CHAMPAIGN – Kyle Akins rushed to Austin Culton's side at this time last winter, supporting his Sycamore wrestling teammate after Culton suffered the lone defeat of his senior season in the 2A state title bout.
In a frustrating twist for the Spartans, Akins met the same fate at 120 pounds Saturday. Naturally, there was Culton, a Northern Illinois freshman 149-pounder who traveled from DeKalb.
Culton and the rest of Sycamore's fan base came to the University of Illinois' State Farm Center in the hopes of seeing Akins cap his career with a 46-0 finish and second straight title. Although the best-laid plans went another way, all those clad in black and gold weren't about to stray after Montini sophomore Dylan Duncan earned a 4-0 decision victory.
"I know how he feels, and there's a lot of pressure going into it," Culton said. "I've been there and don't know what to say about it. I feel for the kid. I feel for him."
A Buffalo recruit who has placed no worse than fourth in each of his prep seasons, Akins declined comment through Spartans coach Alex Nelson.
Duncan (36-11) scored the only points he needed with a takedown with about 10 seconds remaining in the first period.
"A crazy scramble, we didn't quite get it at the beginning, he took us down for two and kind of set the tone for him," Nelson said.
Duncan's takedown with 35 seconds left in the bout sealed the result.
An emotional Akins retreated to the concourse moments after the awards presentation. His father, Tom, and Nelson stood on either side.
Their message was concise: Keep your chin up and do not let one match mark your prep career or a college journey that hasn't even begun yet.
"He's a fighter. He always has been. So he's going to come back," Nelson said. "He knows what this feeling is and I don't think he wants it again, so when he gets into college, he's going to work hard and get to where he needs to be."
Competing at 113 as a junior, Akins shared his Drury Inn digs with former Spartans Culton and Jake Davis on Saturday of the 2013 state tournament.
Davis had to wrestle back to take third at 195, but Culton, who was bidding for his own unbeaten season at 152, spent most of his prep time with Akins back at the hotel.
"We just ate and slept all day," Akins said on Friday. "Got a workout in at Huff Hall [on Illinois' campus], came ready to wrestle."
Even with the sting of Saturday's result, that last part hardly has changed as Vernon Hills senior Jordan Reich tells it. Reich found little difference between his 3-1 losses to Akins at the Mid-States tournament at Whitewater, Wis., in late December and Friday's quarterfinal defeat.
"He's just always in good position," Reich said. "He drives forward, and he makes it look like you're not very good even if you are very good."
On Saturday, Duncan was the one who stood tallest atop the 2A podium. The challenge for Akins remains trying not to slink any lower than one step down.
"We've all been around the sport a long time, you know what I mean. Sometimes you feel like it isn't fair all the time. That's how a lot of things work, you know," Nelson said. "Tonight, [Duncan] was the better wrestler tonight, you know what I mean. But you wrestle the match tomorrow, it might be a different outcome."