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Libertyville's (160) Sal Ayala wrestles Warren's Jeremy Andrews. | Michelle LaVigne~Sun-Times Media

Libertyville senior wrestler Sal Ayala was thrilled to be back on the mat.

Even if it meant wearing a “brutal, claustrophobic facemask with a bunch of blind spots.”

In one of his first matches since surgery to repair a fractured orbital bone in his left eye, Ayala was trailing a 160-pound wrestler from Warren 5-1 on Friday in an important North Suburban Conference dual. Ayala proceeded to score a two-point reversal,  and in the third period came through with a pin to give the Wildcats a jolt of momentum on their way to a 42-15 victory.

“I got into a position where I could pin him and I just went for it,” Ayala said.

His coaches, and teammates, reacted as you might expect — they went crazy.

“That was very exciting,” junior Steve Polakowski said. “When he finally got that kid on his back, we felt like were in control after that.”

Added Libertyville coach Dale Eggert: “He got another shot at him and this time Sal’s counter had a little more mustard than it did in the first period. We were thrilled with the way he came back for that victory. It put us up 18-6 and made it very hard for them to catch us.”

The victory was particularly satisfying for Ayala given what he’s had to overcome this year.

In a season-opening victory against Wauconda on Nov. 21, Ayala was inadvertently kneed in the eye. He didn’t think too much of it, and wrestled two days later at the Barrington Invitational, where he went 4-1 and placed second.

The next day his eye had puffed up and was almost completely shut. He went to see the doctor and learned he would need surgery.  Following surgery, he couldn’t wrestle or even condition for several weeks because the doctors were worried about sweat around the eyes.

“It was very hard not to be able to do anything,” he said.

Fortunately, this was somewhat mitigated because his conditioning base was so strong.

“He had put a lot of work in to prepare,” Eggert said.

Ayala, who will get to wrestle without his mask in about a week, prepared diligently for his senior season. He participated in a number of out-of-state tournament and was a key member of Team Illinois, which competed at the Asics-Vaughan National Championships in July in Fargo, N.D.

Ayala went 1-2 and gained priceless experience. Just as beneficial, was the training camp with his teammates at the University of Illinois to prepare for the tournament where he benefited from great competition and coaching.

As a junior,  Ayala was an IHSA sectional qualifier. This year, he is determined to break through and qualify for the state tournament.

“We have a board in the wrestling room for all the guys that place at state,” said Ayala, who plans to wrestle in college. “I’m hoping to get my name up there, too.”

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