty good pitching out of [Matthew] De La Vega and Tyler Stegich.”

Then Chad Thompson, Niles West’s lone left-handed pitcher, led the team to a 6-3 victory over Rolling Meadows on April 2. 

“Cody Pazik, our senior captain, had a really strong outing in our first game, and our other 2 senior starting pitchers, Matt De La Vega and Chad Thompson both had strong outings in the next two games,” Kons said. “The other juniors, including myself, have been learning a lot from those three.” 

Gustafson believes that it will be key to continue getting some of the younger players innings if the team will be successful as the season continues.

“We’ve gotten great pitching out of our staff, but we’ve got a very young team, and these guys have to get their feet wet playing varsity baseball,” he said. “And they will, and they’ll get better every day, and that’s what it’s all about.”

A big boost for the entire staff, especially the younger guys, is having De La Vega behind the plate when he’s not on the mound himself. Gustafson believes he’s “one of the top catchers in the area.”

“All our guys can throw strikes, we pace ourselves very well,” said Stegich, a junior. “And Matt De La Vega calls a great game behind the plate.”

With all of the talented arms and a catcher who knows how to manage games, the Wolves have a lot of confidence regardless of who is on the mound.

“The key for our pitching staff is getting ahead of the hitter by starting off with a first-pitch strike for most of the batters,” Stegich said. “There isn’t one guy who does great, our whole pitching staff does great, and I have confidence in all of the pitchers on our team to throw strikes and get the win.”

It’s a formula that the Wolves hope will continue to work once conference play begins.

“Hopefully our pitching will carry us throughout the CSL,” Gustafson said. “That’s what has really carried us up to this point.” 

 

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Buffalo Grove Baseball Team Holds On to Beat Niles West

SKOKIE — After a strong performance from starting pitcher Justin Hasek and some early run support, the Buffalo Grove baseball team was able to hang on late for a 7-4 road win over Niles West on Saturday.

Hasek pitched four scoreless innings for the Bison, striking out six and allowing just one hit. 

“Justin was great for us today,” Buffalo Grove coach Jeff Grybash said. “He limited his three-ball counts, which is one of our goals for him, to keep his pitch count low so he can go deep into games.”

The Bison offense came through early as well, scoring four runs while Hasek was on the mound. 

But Niles West didn’t go away quietly. Niles West sophomore Christos Tountas drove in two runs on a single to bring the score to 5-4 in the bottom of the sixth.

The next two batters walked for Niles West, leaving the bases loaded with two outs for senior Matthew De La Vega. But with a 2-0 count, he grounded out to end the inning.

“We had the bases loaded with arguably our best hitter on,” Wolves coach Garry Gustafson said. “And it was still a one-run game going into the seventh, even with the mistakes we made early.”

In the top of the seventh, Andrew Cole’s single knocked in two insurance runs for the Bison, giving him three RBI on the night. 

“We’re trying to work on little things because we really haven’t been out on the field,” Grybash said. “Obviously the result was great, but there were a lot of other little things we did really well.” 

 

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Skylar Groth, Buffalo Grove Control Hoffman Estates

Buffalo Grove 3, Hoffman Estates 0

THE SKINNY

The Buffalo Grove girls soccer team kept the ball in the attacking half of the field for most of its MSL opener against Hoffman Estates Friday, but a combination of strong winds, poor finishing and an improved Hawks team held the Bison to just three goals in a 3-0 victory. 

TURNING POINT

Through the first 20 minutes of the game, Buffalo Grove was dominating possession but had only managed to put one goal in the back of the net. Then, senior midfielder Skylar Groth changed that with a right-footed 25-yard strike that tucked just inside the left post. 

THE STAR

In addition to having the top goal of the night, Groth added an assist—to junior midfielder Jessica Kovach — for Buffalo Grove’s first goal of the game. Freshman Georgette Topalis finished a header for the final goal.

BY THE NUMBERS

In five games this season, the Bison have allowed only one goal — on a questionable penalty kick in the season opener against St. Viator. 

QUOTABLE

“Our team is a senior-laden team, and the connections we’ve been making have been getting better and better. But today, I think the girls would even admit, it was a little sloppy and there were some opportunities we didn’t finish. But it was enough for the win, and we’re happy to be 1-0 in conference.” — Buffalo Grove coach Pat Dudle

 

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Softball Season Preview: New Trier Returns Several Key Contributors

New Trier

The New Trier softball team has six starters returning from a 2013 team that went 26-2 in the regular season, including a perfect 10-0 in CSL South play, and made it to the Class 4A sectional finals. 

New Trier has five returning all-conference players, including pitcher Allison Quigley, who won 21 straight decisions last season, and Abbey Boyd, who was recently named to the Academic All-State team.

“We feel pretty confident about this season,” coach John Cadwell said. “We’ve got a really tough schedule, but the girls work very hard together, they’ve got great work ethic and an excellent rapport together. I’m pleased with the seniors, and we’ve also got some great young players, too.”

Glenbrook North

After winning the 2013 CSL North title with a perfect 10-0 record, the Spartans again are looking to finish atop the standings in 2014.

“We’re expecting to play well again this season,” coach Jenn Mau said. “Winning conference is always a goal for us.” 

Glenbrook North is bringing back nine players from that championship team, including All-CSL North selections Courtney Chron, Kate Kamin, Emily Westil and four-year starting pitcher Ashley Gruenberg. 

Glenbrook South

The Titans surprised people in the 2013 playoffs by upsetting Deerfield and Mundelein en route to a Class 4A regional championship game appearance. After losing just three players to graduation, Glenbrook South returns 11 seniors with significant varsity experience. 

“The girls spent many hours in the offseason playing travel ball,” coach Kay Sopocy said. “We’re feeling really good about where we’re at.”

One of those veteran players is senior pitcher Katie Rossman, one of two Titans to be named to the 2013 All-CSL South team. With another year of experience, she projects to have an even better 2014 season.

“[Katie] has more control and improved location,” Sopocy said. “Her confidence has gotten better and she’ll set the tone for us.”

While other area teams are waiting for the weather to improve to finally play outdoors, Glenbrook South will spend four days during spring break training in Florida. It is scheduled to play five games during that span.

“We just can’t wait to get away from this weather,” Sopocy said. 

Evanston

Luella Gesky takes over as coach this season for an Evanston team that went 15-16 in 2013 and advanced to the Class 4A regional finals. 

“We’ve got a whole new coaching staff and new system,” Gesky said. “I feel like the girls are really excited for the possibilities this year.” 

She said that offensively the Wildkits will play small ball to set up the team’s big hitters, particularly sophomore Gina Hopf. Defensively, the goal is to be fundamentally sound and to support Evanston’s two freshman pitchers, Zoe Kurtzer and Jaden Janzen.

Regina

New coach Vince Smart joins a Regina softball program that has won three consecutive GCAC White Division championships. Smart was previously with the Illinois BASH softball program. Smart takes over a relatively young Panthers team that features just seven upperclassmen, including seniors Sarah Baker, Anna Booczko and Niki Richards. 

Loyola

New Loyola coach Michelle Farrell-Fink inherits a team that made it to the regional finals in 2013. The Ramblers suffered a season-ending 8-4 loss to Barrington, the eventual third-place finisher in Class 4A. 

 

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