Lifelong Teammates, Lifelong Friends

Incredible as it may seem, not one, but two LHS wrestlers are committed to continue competing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign — double the number of previous LHS wrestlers who have made this commitment.

Ever since they were in kindergarten, senior Michael Gunther and junior Danny Pucino have wrestled together. After a slew of achievements in their high school years, the two athletes have both recently committed to pursue their passion for wrestling at the collegiate level.

As wrestling head coach Dale Eggert said over email, “They will both do whatever work is needed to prepare themselves for competition, both in season and out of season…Everything about their work ethic is top notch.”


Danny Pucino

Danny Pucino’s life is dedicated to wrestling. With an LHS career record of 129-11, it comes as no surprise that that he is truly faithful to the sport; on top of his record, Pucino has placed twice at state and was a state finalist earlier this year.

As Pucino explained, outside of daily practice at school, he gives extra effort, up to an additional 10-12 hours a week during the season. He trains at Poeta Training Center in Lake Forest (a large wrestling facility) before school and after practice nearly every day. At Poeta, he gets more individualized coaching and gains more outside experience. “We wrestle a lot of coaches and kids from other schools, which helps a lot,” Pucino explained.

Competing at such a high level can sometimes takes a major toll on one’s physical health.  “My body, at the end of the week on that one Sunday that we get off, [is] pretty sore, obviously,” Pucino commented. His attitude on recovery is very firm, since he is adamant about getting his homework done during the day so that he can sleep at least eight hours at night.

Pucino further mentioned how wrestlers often need to watch their food intake during the season. Since wrestling matches are based on weight class, wrestlers must stay within a finite range of weight. And because the sport is so physical, eating right is crucial. For example, after a grapefruit for breakfast, Pucino will often eat a chicken salad for lunch, and by dinner, he’s mustered up an appetite for more protein or pasta. When it comes down to the weekly weigh-in, he takes extra caution saying, “I won’t cut down on [the foods I eat], just the portions, but I always have energy.”

With a significant amount of hours spent on the wrestling mat each day, it takes away from time and focus on school. His devotion to the sport also inhibits time spent in other areas of life, such as friends and family.

“It’s hard waking up every day, and I don’t really hang out with my friends during the wrestling season,” he said. But despite this, Pucino has no trouble staying motivated. To help inspire him this season, he wrote “2019 State Champion” on his bedroom door.

“Every time I look at [the message], I just want to push myself,” Pucino explained. Although he took second in state this past season, he plans on leaving the message up on his door to motivate him for the 2020 state competition.

The University of Illinois wasn’t the only school to take him into consideration. The University of Oklahoma, Brown University, Princeton University and the University of Maryland started looking at him by the end of his freshman year. Pucino expressed his admiration for the coaching staff at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: “I got to get to know [the coaching staff] better than any other school’s coaching staff…I know I’ll fit in great.”

Senior year is still in store for the energetic wrestler as he looks forward to another successful season before heading off to college. Pucino chose the University of Illinois so he won’t be far from his family. His father, one of his most avid supporters, leased a farm in the area so he could watch his son during the collegiate wrestling season.

One reason why Pucino loves wrestling is because it’s an individual sport. “I love that I’m by myself … If I win, it’s because I did what I had to do,” he stated. Competition holds a special place in his heart and will continue to be part of him for a long time to come: “It takes hard work and it’s taught me a lot of life lessons,” he said sincerely.


Michael Gunther

Michael Gunther, a year older than Pucino, has also raked in an astounding amount of stats throughout his LHS career. With a record of 115-26 and 38 pins, three years being named All-Conference, and three years as a state qualifier, Gunther is a well-established wrestler.

Like Pucino, Gunther also trains at Poeta. He works out, lifts weight and does cardio exercises in the facility about four-to-six days a week. Mike Poeta, the owner and head coach of the training center, is also an assistant coach for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign wrestling team. “It was natural for Coach Poeta to want [Gunther and Pucino] on their team,” said Coach Eggert.

Michael’s older brother, Joey Gunther, also an established wrestler, transferred from the University of Iowa to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign last summer. With two brothers competing on the Division I level, wrestling is a major component of Gunther’s family atmosphere.

“It doesn’t really take a toll on me or my family because I’ve been doing it for so long … We kind of revolve around wrestling,” Gunther commented over email. Motivation comes naturally to Gunther as well. “I love doing it and always want to get better,” he said.

As for staying healthy, Gunther is serious about his well-being. “Wrestling can take a toll physically,” he admitted. According to a 2015 article from the National Federation of State High School Associations, “few high school seasons deal with the mental and physical strain as much as wrestling.” For example, Gunther needed surgery on his shoulder during his freshman year.

And as far as sleep goes, eight hours is a firm standard for him, although the nerves he feels the night before a competition makes sleeping “hard.”

Gunther, like many wrestlers, is attracted to the individuality and personal responsibility surrounding wrestling. “There is no one to blame when you mess up, and it keeps you accountable,” he said.

Next year, the wrestling mats at the University of Illinois await him. Although he gained attention from other schools, such as the University of Minnesota, Illinois was his top choice. Gunther reasoned, “I just thought that with the coaches and the guys on the team at Illinois that I could really succeed in wrestling and also school.”


Their Friendship

Although being a year apart, Gunther and Pucino are very good friends. They’ve been wrestling together since they were 6 and 5 years old, respectively, and help bring out the best in each other.

“We always compare ourselves, but we’re partners in practice. Obviously when we go at it [in practice], it’s tough; we don’t like each other at practice. But after practice, we’re good buddies … I want him to win, I want him to get first and do his best. Because he’s my teammate, I want the best for him,” Pucino said.  

Added Coach Eggert: “Watching those two go at it in practice was a real treat.”

Having a close peer to compete with for years allowed for great learning opportunities. “I feed off him since he wrestles right before me usually,” said Gunther.

The two driven wrestlers have a lot to look forward to. “[Illinois is] a top 10 program in the country for wrestling,” Pucino said proudly.

Coach Eggert believes that wrestling will serve both Gunther and Pucino well later in life. “The intense fortitude needed to be successful in wrestling is off the charts,” he said, explaining that this fortitude includes weight management, individual competition, conditioning and strength. “Willingly taking on this challenge offers so much in personal development.”