By Kurt Ritzman
Assistant Sports Editor
There were several times this season when Clinton junior Hunter Genco could have thrown in the towel.
He broke his hand throwing a punch in anger moments after a loss at a tournament in Sterling, Ill., in December. He lost back-to-back matches for the only time this season at Clinton’s Bob Lueders Invitational. He trailed 8-1 in a consolation semifinal at the state tournament.
But Genco fought back from each of those to place third in the state at Class 3A 120 pounds and finish with a 37-6 record, giving him 103 career wins. Genco was selected as the Herald’s Wrestler of the Year.
“He has unbelievable competitiveness,” Clinton coach J.D. Lueders said. “He showed that at the state tournament, being down big and coming back to win. He broke his hand and refused to come out of the lineup.”
Genco said the low point of his season was when he broke his hand.
“My parents were debating whether to even let me wrestle,” he said. “I not only screwed myself, but I screwed the team over.
"I didn’t get surgery. If I did I would have missed the win over Assumption and a whole lot of practices over winter break. That was my lowest point. I let down J.D. I let down the team. The most important thing is the team. It’s all about the team.”
That loss wasn’t a bad one as it came to an Illinois state champion. All six of Genco’s losses came to state qualifiers, including two that were to state runners-up and two that were to the top-ranked wrestler in Class 3A.
Genco’s momentary lapse ended up proving not that costly. He was back a week later to win the title at the Saber Invitational and help the River Kings to a team title.
“I got first in that tournament without any pain,” Genco said. “I wrapped my hand just to show my parents that I was protecting it, but that was the worst part. It let people know something was wrong with my hand. I was OK to wrestle. Once in a while it might hurt, but it was nothing I couldn’t fight off with adrenaline.”
After the injury, Genco won 16 of his next 17 matches, with the only loss coming to top-ranked Alijah Jeffery of Marion Linn-Mar. Jeffery beat Genco again at the Bob Lueders Invitational to give him four straight wins over the Clinton junior.
He vowed to end that streak.
Genco does a lot of his wrestling in practice against assistant coaches Derek Gabel or Eric Lueders.
“They put you in situations you’re bad at,” Genco said. “One of my goals was to beat Alijah Jeffery. They would put me in situations he got me in. I got better at those and was able to get points off them. They really pushed me.”
Genco got another chance against Jeffery in the first round of the state team duals and won 6-4.
“When I got that first win against Jeffery, I knew for a fact I was never going to lose to him again,” Genco said. “It was like, ‘I got you now. You’re never going to win a state title because I’m going to beat you.’ ”
The next time they met, though, Genco was put to the test because Jeffery built an 8-1 lead at the state meet.
“He was down 8-1 and I told an assistant, ‘It’s not over,’” J.D. Lueders said. “I knew he could come back. He has a huge heart.”
Come back is just what Genco did. He still trailed 8-2 after the second period, but the final two minutes were all Genco.
“The third period is when I definitely took it to him,” Genco said. “There was blood time (with 1:40 left in the match and Genco trailing 8-3). I went over to the sideline. Coach goes, ‘Hunter, what do you have to do to win?’ I go, ‘I’m going to win, Coach. I’m going to win.’ Coach said, ‘No, what are you going to do to win?’ I said, ‘I’m going to win.’ It took me a couple seconds to realize I wasn’t paying attention to what he was saying. I was just so focused that I was going to win.”
Genco scored all nine third-period points for an 11-8 win. He credited that win to his stamina, which he said comes from running cross country in the fall.
“Running all three years has really benefited me,” Genco said. “I can outlast people in the second and third periods. ... To go hard for all six minutes, you need the stamina you get from cross country.
“A lot of times I like cross country. I like the feeling of passing people. But some days are dreadful. You want to just lay down and stare at the sky. Then I think about why I’m doing it — for wrestling. That motivates me.”
That first win over Jeffery also gave Genco something he’d been lacking — confidence.
