This season marks the first time that the Illinois High School Association has sanctioned girls’ wrestling as a sport, and the first-ever state tournament will take place Feb. 25-26 at Grossinger Motors Arena in Bloomington.
The Oak Park and River Forest High School girls’ wrestling team is eager to compete for that first title.
“It’s incredibly important because in Illinois,” said OPRF girls coach Fred Arkin, a. co-chairmen of the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association steering committee, “there are seven colleges that have women’s wrestling teams and without an IHSA-sanctioned sport, our girls have been losing out on opportunities. Now, they’re getting calls from college coaches, and they’ll have opportunities to compete at the next level.”
OPRF, with a dual-meet record of 16-1 this year, is considered one of the favorites in the upcoming state tournament and showed why this weekend. After defeating Schaumburg High School — the state’s top-ranked team — 36-33 in a dual meet on Jan. 21, the Huskies won their own invitational the following day with 182 points.
“For me, the season has gone well. I’ve learned a lot,” said OPRF senior Bentley Hills, who defeated Ariana Diaz of Morton to claim the 100-pound title and improve to 12-3. “I’m very excited about state and think we have a chance of winning.”
The Huskies had three individual champions at their Jan. 22 invitational: Hills, sophomore Sarah Ephstein (235 pounds) and senior Tiffany White (190 pounds), who pinned one of the state’s top wrestlers, Noelia Vazquez of Fenton High School, while improving to 16-0 for the season.
“I continued to push and didn’t stop,” said White, who along with sophomore Trinity White, are the sisters of OPRF boys legend Isaiah White. “A lot of the girls are new, and they come to these tournaments and fight their butts off. They’re really good.”
Other top wrestlers for the OPRF girls include senior Camila Neuman at 110 pounds, senior Maria Diaz at 120, senior Bella Tyma at 135, junior Keydy Peralta at 145 and sophomore Tamera Erving at 235.
All placed in the top four at the Huskie Invitational, with Neuman (16-1) taking her first loss of the year in the title match against Ariana Flores of Evanston Township High School.
“We just need to keep developing the way we’ve been,” Arkin said. “They have been doing real well and their aggressiveness has come up. We’ve got some technique issues that we’ve got to clean up a bit, and we’ve got to fight and battle. That’s our plan for the next three weeks before the [state] tournament: stay healthy and work on hard, aggressive wrestling.”
Dunson takes boys 120-pound title at OPRF Invite
The OPRF boys’ wrestling program is usually among the state’s finest. This year, however, is a bit different as the Huskies are working in several talented but inexperienced newcomers.
While the results generally haven’t been what OPRF is accustomed to, there have been some standout efforts this season. Senior Jalen Dunson has had a solid season and improved his record to 14-1 while claiming the 120-pound title at the Huskie Invitational with a victory over his teammate, freshman Joe Knackstedt.
“It was fun. We practice against each other every day,” said Dunson. “My season’s been pretty good, but I’d like to have had more matches by now. But I think it’s been good, and I’m setting myself up to be in a good position for state.”
Being a freshman on a varsity team can be a challenge, but Knackstedt (7-3) is grateful for the opportunity to be among the Huskies’ main wrestlers.
“It’s nice because I can hop between different levels,” he said. “Some days I’ll wrestle on the freshman or JV levels, and other days on the varsity. It allows me to get a lot of matches in and gives me more experience.”
OPRF has also had some good moments as a team. One of those came Jan. 21 as the Huskies rallied from a late deficit to defeat visiting York in a dual meet 32-30, with Allyn Johnson clinching things with a pin.
“The team’s super young, but we’ve been getting better every day,” Dunson said. “Right now, we’re just worried about effort, that’s all it’s ever been about.”
With the IHSA regional tournaments starting Feb. 5, Dunson and Knackstedt want to be at their best when that time comes.
“I qualified for sectionals two years ago,” said Dunson. “I’ve got to keep doing what I’ve been doing, which starts by working hard in practice.”
“I need to work on my offense during matches, instead of just responding to my opponent,” added Knackstedt.