Brandon Johnson went through his usual warmup routine before entering the ring for his final bout of the IHSA Class 2A Individual Regional at Belvidere High School. Little did the junior heavyweight know that the stakes were much higher than he could’ve imagined.
Rochelle and its conference rival Sycamore had gone back and forth throughout the regional tournament, and it took every single match throughout the day to determine the winner, including Johnson’s victory by fall over Burlington Central’s Josh Ferro to finish third in his bracket and qualify for the IHSA Class 2A Individual Sectional in Sycamore.
When all the points were tallied, the 220-pounder’s pin ultimately put Rochelle over Sycamore by three points (166.5 to 163.5). That meant the Hubs would not only win their second consecutive regional title, but they would go back-to-back for the first time in school history. Johnson knew the regional battle was close, but he had no idea his victory would wind up being the determining factor in the end.
“I knew it was close and coach [Rich] Harvey didn’t tell me how close it was,” Johnson said. “But he told me that I needed to win, so I just went out there and did my best. It was nice to see everybody hyped up when they found out we won because I pinned him. I couldn’t wait to compete at the sectional and I knew it would be a great experience.”
And what an experience it was for the junior who spent the first chunk of this season wrestling junior varsity matches at 220 pounds. Johnson (18-7) plowed through the wrestlebacks during sectional competition this past Saturday, winning three straight matches to qualify for the IHSA State Championships this coming weekend.
“Brandon is a fierce competitor,” head coach Rich Harvey said. “He works hard all of the time and he’s a very coachable wrestler. He’s very fun to be around.”
It’s the first time Johnson has advanced to the state meet, and it’s no coincidence he earned the right to compete alongside the top high school grapplers in Illinois. Johnson’s breakout season began taking shape at the Mahomet-Seymour Invitational in January, when the 220-pounder cracked the varsity lineup and placed seventh individually to help Rochelle finish third.
Johnson then finished fifth at the Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference Championships, and after qualifying out of both the regional and sectional tournaments, the junior heavyweight has fully emerged as one of Rochelle’s top wrestlers moving forward. Johnson said he plans to return next season, and he’s aiming to build upon the improvements he’s made this winter.
“I’ve gotten so much better throughout the year,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how to explain it… I’ve learned a lot more about technique and I’ve been able to use my technique better in matches. Coach [Jason] Fore and Bazil [Bennett] have helped me and they’ve taught me a lot. Coach [Alphonso] Vruno has helped me as well since he’s been here.”
Johnson is only in his second year of wrestling, but he figures to be an important piece of the Hubs varsity wrestling program moving forward. He’s spent three seasons with the Rochelle football program and he earned All-Conference honors for his play this fall. He’s also preparing for his third year with the Rochelle baseball program in the spring.
Johnson is one of four Rochelle wrestlers going to the state championships this weekend, joining junior Eddie Villalobos, senior Ehren Metzger and senior Alex Harvey, who Johnson credited as being one of his role models in the sport. When Johnson’s season reaches its end, he said his goal is to continue improving for when the Hubs take the mat next year.
“I just want to keep getting better at wrestling on my feet,” Johnson said. “I want to keep getting better at doing what I do best, and I want to learn some new moves… I enjoy the competitiveness of wrestling and knowing that it’s a 1-on-1 sport. You get better and you help the team get better. When you’re focusing on your match, you’re trying to win for yourself and for your team.”