Illinois redshirt junior Eric Barone knew it was time to move up a weight class after a disappointing 2017-18 season.
The 2015 Crystal Lake South graduate did not place at the Big Ten Championships while wrestling at 149 pounds, and failed to qualify for the NCAA Championships after qualifying the year before.
Barone called the season “a step backward.”
“It felt like last year I was only worrying about my weight and didn’t really worry about wrestling,” Barone said. “It was hard to wrestle when all I thought about was making weight.”
After a move to 157 pounds, Barone is 18-14 and returns to the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, which begin Thursday at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.
Barone is one of four McHenry County wrestlers competing at nationals. Illinois teammate Travis Piotrowski (Prairie Ridge) joins Barone, as does Purdue’s Christian Brunner (Dundee-Crown) and Navy’s Nicholas Gil (Crystal Lake South).
Piotrowski, Brunner and Gil are all three-time NCAA qualifiers. All three earned automatic bids from their respective conference tournaments.
Barone, meanwhile, had to sweat it out for an at-large bid. Of the 14 competitors at 157 in the Big Ten Championships, 12 were ranked in the top 20, fighting for nine automatic bids. Barone knew it would be tough. He finished 10th, but still earned an at-large bid.
“It’s good to finally make it back here and get another chance to accomplish what I ultimately want to accomplish: to be an All-American,” Barone said.
Piotrowski finished fifth at the Big Ten Championships at 125. Like Barone, and everyone competing, his goal is to finish in the top eight in his class and become an All-American.
“Every single time I come here, it’s almost surreal,” Piotrowski said. “There’s just a change in attitude or change in feeling when you’re out here on the big stage.”
Last month, Piotrowski watched his brother, Trey Piotrowski, on the big stage at the IHSA state finals in Champaign. Trey Piotrowski, who finished fifth at 138 in Class 2A, became Prairie Ridge's second three-time state medalist, and first since his brother.
Trey Piotrowski will join Travis at Illinois next season.
“I’m really glad with how he finished and how he wrestled,” Travis Piotrowski said. “I hope he’s excited for what’s coming next year.”
Like Travis Piotrowski, Barone hung around State Farm Center last month to watch the state finals. South’s Christian Olsen became the Gators’ first state champion since Barone in 2015.
“I was nervous,” Barone said. “It was definitely better than when I was wrestling because I didn’t have to worry about the wrestling part."
Purdue’s Brunner finished fifth at the Big Ten Championships at 197. Gil, a senior, qualified for the second year in a row and third time overall. He and Barone wrestled three seasons together at South.
Gil is Navy’s team captain and enters nationals with 106 career victories under his belt. As the No. 10 seed in his class, Gil is the highest seeded of the four local wrestlers.
Local Division I NCAA qualifiers
Eric Barone, redshirt jr., Illinois, 157 pounds
A 2015 Crystal Lake South grad, Barone was the Class 3A 145-pound state champion in 2015 and a two-time state medalist. … Received an at-large bid to nationals, marking his second NCAA appearance. … Barone (18-14) is the No. 15 seed at 157.
Christian Brunner, jr., Purdue, 197 pounds
A 2016 Dundee-Crown grad, Brunner won the Class 3A 195-pound state championship as a senior. ... Three-time IHSA medalist. … Placed fifth at the Big Ten Championships, earning an automatic bid to nationals. … Three-time NCAA qualifier. … Brunner (23-9) is the No. 11 seed at 197.
Nicholas Gil, sr., Navy, 141 pounds
A 2014 Crystal Lake South grad, Gil was a two-time IHSA state medalist. … Went 3-1 and placed second at the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association Championships, earning an automatic bid to nationals. … Three-time NCAA qualifier. … Gil (28-6) is the No. 10 seed at 141.
Travis Piotrowski, jr., Illinois, 125 pounds
A 2016 Prairie Ridge grad, Piotrowski won the Class 2A state champion at 126 pounds in 2016. Three-time state medalist in high school. … Placed fifth at the Big Ten Championships, securing an automatic bid to nationals. … Piotrowski (20-10) is making his third NCAA appearance and is the No. 11 seed at 125.