by Mike Garofola

2019 Rex Whitlach Wrestling Tournament, Hinsdale Central High School

Perhaps the report of the disappearance of Oak Park and River Forest wrestling was just a bit premature.

True, the perennial state power was nowhere to be found among the top 10 in the recent IWCOA team poll after posting its 5-6-0 overall record in dual-meet action.

However, with its nicely balanced attack – fueled by a trio of individual titles – the Huskies broke free from the field (and) kept its lead down the stretch at the prestigious 55th Rex Whitlach Invitational to lift the championship trophy for the third straight season.

“We were never really lost – we just had not found ourselves yet,” said a proud Paul Collins, whose club will surely rise in the next IWCOA state poll after its convincing 22.5 point margin (221.5-189.0) over second place Lemont, then Minooka (179.5), Sandburg (167.5) and Barrington (166.0) who were clearly the next best three here.

“We’ve lost a lot of state champions, state medal winners, and state qualifiers during the past few seasons (including) last year with another state champ Eddie (Bolivar) – so it takes some time to sort things out in your starting lineup,” continued Collins, now in his 15th year in charge.

“But one thing that doesn’t change is the family atmosphere we foster, both in and out of the room, and how important it is to have great senior leadership, and in this group of six seniors, that’s exactly what we have.”

On of those seniors is Jake Rundell, who will be on his way to Purdue University next fall, where he will continue to compete, and study to become a civil engineer.

“This is a terrific win for our program – not only because it’s one of the best tournaments of the season, but it shows that the work we’ve been doing is beginning to pay off,” said Rundell (13-0) who was sporting a bag of ice on his shoulder after suffering a mild ‘stinger’ following his dominating performance during his 126-pound final over Neuqua Valley senior, Reece Martin.

“We have a very good room of guys who are willing to do the work – but it all starts with our coaching staff, who put in the time afterwards with plenty of extra work on an individual basis, so I know that it will pay off when it really counts down the road.”

Seniors Daemyen Middlebrooks (195, 14-0) and Danny Lingen (182, 8-0) collected championship trophies in addition to Rundell, with Middlebrooks earning the following praise from his head coach, whose growth both in the classroom and on the mats have been exemplary since entering the program.

“Daemyen had his struggles early on, but he’s worked hard to be better, and with the support of his teammates, particularly the leaders in the room during his first couple of years (he) himself has turned into a great leader, and a strong student-athlete,” said Collins.

Many might forget Lingen was a state qualifier last season, winning 20 matches at 170, but the two-year starter is fine with his ‘under-the-radar’ status as the new year approaches.

“I owe my success thus far to the hard work of our coaching staff, and being a part of the OPRF wrestling family (where) we support each other first before ourselves,” said Lingen, who was in early trouble in his final with No. 2 Justin Brown (14-3) of Grant before his stunning pin at 1:59 to wipe out a 4-1 deficit.

“I never felt like I was in trouble despite my rough start because I’m a six minute guy who likes to get after it and brawl (so) I knew I would be okay as the match went on,” admitted Lingen.

While the advancement of six Huskies into the final which led to its eventual championship celebration, there was plenty more for the big crowd inside Central’s iconic old gymnasium to watch.

Where to begin is all too difficult, however to look past the eventual O.W. would be a crime.

Junior Dean Hamiti from Joilet Catholic Academy turned in a magnificent performance during his two days of work by showing the type of attacking and defending ability that validates his place as the No. 1 man at 152 in the state, and in the nation, where he currently sits at No. 13 in the most recent InterMat poll.

The reigning two-time state champion was relentless as he pinned his way into the final where he then recorded a 13-2 major decision victory over No. 2 Josh Ogunsanya (13-1) from OPRF.

“I have never had anyone who works as hard, or has the work rate as high as Dean in my coaching career,” said head coach, Ryan Cumby, whose had plenty to compare Hamiti too after his time at Marmion Academy (2012-2015) where many elite wrestlers went through the Cadets room.

“His semifinal with (Isaiah) Parker was a wild one (big) scoring match in which he defended so brilliantly, and in doing so, turned Parker’s chances into points for himself – doing it all with so much composure, it’s a joy to watch.”

