BELLEVILLE — The Alton Redbirds traveled to Belleville West on Thursday and left with a feeling they hadn't encountered this season.
They suffered their first loss in the Southwestern Conference in '15-16, falling 35-30 to the host Maroons in a tight dual.
With the loss the Redbirds dipped to 3-1 in the SWC. West joined Alton and O'Fallon at 3-1 on the league slate. The trio of SWC squads trail leader Edwardsville (4-0) by one win now.
“I'm just taking it a conference dual at a time,” AHS head coach Eric Roberson said. “That's literally the way I'm looking at it. I'm not even looking at what place we could get, I'm just looking at who we have next.”
Thursday's dual was decided at heavyweight. Entering the bout, West was clinging to a 29-24 lead after the Redbirds had reeled off three straight wins.
Alton's Ryan Kane started off strong at 285, scoring a takedown on Israel Griffin of the Maroons, but Griffin clawed back, logging an escape point and ultimately turning the tide and winning via pin in 3:35.
It propelled West ahead 35-24 before an anticlimactic ending that saw AHS' Garrett Sims win by forfeit at 106 to cut it to 35-30 and a double forfeit at 113 concluding the dual.
“When it started getting down to the nitty gritty you know as a head coach when you're going to need a big win and going in we knew heavyweight was a big match. It could go either way,” said first-year West head coach Joe Rujawitz. “Israel works hard in practice. He's a junior and he's getting better. He had weight issues early and now he's getting down to 270 and getting his weight under control. He just had to stay focused. He works harder than any heavyweight we've had in a long time and that includes Ricky Nelson from last year who placed high. We knew if we stayed on him, 'Keep wrestling, keep wrestling, you're going to break him.' We got the takedown, turned him right away and won the match, won the dual.”
Roberson knew heavyweight was a crucial point of the dual, but he thought there were plenty of other places the Birds could have taken advantage before that point.
“Just because when the heavyweight match occurred it made it look like that was the match, but we could have pinned at 132, we could have pinned at 145,” Roberson said. “There were some pins that could have happened, but didn't. At 138 we got called for hands to the face (and lost a team point). There were some things that happened before heavyweight, but the way the chips fell, definitely heavyweight was a big match and Ryan just got caught on his back.”
The dual began at 120 pounds and Alton found itself in a quick hole, down 7-0 after two matches. Senior Connor Broyles logged a 15-4 major decision over West's Justin Koderhandt at 132 to cut it to 7-4.
Alton's next win came via a 17-3 major by Alejandro Lopez over Kyle Ziegel at 145, but an AHS forfeit at 152 and consecutive pins by Nick Foster and James Stammer of the Maroons at 160 and 170 extended the lead to 29-7.
The Redbirds rallied for a scoring spurt though. KeOntay Holmes pinned West's D'Ante Scruggs in 1:10 at 182, Keyondrick Russell scored a 15-0 technical fall over Ryan Johnson at 195 and Alecquan Russell stuck DeMarlo Nesbitt in 1:13 at 220. Like that the Birds had dwindled the deficit to 29-24.
“Those guys are coming along nicely for us,” Roberson said. “They're strong and have developed into pretty good wrestlers and those are some solid areas of our lineup. We have a good heavyweight run in duals sometimes. Of course we've got some good kids down low too, but it's nice to have those guys up high.”
Rujawitz admitted the rivalry is strong between the Maroons and Redbirds and Thursday fit right into the tight duals of the past.
“Every time we wrestle Alton, whether it's at our place or theirs it's tough,” he said. “We know they're always in shape, they're good on the mat. Looking at it on paper it's been the same, we've got some good guys, they've got good guys, but we've got holes and how do we limit the damage and we did that tonight.”
Alton will get right back after it on Friday in a dual at Oswego and then enter the Geneva Tournament on Saturday. The Redbirds then head to highly-touted Edwardsville next week for a SWC dual.
“Those will be two solid dates, especially with schedule they have up there week in and week out,” Roberson said of the Oswego and Geneva trips. “Belleville West is a good team and I think we learned to battle tonight and we'll just take it into tomorrow and see what happens.”