“That confidence carried on for the rest of the season,” Genco said. “I know for a fact I can beat anyone in the state.”
Genco came into the program as a freshman with one main goal, which is a practice he’s stuck to.
“My first year out, J.D. gave us all a paper to write down our individual goals,” Genco said. “I wrote I wanted to be a state placewinner. He looked at the paper and said, ‘Damn boy, that’s a great goal. We’ll do it.’ That motivated me to work harder and harder. Then, after placing seventh as a freshman, my only goal was to place higher. (He placed sixth as a sophomore). This year it was a top-three finish.”
Genco said the only goal left was to win a state title.
“I’m already working out four days a week. Visualizing a gold medal keeps me driving. The coaches keep me driving. I want a state title more than anyone,” Genco said.
“We all know he has the ability and the toughness,” Lueders said. “He just needed confidence, and I think he’s there now. ... I truly believe after what he accomplished this year, he can be a state champ. He expects to be a state champ.”
Clinton’s Lueders named top coach
Three years ago, J.D. Lueders took over a Clinton wrestling program that struggled though a 2-17 season.
In his first year, Lueders led the team to an 11-8 dual meet record. The next year, the River Kings set a school-record for most dual wins with 15. This year, Lueders led Clinton to a 12-3 season, including wins over the No. 2 team in Class 2A, Davenport Assumption, and Class 3A No. 8 Burlington. The River Kings finished the season ranked ninth as a team, and for the third consecutive season Lueders was selected as the Herald’s All-Area Coach of the Year.
“The culture has changed and the attitude,” Lueders said. “I wasn’t there for the 2-17 season. But there were kids who were part of it when I came in. I set a standard of a successful season. The kids worked really hard and bought in.”
Lueders said when he was a part of the program in the 1980s it had a winning culture, and he wanted to return to that.
“It’s been a neat journey,” Lueders said. “To progress to where we are now and beat Davenport Assumption. Three years ago I told the kids we were going to pack the gym, wrestle the best in the state and beat them. I could see they wanted it. It was a neat thing.”
Clinton junior Hunter Genco said: “When J.D. said that, we believed him. He believed in the team. We got what we were expecting. We’re expecting even more next year. This was a fun year. The team really bonded. We did what we set out to do. J.D.’s plan was to get Clinton wrestling back on the map. Now everybody knows us.”
The River Kings had five wrestlers qualify for state, but Lueders said it takes a lot more than five wrestlers to have success in dual meets.
“The idea that we push through the program is that all the kids are a big part of it,” Lueders said. “It takes all of them to be successful. We make them all feel like they’re a part of it. We call it a family. We’re already looking forward to next year. I have a great coaching staff that takes time to work with every kid.”
The 34-33 win on criteria over Assumption was likely the biggest, but the win over Burlington may have shown how much the culture of the program has changed.
“We beat Burlington 47-30,” Lueders said. “I went into the locker room and the kids were upset. I told them it was a pretty good win. They looked at me and said, ‘Aren’t we supposed to?’ We were talking about beating the No. 8 team and not beating them by enough.”
Clinton junior Alex Caldwell said: “We expected to win. No one was too excited because we all knew we could wrestle a lot better. Coach demands that we do our best, and we weren’t at our best. We still got the win, so it was a good night.”
Genco said the team wasn’t happy, which was a big change from the past.
“We felt like we should have dominated them,” he said. “When J.D. was in school, they would beat the crap out of people. We didn’t beat the crap out of them, so we were disappointed. That was a lot different. A couple years ago we didn’t expect that much, nothing like what we expect now. We expect to be the best.”
A lot of that change in attitude can be attributed to Lueders; he’s also responsible for putting them in a place to be that successful.
“He’s developed me as a wrestler and a person,” Caldwell said. “He teaches us life lessons while we’re in the room. ... He’s just a good guy. He develops everybody from the 106-pounders to the heavyweight. He puts in so much time for us.”