Hamiti was ahead 19-9 on Parker before recording the pin at 5:33, then really turned up the pressure on Ogunsanya, using his length, speed, quickness and innate use of angles and cat-like switches to add to his lead during an eventual 13-2 major decision.

“I’d like to think I can wrestle out of all positions equally well (always) pushing the pace, and doing it all with a lot of pace, energy and non-stop wrestling for six minutes,” opined Hamiti, whose gone from 5-4 as a freshmen to his current 6-0 frame.

While Hamiti dazzled the audience during his championship performance, it was the 160-pound final that had many anxious to see when the Nos. 2 and 3 Joe Chapman (OPRF) and Robert Major stepped onto the mat.

Chapman, as all know, is a two-time state medal winner, while Major, a junior from Downers Grove South, has come ‘this’ close to advancing downstate in his first two seasons under head coach, Sean Lovelace.

“Robert works so hard, but it’s been tough to see him fall just short in getting downstate (so) to see him go out and perform so well against a quality opponent like Chapman (13-1) made me super happy and proud,” said Lovelace.

The first period was played as if a chess match – each man sizing the other up in a 0-0 opener.

Major’s escape just after the whistle gave the Mustangs star a 1-0 advantage – which could have gone to 3-0 if he was able to finish a high single, which Chapman defended.

With the period drawing to a close, Major recorded a take-down near the edge, and that lead would hold up as he rode Chapman hard all throughout the final two minutes.

“I felt if I could take the lead into the third period (that) I was strong, and confident in my ability on top to beat an opponent as good as Joe,” said an exhausted Major (19-0) who has won (82) in his first two seasons at South, and one win away from going downstate both years.

There were three first time Whitlach champions crowned in the opening matches at the lower weights, beginning with Sandburg sophomore Sammie Hayes (17-0) who impressed from start-to-finish en route to his 12-1 major decision victory over Gylon Sims (14-2) the freshmen from Joilet Catholic Academy.

Hayes, the younger brother of former state and Whitlach champion, Louis Hayes (Virginia) used a pair of three-point near falls to make it 8-0 heading into the third period.

“It gets a little intense when Louie and I work out together, but I’ve learned so much from him whenever we have the chance to train,” said Hayes, who carries around a back-pack with his older brothers name emblazoned on the bag.

Geneseo sophomore Anthony Montez advanced into his final after edging Brian Beers (Barrington) in his semifinal (2-1) – then needed just a first period take-down against Lorenzo Frezza to win the 113-pound bout.

Montez (15-1) as he did with Beers, used his length to ride out Frezza in the second period, before using an escape and late take-down to seal his 5-0 victory.

“(Top) is my best position right now, and it really helped me in my last two matches today,” said Montez, who was fifth here a year ago.

“This is a big-time tournament, and the one that really gets things going for the second half of the year, so I am really happy to win here,” said Montez.

Belleville West junior Josh Koderhandt (15-1) who came into the weekend as the No. 3 man in the 2A class, showed why he’s been anointed his lofty spot in the IWCOA after recording four straight tech-falls at 120 pounds.

Koderhandt, the state runner-up a year ago to Colton Drousias (Mt. Carmel) at 113 pounds, left little doubt as to who the best man was in his weight class after his marvelous effort over four others.

“My approach to each match is to go out (there) and score as many points as I can, and just beat-up every opponent that I take on,” said Koderhandt.

“I feel like I’ve matured a lot since last year, and the goal is to get back in the final, and win it this time.”

There’s little doubt that’s the plan of Joel Vandervere, who through the early stages of this long season appears to be the front runner for the 138-pound 3A state title in Champaign.

Vandervere reduced to just (13) matches a year ago due to offseason ACL surgery, is now already 13-0 after a spectacular two days of play that saw the Warren senior bedazzle his division rivals, including a masterful effort in his final with No. 4 Nico Bolivar.

The No. 1 rated Vandervere used an early second period escape, followed by a nicely played take-down to build a lead Bolivar (8-2) was unable to take a bite out of when the Northwestern-bound Vandervere pushed the pace during the final period of this match.

“Being healthy is the key this season, and if I stay that way, there’s no reason why I cannot be No. 1 here in the state, and in the country as well,” says the Blue Devils star, who is No. 4 in the current InterMat national poll.

