Riverside-Brookfield High School wrestler Joey Swallow had a lot to celebrate on Saturday, though the person he most wanted to celebrate with was not in attendance.
The senior captured the 160-pound championship at the Class 2A Thornridge Sectional to earn the first state finals berth of his career.
Swallow will be one of five Bulldogs who will wrestling at the state finals this weekend at the University of Illinois in Champaign.
“It feels great knowing that I get that better seed and knowing I’ll wrestle somebody that got fourth at a different sectional,” Swallow said. “Today I came out and I wasn’t nervous or anything. I just relaxed like I do every single match and tried not to get too uptight and I wrestled great.”
Indeed, Swallow (32-3) pinned his first two opponents before edging Tinley Park senior Joey Davies 3-2 in the title match.
The championship was bittersweet because Swallow’s mother, Denise Rehder, died in November at the age of 51 after battling ALS for five years. Her absence has weighed heavily on Swallow, who has dedicated his final season of prep wrestling to her memory.
“I used the motivation of my mom passing away a lot,” Swallow said. “She passed away in November just before Thanksgiving, so I had to miss the first two weeks of wrestling.
“I had to be tougher for my younger brother and older sister. It’s been rough pushing through it. I just use that as motivation and work hard every day.”
RBHS coach Nick Curby has been impressed with how Swallow has persevered, especially considering he missed valuable training time.
“To begin the season like that is tough,” Curby said. “We gave him a little time at the beginning of the year, just said when you’re ready to come back, come back.
“Ever since then he’s been very focused. Competition-wise he started two weeks late, but now he’s getting in that groove.
“For the last month he’s really been competing at a level that is indicative of how he did today. He’s getting the rewards of how he’s wrestling.”
While the layoff was a hindrance, Swallow said he never considered not returning to the mat, which has become a refuge for him.
“It’s an escape,” Swallow said. “When you’re wrestling you forget about everything. School goes away, problems go away. So it’s just a great outlet.
“I didn’t want to miss school. I came back after a week and I didn’t want to fall behind. Most guys on the team thought I wasn’t coming back but (winners) don’t leave just because of things like that. So I made sure of coming back.”
Swallow and senior Chris Colvin, who won the 220-pound championship, figure to earn high seeds in their respective 16-man brackets at state. A medal would be especially gratifying for Swallow, whose biggest fan will be there only in spirit.
“She fought for a long time for us,” Swallow said. “I always miss her because she would always try to make her way, even in her wheelchair, to all of my wrestling matches. It’s hard wrestling this and winning this when she’s not here.”
The Bulldogs have had only one state medalist since 1983. Al’lon Carter finished fifth at 220 in 2015, the last year RBHS was in Class 2A.
Could Swallow be the next?
“I’m always confident in my guys and anything can always happen, for good or for bad,” Curby, who placed fifth at 189 for Lyons Township in 1998. “But for the way that he’s wrestling, the way he’s attacking and his conditioning, I would say he’s put himself in position to have a really good weekend.”
So, too, has Colvin, who improved to 41-3 by knocking off Brother Rice senior Scott Sierzega 4-2 in overtime in the 220 final.
“It feels awesome,” Colvin said. “I came into this tournament hoping to do as well as I could. I know my best is winning this tournament.”
Colvin did it in workmanlike fashion, taking a 2-0 lead on the top-seeded Sierzega in the first period before Sierzega tied it in the second period.
Colvin was on the defensive for most of the third period before recording the clinching takedown with 20 seconds left in OT.
“I wrestled pretty good,” Colvin said. “For next time I’m just trying to train on bottom, trying to work on getting out and based on (what Sierzega was doing) I kind of just had to sit on bottom until the (third) period was over.
“(In overtime) he took a shot on me and I went back past his leg and I was able to get the takedown from his shot.”
Seniors Julian Blanco and Josh Contreras and junior Joey Giurini also qualified for state.
Blanco (34-5) took second at 145, winning his first three matches by pin before being pinned himself by Lemont senior Egan Berth, while Giurini (29-6) was runner-up at 126, losing a 9-0 decision to Lemont freshman Grant LaDuke.
Contreras (35-11), who advanced to state at 113 two years ago, got through with a fourth-place finish at 120.
“(To have five qualifiers), four of the seniors, have the possibility of them ending their careers down in Champaign is always a great feeling,” Curby said. “One last hurrah, go out there on the mat and anything can happen.
“The way the guys are all wrestling is very encouraging.”
Two other Bulldogs competed at sectionals but didn’t advance. Junior Demar Pearce (25-7) went 3-2 at 152, losing in the quarterfinals of the main draw and semifinals of the wrestlebacks, and Riley Shaw (17-25) went 2-2 at 182.