Matt Rundell didn’t expect to win a state title in the 152-pound weight class of the Class 3A IHSA Individual State Tournament last season. That division belonged to Mount Carmel’s Bryce Brill, who finished with a 45-0 record highlighted by 28 pins, four technical falls and 10 major decisions en route to a third straight state championship.
With Brill now wrestling at Northwestern, senior Rundell has moved seamlessly up to 160 pounds and is the top-ranked wrestler in his weight class. He’s 25-3 this season after finishing 44-9 last year.
Expectations and confidence are higher than ever.
“This year, I’m the guy to beat,” Rundell said. “I’m the best wrestler in my bracket and I don’t worry about the other guys. I’m very excited about the individual and team state tournaments because I think we’re all going to do very well.
“I was a newcomer to one of the big-boy weight classes last season. I was in a very hard weight class, so there wasn’t a whole lot of chance of me winning the title last year. This season is different. I’m just working on my game to ensure winning a state championship.”
That’s not false bravado. The North Carolina recruit finished third in the state at 152 last season, was a state qualifier his sophomore year, and earned second in the state at 106 pounds as a freshman.
“It’s been a good season but I can always do better,” Rundell said. “I’m not upset with the results so far. Ultimately, I have to make sure I enforce my will and wrestle my style against opponents.”
Notable results this season include individual titles at the Rex Whitlach Invitational, hosted by Hinsdale Central and the OPRF Invite. Rundell also finished fifth at the prestigious Walsh Ironman tournament in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.
Not surprisingly, many of Rundell’s toughest matches have occurred in the OPRF wrestling room. His practice opponents include defending state champions Isaiah White and Kamal Bey.
“When we go at it in practice it’s not only insanely fun but hard wrestling,” Rundell said. “We go at it for 10 or 20 minutes at a pace that I don’t think most guys can handle.
“I am the kind of guy who leads by his actions. I’ll try to set guys straight as needed, but I’m mostly focused on wrestling hard and showing guys how it’s done.”
While the Huskies are loaded with state title contenders, the middle lineup with Larry Early (145), White (152), Rundell (160) and Bey (170) are particularly talented. All four are the top-ranked wrestler in their weight class in Illinois, along with national recognition. Jason Renteria (113) and Alex Madrigal (120) are also No. 1 in their divisions according to www.illinoismatmen.com.
“I don’t think we could have done much better at this point in the season,” Rundell said. “We are the defending state champs and we have the No. 1 national ranking on basically every major wrestling site. I think we’re definitely the best team in the country.
“We’re focused and taking nothing for granted. It’s difficult to describe but everybody on our team feeds off each other. When one guy gets a big win, the next guy goes even harder. The inner competition compels you to do your best during a match.”
Aside from premier talent, the Huskies have chemistry.
“We all get along, have fun and like to goof around,” Rundell said. “We don’t have rap battles as much. Now we kind of rap about nothing. We’ll come up with lyrics from a song and try to rap off that. Kamal and Isaiah are really good at it; they make me laugh.”
While Rundell is eager to attend North Carolina, he’s also savoring his last year at OPRF.
“It really has been a journey [at OPRF] with some ups and downs but that’s life,” he said. “The main lesson I’ve learned from wrestling is to always keep fighting and never give up. I approach everything in my life with the same tenacity. I want to be remembered at Oak Park as a hard-working and competitive wrestler who led by example.”