Cameron Domke at 132 gives Warren an elite one-two punch, and it was Domke who set the table for his teammate after he got off to a quick start with a big throw off the whistle in what would be a 9-4 decision over Ray Hernandez of Lemont.

“I’ve got the best work-out partner in the world with Joel (he) pushes me so hard each and everyday, and I’d like to think I do the same for him,” said Domke, sixth in the IWCOA, and a returning state qualifier.

“Last year the goal was to get downstate, but this year it has to be winning a state title, and I am going to work as hard as I can to meet that goal.”

Domke (16-0) who has applied for an Evans Scholarship, is set to attend Indiana University next fall.

“We were thrilled to get into the Whitlach this season (it’s) a great tournament, and a great way for us to measure ourselves against some of the top teams in and around the area,” said Warren head coach, Brad Janecek, who is taking his club to the Cheesehead in two weeks to help prepare his men for the second half of the season.

Barrington is also new to the Whitlach, after competing in the Niles West tourney last season.

The reigning MSL champions, who won the Moore-Prettyman, and last week the Downers Grove Mega-Duals, claimed fifth place (9) overall medals, and an individual title from No. 2 Luke Rasmussen (22-0) who pinned his way to the 170-pound crown.

“Luke is our thoroughbred – the top pony on our roster (and) he came here with the intent of coming away with a bracket board, and that’s just what he did,” said Barrington head coach, Dave Udchik.

“This was a terrific tournament to get into for us, we came here to see and wrestle the best, and even though we had some good results, it’s still clear we have plenty to work on in order to get ourselves ready for the last half of the year.”

The suburban Southside looks ready for the new year after the area controlled at 145, 220 and 285 at days end.

Kyle Schickel (145) and Apollo Gothard (220) key figures in a Lemont lineup that features several state ranked wrestlers – many of whom have collected their fair share of state medals already – each climbed atop the winners podium.

Schickel, No. 2 in the IWCOA polls, went easily through his division, scoring two majors in his last two bouts after a tech-fall and pin helped advance the three-time state runner-up into his final with Garrett Geigner of Lincoln-Way West.

His teammate Gothard (13-0) had his hands full in his final against Drew Gutknecht (14-2) – needing extra time to close out the Minooka big man – using a take-down to secure his 5-3 overtime victory.

Both Lemont stars chose to speak more about their club than themselves afterwards; with Schickel saying:

“This year, we’re trying to be at our best each day – pushing the young guys to do what they’re all capable of doing, and I feel like the team is finally beginning to believe in ourselves,” said Schickel, one of just (5) seniors.

Gothard, the No. 1 rated 220-pounder, adds the close bond the team shares with other is a major reason for the Indians 12-1 start, and No. 2 spot just behind top rated Marian Central Catholic.

“Most of us have know each other since we were 7-8 years old (we’ve) grown up together, wrestled with each other and hang out, and having a team that is ‘that’ close is a big deal, and it shows when we go out and wrestle quality opponents, or in tournaments like this one.”

Not to be forgotten was the accomplishments of Sandburg senior Mike Bosco (14-0) who came in as the No. 3 seed at 285, and would precede to defeat No. 2 Dustin Olmstead of Belleville West in his semifinal, before knocking off top seed Jake Shipla (11-2) from nearby Minooka, 5-2, in his final.

The top five clubs all would jockey for position from the opening whistle on the second day of play, but Minooka would relinquish its lead just after the semifinals to eventual champion Oak Park-River Forest, which built a 22-point advantage (194-172) over Lemont late in wrestle-backs and never let go.

“You learn not to put too much into early season results, especially when you have several guys new to the varsity roster, but I have to say I am very happy with this team championship today, and very proud of our group of seniors who continue to show the way, on and off the mats,” began Paul Collins.

“We’ve taken some tough losses here in the first half to: Downers Grove South, Aurora Christian, Lockport, Crown Point, Indiana, but the guys are staying with (it) and putting the work in that’s needed to survive the grind of a long season.”

“We’ll be at the Flavin next weekend, then it’s off to California for the Doc Buchanan, and that experience alone is something many have never had.”