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The best of the best will be in Princeton once again this weekend.
The state’s top small-school wrestlers will flock to the area for the two-day Princeton Invitational Tournament — a star-studded 30-plus-team event that’s thought of by many as a mini-state tournament.
Local teams Ottawa and Princeton are both hoping to come out winners in the PIT, which starts at 4:30 p.m. Friday and concludes Saturday, with finals scheduled for 5 p.m.
“For us, outside of the postseason, this is our biggest tournament of the year,” PHS coach Steve Amy said. “We expect the kids to come out and perform at the highest level that they can. We would love for them all to do well because it means they’ll do well come February, but we also understand who is here.”
The PIT features a who’s who in small-school wrestling.
Last year’s event featured 96 individual state qualifiers, eight state champions, 17 state finalists and 31 state medalists. Seven of the eight teams that qualified for the Class 1A dual team state participated in last year’s event.
This year’s tournament may be even stronger as it features the top six-ranked 1A teams and 21 total squads that are ranked or receiving honorable mention in 1A or 2A by IllinoisMatmen.com.
Individually, the tournament has 11 No. 1 state-ranked wrestlers and returns 12 wrestlers who wrestled for a state title last season. Four weight classes feature the top two-ranked 1A wrestlers in the state and two classes have the top three-ranked grapplers.
With all the talent that will be in Prouty Gymnasium, host Princeton hopes to make its presence felt.
Rebuilding PHS is led by 126-pound freshman Austin Wetsel (13-4) as well as 152-pound junior Drew Pranka, who will make his season debut.
Other Tiger wrestlers to watch are 106-pound sophomore Tyler Wood (9-6), 113-pound sophomore Luke Marselle (8-7), 120-pound sophomore Tyler Webster (5-7) and 160-pound sophomore Luke Hoffman (8-4).
“We’re still a very young team and we have a lot of sophomores in our lineup,” said Amy, a three-time state champion at Rockridge who wrestled in the PIT in high school. “We look for big things out of Drew Pranka since it’ll be his first tournament of the season and out of Austin Wetsel as well, along with Tyler Wood, Luke Marselle, Tyler Webster and Luke Hoffman.”
While PHS is young and looking to find its way, Ottawa should be able to make plenty of noise.
The Pirates — who are receiving honorable mention in 2A by IllinoisMatmen.com — could have up to five wrestlers fighting for a medal.
The group is led by 145-pound junior and 2012-13 NewsTribune Wrestler of the Year Daniel Close, a state place winner from last season who returned to action Dec. 30 after missing nearly a month with a swollen left knee.
Ottawa also boasts 195-pound senior Alex Fuentes, another returning state place winner who missed the first chunk of the season as he recovered from offseason surgery to repair a broken collarbone.
“I am hoping that Alex and Danny can make the finals and have a real good showing,” Ottawa coach Peter Marx said. “As we know, numerous state champs come out of the tournament, so we’d like to see them make some noise because (success at the PIT) is a good precursor for the final run of the season.”
Ottawa 220-pound senior Cyrano Rayfield will miss the tournament due to a football recruiting trip, but other Pirate wrestlers who could do well are 106-pound sophomore Jakob Weiss, 113-pound freshman Micah Krueger, 138-pound senior Devon Jones and 170-pound junior Paul Turner.
The Pirates, however, will come in weary as they competed in a triangular Wednesday and will host La Salle-Peru in a Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference West Division dual tonight before competing in the PIT.
“I think it’s good to help get us prepared for what’s coming in February,” Marx said. “To see that much hard competition over the four days, it can be tough come Saturday because you’re just beat up and worn out. But it’s a good way to set the tone for the rest of the season.”
Jared Bell can be reached at 220-6938, or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsJared.
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