When Caruso Middle School's wrestling team placed third in the state meet a year ago, there was no sense of fulfillment.
Unhappiness with that performance, the best in the Deerfield school's history, was the motivation that resulted in a Blue Jay state title in the Illinois Elementary School Association State Tournament March 15 in DeKalb.
This was the first state championship for Caruso, according to coach Tom Hoy.
"I've been here 17 years, and this is the first in any sport," Hoy said.
The drive to improve from last year was also evident in individual state championships won by eighth-graders Kenny Kerstein and Holden Heller and seventh-grade student Reece Heller along with a second place finish by Matthew Templeton, another eighth-grader.
Perhaps the best example of that motivation can be found in Heller, who has compiled a 122-1 record over three years. The one loss came in last year's 85-pound title match.
"I completely underestimated myself," Heller recalled. "I was ranked No. 1 but when I saw the guy (I was wrestling) he was huge. Once I saw him I said 'I'm going to lose to this guy.' I didn't wrestle well."
After that, the young athlete made up his mind he was not going to falter again. So did his returning state qualifier teammates — Kerstein, Templeton and Heller's brother, Reece. None of them felt satisfied with last year's third-place performance. All made up their minds to do better.
"No one was going to stop us," Kerstein said.
One thing the Blue Jays did to improve this year was find bigger opponents to wrestle, either in competition or in practice.
"I wrestled up a class all year," Holden Heller said.
"All four of them did," Hoy said, referring to the technique he uses to help his athletes perform better in statewide competition.
Caruso's victory was also one of quality rather than quantity. Only two other wrestlers — Max Pomerntz and Jake Reicin — joined Templeton, Kerstein and the Heller brothers in making the trip to DeKalb. Other teams had more than twice that number.
"Some schools came with 13 or 14 wrestlers," Hoy said. There are 19 weight classifications ranging from 65 pounds to 275. Caruso compiled its 120 team points to outscore second-place Marlowe from Lake in the Hills with 97.5 with 10 high-scoring wins out of its 18 victories. Pins, technical falls and a large margin of victory bring more team points.
The Heller brothers have been wrestling since second and third grades at the Bison Wrestling Club in Buffalo Grove. Other teammates, like Kerstein and Templeton, came to the sport when they started middle school. They all like interscholastic competition.
"The idea of representing my school is really awesome," Reece Heller said.
Wrestling success in Deerfield does not belong to Caruso alone. Though none of its wrestlers placed in the state meet this year, Shepard Middle School has had its share of state champions.
All have gone on to compete for Deerfield High School. They include Colton Emmerich, a former Shepard student who won the state 182-pound high school title this year, and one-time Blue Jay Artie Bess, who took third in the state meet as a Warrior in 2012.
The high school wrestlers like Emmerich and Bess, now competing for the University of Iowa, return to their middle school to help the aspiring competitors.
"We have a wonderful thing going on in Deerfield," Aaron Cohen said. He is the assistant coach for both Caruso and Deerfield High School. "The high school kids keep helping out the middle school kids."