I didn’t see the Oak Park and River Forest wrestling team in person until late January of 2014 right before the playoffs. While catching the Orange and Blue Wrecking Crew so late in the season was admittedly an egregious mistake on my part, at least I got to see the team in full flight during the annual Huskie Invite, right before embarking on the team’s historic run to state titles under coach Mike Powell.

In the postseason, OPRF produced four state champions (Isaiah White (37-4 record), Larry Early (34-7), Kamal Bey (38-6) and Davonte Mahomes (47-2) at the IHSA Individual State Tournament on Feb. 22 at the State Farm Center on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign. A week later, the Huskies edged Marist, 31-22, in the Class 3A championship match at U.S. Cellular Coliseum in Bloomington to capture the dual team state title. The Huskies finished the season 29-1, their only loss to nationally-ranked Apple Valley, Minn., at a tournament held in Rochester, Minn.

For their efforts, the OPRF wrestling team is the Wednesday Journal Team of the Year.

“It’s just great to be recognized by the Wednesday Journal for the all the hard work we put in during the season,” OPRF wrestler Alex Madrigal said. “This year was so special because of the leaders we had on the team. We couldn’t have won team state without our senior leaders Andre [Lee], Davonte [Mahomes] and Emote [Logan] plus the incredible job [OPRF head] Coach Powell and the rest of his coaching staff did for us.”

While there were several worthy teams for consideration to win this honor, including Fenwick girls and boys water polo, OPRF softball, Fenwick baseball, OPRF girls volleyball, Trinity basketball and both in-town football teams, the OPRF wrestling team’s unparalleled season of dominance, coupled with the unexpected announcement of Powell’s resignation as head coach, made them both the team and the story of a memorable high school sports season.

Frankly, the Huskies were so advanced compared to their opponents I often wondered if their best competition wasn’t against each other at one of their famously intense practices. Like Chicago Bulls icons Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen going at it in practice at the Berto Center in the 1990s or perhaps new stars like the White Sox ace Chris Sale facing slugging teammate Jose Abreu in a simulated game, I’d love to see White and Early grapple on the mat or Mahomes and Bey mix it up. How about lightweight extraordinaires Jason Renteria and Madrigal taking on Northwestern-bound heavyweight Adam Lemke-Bell in a 2-on-1 winner take all? Heck, I’d even gladly pay some discretionary income to see all the OPRF starters engage in a Battle Royale.

Apologies for my assorted wrestling scenarios; I watched too many Jean-Claude Van Damme movies while on vacation last week.

On a more serious note, Paul Collins (longtime assistant with the OPRF program) reportedly will take over for Powell, who will remain involved with the Huskies as an assistant coach.

Powell, who won an IHSA Class AA state wrestling championship at 171 pounds as an OPRF senior in 1994, cited the need for more personal time and simply felt it was the right time to step aside as the Huskies’ head man on the bench.

“It’s a good time to step down,” he said. “The program is healthy and we have an incredible team coming back next season. Our program had a storybook ending this season. I’m very proud of the fact we had the best tournament in the history of the state and best minority-driven wrestling team in the history of the United States. I feel like there’s nothing left for me to prove as a head coach.”

While the Huskies lose a handful of gifted wrestlers — the University of Michigan-bound Mahomes (170 career wins, most in program history), Emonte Logan and Andre Lee — the roster remains remarkably intact.

“We all buy in to being a family,” said White, the state champion at 138 pounds. “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.”

Three individual state champs in White, Early and Bey will anchor the Huskies’ formidable 2014-15 lineup, along with state contenders like Jason Renteria (41-1), Matt Rundell (40-9), Allen Stallings, Gabe Townsell (31-5), Adam Lemke-Bell and Madrigal.

“Our senior leaders, Davonte and Emonte, are guys who will be sorely missed next year,” Powell said. “Their years at OPRF were defined by incredible leadership and outstanding athletic and academic achievement. They led one of the greatest wrestling teams in the history of Illinois this season as we finished No. 2 in the country and No. 1 among public schools nationally.”

And here’s a scary thought for opponents on the mat as well as the other local teams aspiring to claim next year’s Wednesday Journal TOTY award: Powell thinks next year’s OPRF wrestling team may be even better.

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Marty Farmer

The Illinois Press Association recently honored Marty with the 1st & 2nd Place Awards for Best Sports Feature for his article He's in an Oak Park state of mind: Former OPRF star Iman Shumpert returns...