In his second season as the head coach of the Fenwick High School wrestling team, Pete Kowalczuk believes the program is probably a year away from being truly competitive.
“It’s a numbers game,” Kowalczuk said. “In basketball, you need five guys to start. In wrestling, you need 14 [starters]. I think a healthy wrestling program has between 35 and 40 wrestlers. That’s about 10 kids per grade and 40 overall. Right now, we are at 25.
“To be honest, I’m not really too concerned what our record is at this point,” he added. “The primary focus is on building a winning program. I think our kids are getting better. They wrestle with passion and a lot of fight, which is all I can ask for as a coach.”
Kowalczuk’s patience is admirable, considering all he has ever known is winning on the mat. A 2007 Oak Park and River Forest High School graduate, Kowalczuk went 40-2 and placed second in the state tourney in the 285-pound weight class that year as a standout for the Huskies. He also wrestled globally, including stops in Finland and Bulgaria, along with a strong showing in Greco-Roman wrestling at the World University Games. In 2010, he was a U.S. Open Wrestling champ.
The Friars’ arrival for success appears to be a question of when rather than if. Fenwick currently has the most wrestlers in the program since 2009.
The Friars had three state qualifiers (Jacob Kaminski, Matt Zuber, Liam Mahon) last year, the most in 10 years. Kaminski, also an outstanding defensive end/linebacker, won the 195-pound class state title in Class 2A and finished with a 31-2 record overall. He left Fenwick after his sophomore year and now attends Wyoming Seminary in Pennsylvania. Zuber went 23-18 at 132 and Mahon 23-10 at 285 last season.
“I think the program is going in the right direction,” Kowalczuk said. “I am really focused on retention of the kids in the program and getting as many kids out as I can. If we project to next year, I think we will have 13 to 14 kids in the starting lineup which should make us competitive.”
Despite the loss of nine starters, four wrestlers are in the fold as varsity anchors this season.
“We have four kids who are studs,” Kowalczuk said. “They are pillars of the program and going to be around for a while. We build our depth a bit more and we can be very competitive next season.”
According to Kowalczuk, the hardest worker on the team is Zuber, who moved up to the 145-pound weight class this year, and also runs cross country at Fenwick.
“Matt is a leader, captain and go-getter,” Kowalczuk said. “Conditioning is a weapon for him. He’s super long and lean. He just gets after it as a grindy wrestler who never stops moving.”
Sophomore David Capron (160) and Brandon Navarro are two other wrestlers that the Friars will rely on. Both won their weight class titles at Hinsdale South a few weeks ago, while Zuber finished second at the same invite.
“Capron has freakish athleticism,” Kowalczuk said. “He’s really exciting to watch and very dangerous in a lot of positions. He’s only a sophomore and never wrestled before. David knows judo, so he’s still figuring out how judo works into wrestling.”
Like Capron, Navarro is a promising underclassman with natural tools to excel on the mat.
“Brandon has a great mix of power, strength and quickness,” Kowalczuk said. “Even though he is very young, he’s learning each day as a coachable kid who gives maximum effort at all times.”
Freshman Jimmy Liston is the fourth key grappler. He is a freshman heavyweight, who also started at center on the Fenwick football team during the fall. Injuries have limited his impact on the varsity level, but Kowalczuk already likes what he sees.
“A freshman two-sport varsity athlete is impressive,” Kowalczuk said. “Jimmy will bring a lot of leadership, strength and power to the heavyweight position. I’m excited to see what he can do on the varsity level.”
Before his current stint coaching the Friars, Kowalczuk spent five years as an assistant at OPRF. He learned much about the sport from coaches like Mike Powell and current Huskies’ head coach Paul Collins.
“I had a great experience coaching at OPRF and have so much respect for the coaches over there,” he said. “I don’t really see any reason why Oak Park can’t have two great high school wrestling programs in town.”