Oak Park and River Forest wrestling is about to hit the mats, and head coach Mike Powell hopes that this year will turn out better than last, when a decimated team lost in the regionals.
"We had some guys sick and hurt and we kind of fell apart," says Powell of his team's surprising fate last season. "We didn't perform up to our capabilities."
OPRF won its conference for the first time since 1998 and finished with four individual State qualifiers. But as a team, the Huskies made a quick exit from regionals, due mostly to injuries and illnesses. Powell said his team's misfortune even affected him. The second-year head coach lost 25 pounds near the end of the season, fighting off a nasty illness, coupled with the high-pressure atmosphere of high school varsity wrestling.
"I'm convinced I got my whole team sick," he admits. "Next time I get sick, I'll take a few days off."
Powell is expecting a rough early season, and he's not mincing words. With one returning State qualifier ineligible due to grades and another grappler missing matches for disciplinary reasons, its not the best start to the season. The early-season schedule doesn't help. The Huskies begin with the Conant tournament, one of the toughest tournaments in the state.
"I think we're going to have a shaky start. We have some guys out with injuries. We have some JV [junior varsity] guys that are good, but they're unproven. [But] a lesson I learned from last year is not to put too much emphasis on the early stuff."
OPRF will be anchored by their three captains in Ben Johnson (135-pound weight class, 24-5 last season), Jonah Galaz (145) and John Davis (215). Davis drops down from the heavyweight class, where he was last year's backup to Jamar Johnson, an All-Stater last year.
"This year he'll have a chance to shine," said Powell of Davis. "He's about the toughest human being I've ever met."
Davis will be taking over the 215-pound weight class for Blake Dressel, a standout from last year's squad.
Taking over for Johnson will be Peter Kowalczuk (275), a third string heavyweight last year.
"He committed himself in the off-season and was an All-American over the summer," said Powell. "He really desires to be a good wrestler and we expect big things from him this year.
"They [Davis and Kowalczuk] have big shoes to fill, both literally and figuratively. And they're ready."
Lillashawn Coleman (112, 34-16), was a State qualifier as a freshman last year, and will be another highlight for OPRF this season. "We're looking for him to have a very strong season," said Powell.
Others expected to make an impact include Nick Loiacono (130), Frank Guenthner (140) and Mark Ginski (152). They were all JV wrestlers last year and according to Powell, are "champing at the bit," to compete on varsity.
New on the schedule is St. Rita, a mega powerhouse, who return a State champ from last season. Following the match with St. Rita is cross-town rival Fenwick on Jan. 12. An annual rival, Fenwick pulled an upset over OPRF last year and the Huskies will look for payback.
Despite the early setbacks, Powell said he's confident heading into the season. "Our goal is to get the team together and get ready for regionals. Technically, we are far above every other program. We have an unbelievable group of kids. We should put a great team on the mat by the end of the year."