The Oak Park and River Forest High School wrestling team opened its pandemic-delayed season with a 39-21 dual-meet victory over York at the OPRF fieldhouse April 28. Four Huskies wrestlers — Jalen Duncan at 126 pounds, Connor Nagela at 138, Sam Deyro at 145 and Stephon Carr at 160 – pinned their opponents to win their matches.

“It’s awesome,” said OPRF coach Paul Collins of having a season this year despite the COVID-19 pandemic. “Numbers are down across the board and that’s to be expected, but we’ve still got a solid team. We’re grateful for the opportunity, especially for the seniors, and we’ll try to make the most of it.”

Nagela, a senior who is one of the state’s top wrestlers in his weight class, admitted that he wasn’t sure if there would be a season given the uncertainty caused by COVID-19. 

“It would’ve been a bummer if I hadn’t gotten a senior season,” he said. “I’ve been wrestling for almost half of my life, and it’s something I look forward to every year.”

OPRF returns six wrestlers who saw significant mat time last season, Carr, Duncan and Nagela, along with heavyweight Malcolm Gray, Cooper Lacey (113 pounds) and Zavien Stewart (120). 

However, scheduling restrictions imposed by the IHSA means there will be no state tournament this year. That disappoints Collins, because he believes he has several individuals who could’ve done potential damage in it.

“In this strange year, we need to be open minded and realize this is how it’s going to be,” he said.

One of the manifestations of that strangeness will be having an outdoor match at Oak Park Stadium on June 9 when OPRF hosts Hinsdale Central. Collins said the inspiration came from watching several universities host meets inside their football stadiums. 

“We’re never going to have a chance to do this [in a regular season that takes place during the winter], so we want to take advantage and give the seniors something cool to do,” Collins said.

Fenwick returns experiences squad 

Fenwick High School wrestling coach Seth Gamino, who enters his second year as the Friars’ head coach, returns an experienced lineup in 2021, including Conor Paris, who was a state qualifier at 170 pounds last season. 

Other top returnees are David Capron, who just missed going downstate last year, at 152, Billy McGee at 220 and Jimmy Liston at heavyweight, although Gamino indicated that Liston won’t wrestle this year due to an ankle injury suffered during the recently concluded football season.

Gamino said newcomers Finn McGee and Martin Paris will further solidify the Friars’ lineup, whom he described as young and on the verge of breaking some old school records.

“We are very heavy from 145 pounds and up; we have a solid group,” he said. “With COVID-19 making our season short, I don’t want the boys to worry about their weight.”

The Chicago Catholic League is one of the area’s premier high school wrestling conferences, and even in these challenging times, Gamino anticipates another strong season from his competitors.

“The coaching staff is focused on keeping the boys sharp, having fun, and enjoying their season as a team,” Gamino said. “We believe in progression, not perfection. We want the boys to get better each day and have a great time while doing it.”

Fenwick will have 10 matches this season, including seven at home. And for this unique season, which begins May 8 with the Friars welcoming Maine East and Marist, home will be outdoors the Dominican Priory in River Forest, weather permitting. That means more fans will be able to attend.

“The school recently approved it, and I think it’s a great idea because wrestling is a winter sport. It’ll be awesome to wrestle outside,” Gamino said. 

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