When the wrestling class of 2023 arrived at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, the Vikings program wasn’t the most well-regarded in the area. It was usually lucky to see more than an individual or two advance in the postseason. That’s all changed.
The seniors leave the program as a respected one that coach Jim Sokoloski believes is among the 15 or 20 best in Illinois. Three wrestlers advanced to the state finals and two were on the podium Feb. 18 at the State Farm Center in Champaign.
“I know we didn’t get a (state) champ, yet. That kills me. It’s the monkey on my back. H-F’s got five runners up and four of them I’ve coached,” Sokoloski said. “That’s still pretty impressive. These (seniors) changed my life and everything for our program.”
Deion Johnson was highest on the podium for the Vikings, taking second at 113 pounds. Johnson earned a pin in the opener before winning 4-3 in each of the next two. Sokoloski said neither the quarterfinal nor the semifinal match were as close as the score might imply.
“We did change this program around a lot,” Johnson said. “We put H-F on the map, nationally. I feel like a lot of people are afraid of us now.”
Mount Carmel’s Seth Mendoza, on the top-ranked wrestlers in the country, got the best of Johnson in the final with a technical fall. He was still dejected three days later.
“That’s just not what I wanted at all,” Johnson said. “I know I’m up there with those nationally-ranked guys. I know I should be able to compete with them.”
Vincent Robinson was the third-place winner at 132 pounds. He won a 24-12 major decision over York’s Sean Berger in the third-place match. It was a performance in line with the reputation of a wrestler who’s known for things like back flips after big victories.
“He didn’t win (first place) and we all wanted that but he also got to go out in a very fitting Vincent Robinson form, putting on a show with everybody’s eyes on him,” Sokoloski said. “It was emotional for all of us.”
Robinson, who will wrestle at North Carolina State, finished second both last season and as a freshman. His sophomore season was canceled due to the pandemic.
“It’s killing me (that I didn’t win a state championship). It’s not sitting right with me,” Robinson said. “I had a good career but it’s time to get what I need to get at the next level which is a couple NCAA titles. It’s just fuel for what I got coming up.”
His semifinal match against Mount Carmel’s Sergio Lemley was one of the highlights of the entire tournament. Referees failed to call a slam on Lemley in a moment that went viral in wrestling social media circles.
Robinson eventually lost 2-1, taking the match all the way to the ultimate tie breaker. Lemley beat him in the state finals last season, as well. Robinson won two other previous meetings with the Caravan’s four-time state champ.
“I can’t really blame it on the ref. I got to blame it on myself. I had two or three chances to score and I didn’t score,” he said.
After his matches, Robinson was given a standing ovation by spectators from around the state.
“That felt good,” he said. “I put a lot of hard work in and they see how I wrestle. They like my style. They understand that it’s different and it’s entertaining. I appreciate how they did that.”
Jermaine Butler was the Vikings’ other state qualifier at 152 pounds. He missed last season’s state series with an injury.
Butler lost his opening match to Downers Grove North’s Harrison Konder 4-2. He won the next two matches, first a second-period pin on Prospect’s Damien Puma and then a 5-2 decision over Marmion’s Collin Carrigan. Puma was a returning state qualifier and Carrigan was fifth at 152 last year.
“Knowing that I was supposed to lose on paper (motivated me),” Butler said. “This is something that a lot of kids don’t get the chance to get. Most people don’t make it out of regionals and got the chance to make it make it down to state and win a couple matches.”
Butler then lost a 1-0 match to Kaden Fetteroff of Batavia to fall just short of all-state honors. Fetteroff was the top-ranked 152-pounder for a portion of this season.
“Jermaine wrestled his butt off and he had a great tournament,” Sokoloski said. “Of course you want him to place but I can’t be disappointed in a kid who went out there and wrestled through adversity like that.”
H-F is left in a better spot by the seniors than they it was when they found it. The feeder system is in a good place, with several at the middle school level Sokoloski believes may be able to contribute in a big way immediately. There are, in wrestling parlance, “hammers” coming.
“You take a breath and it’s back to work,” Sokoloski said. “You can’t just say ‘We’ve had a couple good years’ and relax. You’ve got to want this thing to continue to build.”