By THE HERALD-WHIG STAFF
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Zach Abney knew exactly what to look for. When Mercer County's Jon Ricke collar-tied the 170-pound Pittsfield senior and gripped hard on his tricep, Abney knew Ricke was setting up for a headlock.
Abney never allowed Ricke to throw him, using an escape and reversal to win his 170-pound semifinal match Friday at the Class 1A state wrestling tournament at the University of Illinois' Assembly Hall.
"From wrestling him earlier this season, I knew what to expect," said Abney, who beat Ricke 12-7 in the semifinals of the Princeton Tournament. "I'd look for little signs that he was ready to throw a headlock. ... We'd work on the head-pulling (to prepare for the match). I expected him to try and tie up."
Abney (44-2), who is ranked No. 1 in the state by Illinoismatmen.com, will try to become the third wrestler in Pittsfield history to win a state title. Devon Johnson won at 189 pounds in 2009-10 and John Wise won at 275 in 2003-04. This is Abney's third consecutive state appearance. He didn't place as a sophomore and finished fifth as a junior.
"I think his past experience helped him immensely," Pittsfield coach Randy Butler said. "He wasn't ready as a sophomore, and he came up here and took his lumps. Last year, he was able to get in the tournament and place fifth. There is no substitute for experience, and the state tournament does that to people sometimes. It's easy to get out there and forget how to wrestle."
Abney is one of seven area wrestlers who are still competing for medals at the state tournament.
QND's Darren Stephens (120), Gage Stephens (138) and Jeffrey Haley (195) all lost to the top-ranked wrestlers in their respective weight classes in the Class 1A semifinals. West Hancock's Will Lucie (106) and Jack Lucie (126) also dropped into wrestlebacks after losing in the semifinals of Class 1A. All wrestlers who make it to the semifinals before losing are guaranteed a medal.
Quincy High School's Dakota Downs, who lost his preliminary match, won in the first round of wrestlebacks at Class 3A to keep his hopes of placing alive.
The Raiders only had three medals winners in school history before this season. Matt Hugenberg, who finished fourth at 285 in 2009-10, was QND's last place-winner.
Raiders coach Ken Mansell said they will need to refocus if they hope to finish third.
"They have to get their mind right back into it," Mansell said. "Everyone came here to win the title. When you are one match away and fall short, it's a letdown. What they need to do is go back to the hotel, get a good night's sleep, wake up and throw out last night's match and go on."
Abney is excited about what lies ahead, too. He will get his chance to reach the top of the podium when he wrestles Oregon's Brandon Sklavanitis (46-1), who ranked No. 2 in the state, in the finals.
"I've just been thinking about being in the state finals match," Abney said. "That's what I've been thinking about the whole time I've been here. Winning it and standing it on top of the podium."