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Three for the ages

Albers, Cortez, Jimenez
become four-time champs

By Ed Muniz
 

The IHSA state wrestling finals saw something Saturday night (Feb. 22) that hadn’t occurred in its 77-year history.

It’s quite rare to see a wrestler vying for his fourth individualstate title; only 11 wrestlers had previously accomplished that feat. With the talent pool so deep in Illinois, it's an amazing accomplishment.

Seth Milks, of Dakota, was the last to do it in 2009. The feat was doubled up in 2007 when Montini’s Mike Benefiel and St. Rita’s Albert White each won their fourth title.

This 2014 season had the makings of a special season for three individuals. For Dakota’s Josh Alber, not only was he vying to grab some history and joining the elite four-timer group, but he was also in the middle of completing a historic streak of consecutive wins. Entering this season, Alber had set a state record of 134-straight victories.

Marmion Academy’s Johnny Jimenez already had three state titles tucked away, but he knew grabbing the fourth would be his most difficult. Heading into this season he had already signed to wrestle at the University of Wisconsin, but the pressure of winning another title still loomed large.

Some in Illinois considered Glenbard North’s Jered Cortez as the best wrestler in the state. The three-time champion was nationally recruited and felt his best fit was staying in state and competing for the University of Illinois next year. His senior season was made more difficult due to a serious injury.

 

Photo used with permission from the Rockford Register Star and rrstar.com

Dakota's Josh Alber.

After winning his third title last season, Alber felt he didn’t perform his best and was quite upset with himself. His reaction was of total disgust. This year, it was nothing but smiles for him and cheers from the crowd that saw him easily capture a fourth-consecutive championship and extend his win streak and undefeated IHSA career record to 177-0 after dispatching Coal City’s Casey Brown, 16-5 in the Class A 132 title match.

As the bout was approached its conclusion you could see Alber was totally enjoying the moment, unlike last year. He hoisted four fingers in each hand and faced the Dakota crowd; he absorbed the cheers raining down on him and surely they will stay locked in his memory bank forever.

“It’s the greatest feeling,” said the Northern Iowa bound Alber. "I still got the dual stuff left, but I knew this was my one last huge match. And to come out and wrestle like I did, I can't even tell you how I feel.
 
“I can’t remember the last time I cried, but after this one, I was bawling like a little baby. It’s an amazing feeling.”

Alber spoke of what it took to finish his career up to his fourth inividual title unbeaten.

“Down here it can bring the worst out of you, for me it’s in the practice room," he said. "I look pretty refined out here, because I work so hard in the practice room and work everything out. I look good out here because of the hard work I do in practice and doing all the right lifestyle things right.”

Photo courtesy of Ken Dado

Glenbard North's Jered Cortez.

For Glenbard North's Jered Cortez, this year in Champaign would be unlike any before. During the DuPage Valley Conference tournament, Cortez injured his left knee and the injury was severe enough that it hampered his mobility.

The Panther managed to get through the conference battles and complete the regional and sectional tests with a severe knee injury.

“I tore my MCL two weeks ago and this title was definitely the most challenging  physically and emotionally,” said Cortez. “It was hard to get up every morning, and you can’t move your knee. You can’t straighten your knee, you can’t bend your knee. Every time you walk it's collapsing. All the pain I’m in, but I couldn’t have done it without the afterschool therapy, and the faith that I have.”

Cortez seized his fourth title by a 3-1 tally in overtime. It came after an early reversal over Joey Nelson, of Lincoln-Way Central, in the Class 3A 132 title bout.

“He didn’t shoot on me once throughout the match. I gutted it out,” Cortez said.

The result didn't surprise his coach.

"When you have three state championships already behind you and you're trying to win a fourth one, there's a little added pressure, even though he had already signed with Illinois," said Glenbard North head coach Mark Hahn.

"He came in and set two goals, to go undefeated and win a fourth title. So when he lost earlier in the year, there was more pressure. But you know what, with his mental toughness, he was a little banged up but he came through. It showed who he is, his mental toughness got him through that last match."


Cortez feels right at home in Champaign and has stated that he wants to represent his state well at the University of Illinois next year.

“I want to win national titles, not individual but team titles," he said. "Coming to school (Illinois) here, a lot of people were surprised, something special is going  to be going on so, we’re coming and I can’t wait to work with such a great coaching staff. I know they can get me my next goals.”

Photo courtesy of Ken Dado

Marmion's Johnny Jimenez.

For Johnny Jimenez, winning has always seemed to come naturally. The Marmion senior set a goal and was influenced by his older brother Nico growing up. He saw his brother wrestle and win a state title for Marmion and always looked up and desired to do as well or even better.

“Coming in as a freshman, I was following an awesome role model," he said. "My brother had won it that year and having a state champion being part of your family just goes a long way. It helped me work that hard to do as well or even better than that. It really helps."

Jimenez faced Jon Marmolejo, of Glenbard North. Marmolejo had lost just one match all season and looked to avenge it. But Jimenez had hit his peek and was defensively prepared. He allowed the Pather senior just a sole escape in his 5-1 Class 3A win at 126 pounds.

“I kept thinking 'This is it. If I do this, I’ve completed everything I have wanted to do,'" Jiminez said. "As I rode him out I just kept the dream in the back of my mind.”

Jimenez was moved by he crowd's cheers and the standing ovation he received after his historic win.

“It was heartwarming," he said. "I was so happy, and I appreciate all the fans cheering me on over the year so it was just an awesome thing seeing it.”

Jimenez' father Walter also basked in the moment.

"Very excited, I can't even tell you how proud I am," he said. "I was just texting my family, I can hardly stand so i'm leaning against this wall to keep myself up.

"The emotions you go through as a father for their son, I just cant tell you how proud I am."

The new four-time state champion will take a little freshener.

“I’m back on the mat soon with maybe a little break," Jimenez said. "But to be a champion, you don’t get too many breaks, you got to make the sacrifices. So after this it's back on the mat working towards a national championship.”

Look for this trio of Illinois stars to battle in the national spotlight for NCAA titles in the near future.

 

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