You may call them the replacements, but do it quietly, because despite losing five of its top wrestlers to graduation last season the Fenwick wrestling team looks poised for a return trip to the 2005-06 Class AA State tournament.
Backed by State individual champ Nick Bertucci last season, the Friars made their debut at the Class AA Dual Team State Finals. Bertucci has graduated, but nine wrestlers from that glorious 20-5 regular season are back. In addition, a group of young but experienced recruits join the squad.
Nick Marino, who wrestled to a 31-6 record in the 140-pound weight class last year, is likely to compete at 135 this season. Marino was a State qualifier last year, along with returner Billy Barnhisal, who finished with a record of 34-15 at 171. Billy Barnhisal has moved up to wrestle at 189 this season, while his younger brother Bobby, a freshman who was a State champ in the Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation (IKWF) last season, will wrestle at 112.
Fenwick should also get a boost from experienced grapplers Kyle Hope (103, 26-14), Zack Stafford (119, 23-20), Pat Hanlon (130, 21-18), Marty Erfort (140, 20-21), Matt Darley (145, 12-23), and Carmen Curio (275, 32-14).
Despite having mostly a young team this season, head coach Jerry Ruffino is optimistic the Friars have enough experience to compete against some of the top teams in the state, which mainly reside in the same league as Fenwick, the Chicago Catholic League.
"A lot of the time, we get some freshman who come in and haven't wrestled before," said Ruffino, who is 149-75 entering his 11th year as head coach of the Friars. "That doesn't seem to be the case this year. We've got newcomers who know how to wrestle, and that, along with the talent we already have on this team, gives us quite an advantage."
Along with the younger Barnhisal, Fenwick boasts freshman Emilio Lacorez , who finished fifth at the IKWF State tourney last season. Lacorez is expected to compete with the big boys at 215. Others joining the mix include freshman Charlie Giger (189) and juniors Pat Nolan (125) and Danny Muldowney (160).
"If everything goes according to plan, I think we could have more State qualifiers than last season," said Ruffino. Along with Bertucci, Marino and Billy Barnhisal, Fenwick qualified Matt Harmon (160) and Eric Dardanes (189) last season. "We have to remain injury free."
Remaining intact is a tough task for a team that must compete against such powerhouses as St. Rita, Providence and Mt. Carmel, all of which reside in the Catholic League. Last year St. Rita, who placed third at State as a team, had two State champions in John Starzyk (112) and Albert White (140). White returns, and in a sense so does Starzyk, who transferred to Providence.
"The league is a bear," said Ruffino. "And it doesn't help us much when one kid transfers from one league school to another."
Ruffino added the Friars are shooting to finish in the top 5 in the league. "But it will be brutal as always."
To get a taste for what regional competition may look like, Fenwick hosts cross-town rival OPRF on Jan. 12. "The Huskies will definitely be good again," said Ruffino.
The Friars open the season today (Wednesday) at home against Glenbard West (5 p.m.). The team will compete in the Barrington tournament over the weekend.