The St. Rita coaching staff had to split up sparring partners Jake Silzer and Austin O’Connor, two of the premier lightweights in the state, earlier this season.
“We know it’s just practice,” said Silzer, a 113-pound sophomore and returning state medalist, “but we get mad if one of us scores against each other.”
The pair definitely doesn’t lack competitive fire, but overly intense practice sessions weren’t the reason coach Dan Manzella wanted to break them apart.
“They’re too good of friends,” Manzella said. “We’d be drilling moves and those two would just be talking about wrestling — talking about different moves they like to use.
“So I put Austin with Colt Kielbasa, a salty senior and future marine, and I put Silzer with Tino Ortiz.”
That quartet recently stood out at the 16-team Lincoln-Way East Illini Classic, with St. Rita finishing runner-up behind Marist.
Silzer and O’Connor (106) both garnered titles, while Kielbasa (120) and Ortiz (126) placed third. Silzer improved to 35-4 and O’Connor climbed to 33-3 despite facing one of the state’s toughest schedules.
O’Connor, ranked No. 2 in Class 3A by Illinois Matmen, has a single loss in his home weight class. The freshman dropped a 6-5 decision to Oak Park-River Forest’s Jason Renteria, No. 1 in class 3A, in his first high school bout. O’Connor and Renteria appear likely to collide once more deep into the state tournament. Silzer has his money on O’Connor.
“You just always know Austin is going to get the pin for you,” said Silzer, a Tinley Park resident. “I personally think he’s going to win state this year.”
Silzer, meanwhile, made his own statement at the Illini Classic when he avenged a defeat — beating Marist’s Nick Lukanich — to take one of the top brackets in the field. Silzer’s four losses have come by a combined six points.
He should be in state podium contention again this season despite a 113-pound field that some area coaches believe is the best in the state.
As a unit, the Mustangs have had some tournament success but have also struggled in dual bouts.
“We’ve had to forfeit at 182, 195 and 220 this year,” Manzella said. “That was the meat of our lineup last year.”
One piece to the puzzle is Tyre Lee, who’s missed all of the season after breaking his ankle carrying the rock for St. Rita’s football team. Lee could possibly return in time for regionals, but Manzella said he has no intention of rushing him back. Lee has multiple DI football offers and recently made a visit to Illinois.
“He’s one of the hardest working and most well liked guys on the team,” Manzella said. “It’s really going to come down to the wire, and I’m not going to let him go unless he’s 100 percent.”
St. Rita will first turn its attention to Saturday’s Chicago Catholic League tournament. The Mustangs hope to dethrone reigning champ Mount Carmel.