How can the OPRF wrestling team better last year’s first-place finish in the Class 3A Dual Team State Wrestling Meet, which was the first in the school’s history?

“Simply do the absolute best with the team we have and max out our potential,” said head coach Mike Powell. “If we do that, repeating or placing fourth or whatever doesn’t matter. If we’re ready to wrestle every time we step on the mat and we do our best, there’s nothing more rewarding than that.”

With the return of Nick Dardanes, Chris Dardanes and Ben Brooks, OPRF already has a solid nucleus of talent. Senior Nick Dardanes, who, with his twin brother, Chris, transferred from Fenwick before their junior seasons, became OPRF’s first individual state champ since 1994 when he outwrestled Highland Park’s Danny Fisher 7-2 last year at 130 pounds. Nick finished the season with a record of 46-1.

Chris Dardanes finished fourth at the state tournament in the 125-pound weight division last year, and pinned his opponent at a key moment during the Class 3A Dual Team State Meet to give the Huskies an edge on Minooka. Both have signed to wrestle for the University of Minnesota next season.

Ben Brooks, a state qualifier at 189 pounds last season, returns for his senior year before heading off to the University of North Carolina. His younger brother, Sam, who went 42-9 as a 152-pound freshman on varsity last season, including 1-2 at the state tournament, also returns to the lineup.

“I think we have a better team than people think,” said Powell of the Huskies, who were ranked as high as seventh in preseason polls.

The Huskies also return such notables as Frank Picchiotti (135), Brock Friesen (171), Charlie Johnson (152) and LaQuan Hightower, a heavyweight who is out until mid-December with a torn MCL.

“Losing LaQuan is quite a blow for us but we have a strong group of guys that can fill in until he’s back healthy,” said Powell, who added that the wrestling program had its numbers reach above 100 this season.

The Huskies went undefeated in dual matches last year, winning 24 in a row. The team is aiming for its third straight conference championship and fourth in six years. Standing in their way is likely to be Lyons Township, which is returning a large group this season, including state qualifiers Bob Gavrick (103) and Drew Bates (130). York and Downers Grove North are also potential contenders for the title, along with OPRF.

“I expect four or five teams from the conference to be in the top 20 by the end of the season,” said Powell. “There was a lot of pride in the room at our conference meeting.”

OPRF begins the season at home today (Wednesday, Nov. 25) against St. Patrick. The Huskies travel to Conant this weekend and then set off to defend their conference crown at York on Dec. 4. 

Update on coach Powell

OPRF head wrestling coach Mike Powell, who back in April was diagnosed with polymyositis, a rare but serious connective tissue disease that severely weakens muscle strength and function, said he’s doing much better. While the disease is not yet in remission, Powell said he’s feeling healthier and doctors are optimistic about his prognosis.

“I’m back up in weight and leaner, and I’m able to do some light workouts. I’m feeling semi-athletic again,” said Powell. “As a head coach it takes a delicate balance not to overdo it.”

Powell said the support he’s had since the diagnosis has been tremendous.

“I’m lucky to have such wonderful people around me, and to have a team so good at their sport that their coach doesn’t have to get down on the mat and show them how it’s done too often.

“I’ve learned a great deal of self-discipline and gained some much-needed perspective,” he added. “In a way, it’s been a blessing. My only goal now is kicking this thing into remission for the rest of my life.”

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Brad Spencer

Brad Spencer has been covering sports in and around Oak Park for more than a decade, which means the young athletes he once covered in high school are now out of college and at home living with their parents...