By Marty Farmer
By early March, the Oak Park and River Forest High School wrestling program could be celebrating a team state title along with several individual titles. Regardless of how the currently top-ranked (according to Illinoismatmen.com) Huskies fare, allow me to anoint head coach Mike Powell's team with a decidedly less glamorous but no less sincere recognition: Wednesday Journal's best team hands down among all the OPRF, Fenwick and Trinity squads competing this winter.
After spending many weekends following our local high school hoops scene, I finally got out to see the Huskies grapple in person Saturday at their own invitational. Suffice to say, the Orange and Blue Wrecking Crew (as they are affectionately known by their supporters) certainly lived up to the hype. The Huskies cruised to the team title with 358 points and snagged 11 first-place finishes in 14 weight classes. OPRF also garnered one 2nd, 3rd and 4th place showing each. Heck, even the OPRF junior varsity placed fifth with a respectable score of 110.
Furthermore, according to our aforementioned trusty source, Illinoismatmen.com, the Huskies boast the No. 1 wrestler in the state in the following classes: (106) freshman Jay Renteria, (138) Isaiah White, (145) Larry Early, (160) Kamal Bey and (170) Davonte Mahomes. For good measure, the Huskies' Matt Rundell and Andre Lee are ranked No. 2 at 152 and 195, respectively. Alex Madrigal, Bobby Campos, Gabe Townsell, Jaime Hernandez, Malik Stallings, Emonte Logan and Adam Lemke-Bell among others could also conceivably contend for state hardware.
In terms of team results, OPRF (26-1, 6-0 West Suburban Silver) won their own Invite as well as Hinsdale Central's, took second at The Clash in Minnesota and third at the Ironman in Ohio (both prestigious national tournaments). The Huskies have dominated the West Suburban Conference Silver Division and earned notable nonconference wins over St. Rita (56-11), Marist (43-23), Montini (36-18) and Hononegah (51-9), coupled with several victories over outstanding out-of-state programs.
In a word, the Huskies are loaded. Think University of Kentucky basketball recruiting, Los Angeles Dodgers payroll and Seattle Seahawks secondary "Legion of Boom" loaded. But talent, as we all know, is only one important component of a true champion, whether individual or team. So what makes the Orange and Blue Wrecking Crew roll? Why is the program (which already owns a 2009 state title and 2012 state runner-up finish) flirting with invincibility?
"It's the buy-in," said White, who finished third in the state at 126 pounds and 45-3 overall last season. "We all buy in to being a family. Our team is a family and it's easy to wrestle with somebody you love. Plus, Coach Powell and the rest of the coaches constantly push us to push ourselves. Our only goal is to win state and be on top of that podium."
It's no secret that much of the Huskies' success stems from their behind-the-scenes work under the demanding Powell. Since he took over the head coaching job, the Huskies are 184-42 in dual meets (according to oprfwrestling.com) and annually boast one of the toughest schedules in the country.
"Our practices are probably the hardest in the country," Lemke-Bell said. "Our coaches care so much about each of us. They want to see every wrestler get the most out of his ability. Win or lose, the important thing is that each of us gives our best. Our coaches give their lives to this program. I have so much gratitude for their dedication."
The Huskies also comport themselves with plenty of class and heart off the mat. Both the top-ranked OPRF and Montini wrestling programs, in Class 3A and 2A, respectively, helped residents of Washington, the Illinois town ravaged by a tornado on Nov. 17.
While the OPRF roster is balanced with a mix of all four classes, ensuring the program's continuing excellence, seniors like Michigan-bound Davonte Mahomes are savoring this year's remarkable run.
"We just had our Senior Night [against York, Jan. 25] and the Huskie Invite is the last time I'll be competing on my home mat," Mahomes said. "It's really a bittersweet feeling. This is such a special program. I'm really looking forward to attending Michigan. I hope I'll find a similar family feeling there as I have with these guys at Oak Park.
"We're at that point in the season where it's time for all of us to step our game up. We all are ready to push for a state title. In practice, we're going up against a lot of the best wrestlers in the state. It gets really competitive in the wrestling room among us."
Apparently, competition extends beyond the mat with the Huskies. The fun-loving group enjoys rap battles, especially Emonte Logan vs. Matt Rundell.
"Yeah, Rundell really tries to test me sometimes even though he repeats some of his raps," Logan said with a laugh. "Rundell raps just like he wrestles, he never quits."