QUINCY -- Trailing 6-2 heading to the third period, Thomas Culp's mind naturally wandered back to last year.
As a sophomore, Culp lost his sectional semifinal match and had to wrestle through the consolation bracket to qualify for his first state tournament. Saturday, facing a four-point deficit in the 182-pound semifinals of the Class 3A Quincy Sectional, the Quincy High School junior wrestler had to beat back old memories.
"I had that thought in my head, but I've learned that that's when I start losing matches," said Culp, the No. 5 wrestler at 182. "I realized that every time I start giving up on myself or getting tired, that's when I start losing matches. I just don't do that anymore."
Culp battled back from a 6-2 deficit and pulled off a reversal in the final 15 seconds to defeat Homewood-Flossmoor's Haku Watson-Castro 9-8, advance to the championship match and earn a spot in next weekend's state tournament at State Farm Center in Champaign.
"It was insane," Culp said. "Knowing that I was going back to state for sure and that I didn't have to go through the torture I had last year losing in the semifinals and having to win back. That was awful, but making it to the finals felt amazing."
Culp suffered an injury to the knuckle on his right pinky in the victory and had to withdraw from the championship match, sticking him with a second-place medal.
"It was kind of precautionary," Blue Devils coach Phil Neally said. "Regardless of what the situation is, we will be at the state tournament. Whether that's with a little ace bandage or some kind of sleeve or something, he'll make it work."
Culp has a habit of making things work. He fell behind 5-2 in the first period of the semifinal, with Watson-Castro catching Culp on his back after a throw attempt by Culp. In the second period, Watson-Castro picked up another point on an escape, but Culp wasn't worried.
"He caught me on my back. That was his whole match," Culp said. "That's how I knew he wasn't better than me."
Culp started the third period in the down position. Midway through the period, he pulled out for a reversal and a three-point near-fall to take a 7-6 lead. After escaping the pin attempt, Watson-Castro reversed Culp to pull back ahead 8-7.
Even after Culp lost the lead, Neally wasn't concerned.
"He puts himself in the right positions," Neally said. "He was on the bottom, but he was trying to feel where the guy was going to. He's a great position wrestler, and that's very important in the sport of wrestling. He put himself in the right spot, and he's going to be successful."
Watson-Castro lost his headgear with 32 seconds remaining, prompting a time stoppage. Culp remained on his back throughout the stoppage, regaining his breath and conserving his energy. When the clock resumed, he knew it was time to go.
"I had plenty of time," Culp said. "We do that a lot in practice, down-by-one and down-by-two drills. I do it all the time in practice so I knew what to do."
Culp gained his base then wrapped his arms around Watson-Castro. When he pulled his head out and took control, the pro-QHS crowd at Blue Devil Gym serenaded him with cheers as the time ran out.
"Most people here probably thought, ‘Wow, how'd he do that?'" Neally said. "But being around a kid so much that has wrestled his whole life, he finds a way to get in the right place at the right time.
"Today was his day. I'm glad he's going to the state tournament. We're heading to Champaign."
Three other Blue Devils entered the day with a hope to make their first state meet, but all three fell short.
Kaleb Vahle began with a second-period pin of Donald Dorich from Minooka in the 170-pound consolation bracket. Vahle was unable to keep his tournament going in the consolation quarterfinals, falling to Alton's Damien Jones by an 18-1 technical fall.
Blake Peter started the consolation bracket at 120 with a match against Bradley-Bourbonnais's Austin Spacht. Spacht came out strong and Peter couldn't keep up, suffering a 7-0 defeat to end his season.
Avery Bodi nearly had a victory in his first consolation match at 220, but Homewood-Flossmoor's Justin Thomas rallied in the third period to take a 7-5 victory.
"They did a great job representing our program. All of them fought tough, never gave up," Neally said. "I always felt like they were giving us their best effort. We just didn't put ourself in the right spot at the right times."