Byline: Mike Garofola Daily Herald Correspondent
When Conant captured the Mid-Suburban League wrestling crown last February, it marked the 20th in school history and fourth in the last five years.
That kind of dominance is well known to the Cougars' MSL competitors, who have grown accustomed to seeing coach John Kane's team hoist yet another piece of hardware when the annual two-day conference tourney ends.
For Fremd, a prominent wrestling program itself, there's nothing but praise and respect for its league rival - but not to the point where they believe a division or conference title is unattainable.
With seven of its regulars back from an 18-3 season - including sectional qualifiers Jake Hughes, Dan Hughes, Robert Panayi and Jake Jobst - the Vikings appear to have the ability to make a run at not only the Cougars but an MSL title.
"I tell our guys that (last year) was not a disappointing season," says Ralph Cortez, who's now in his 12th year as head coach.
"The year before I got here, this program was something like 2- 17. Now that's disappointing," laughs Cortez.
"But how can there be anything negative to say when you go 18-3, finish second (in the West) to a team that ended fourth overall at the state tournament, then go on to take second in regionals?"
"Coach (Cortez) always tells us that everyone (in Vikings wrestling) all deserve respect," says Hughes, a four-year varsity veteran and 2003 sectional qualifier.
"That's why we all enjoy wrestling under coach (Cortez)," adds Panayi. "He's like family, he cares so much for each of us."
Panayi (215) joined now-graduated teammates Paul Manda and Craig Stocker at the state tournament, despite suffering from a knee injury during the last part of the 2002-03 season.
The Vikings' magnificent seven, which also includes sophomore Dan Meglio (112) and juniors Joe Vanwettering (119) and Mike Rizzo, accounted for nearly 190 wins last season, and is bolstered this winter with the return of junior Buddy Dudczak (189), who as a freshman qualified into the sectionals with 18 victories.
"Like anyone else, we've got some spots to fix," said Cortez. "But this is a nice group that we have this year. In the end, we feel we're good enough to get to the dance."
Cortez' reference to the "dance" is the state tournament. But there isn't anyone on his team, including the coach, who is looking ahead to anything but the next day of training or competition.
"It's just hard work every day and try to progress with each practice and match," says Leonard.
The Augustana College-bound senior, who is coming off another terrific season with the Vikings' cross country team, brings out the best of everyone around him, according to his coach.
"Dan (Leonard) set out to become a good wrestler, and since beginning here as a freshman, he's turned into a good one," Cortez said. …