IWCOA Feature Story – Niles West Holiday Open Big Success

by Mike Garofola

Niles West High School –

It wasn’t the 40-plus teams, and over 150 participants that impressed so much last week  at the Illinois High School Holiday Open – it was the excitement in the air from all those on hand that made this day so wonderful.

Sport has the power to teach and change lives – and it appears wrestling has done just  that for those on hand in the giant Niles West field house.

Wrestlers of all ages would compete on this day, and if the energy, passion and pride exhibited by these young women is any indication – then girls wrestling is headed into the stratosphere, and hopefully for all those involved, the next sanctioned sport of the Illinois High School Association.

145-pound Elite Division runner-up Adriana Demos believes so.

After being a part of a national championship in cheerleading, the Warren sophomore went in search of her next challenge, and it didn’t take long for Demos to realize where she belonged.

“After the first day I knew it was the sport for me,” admitted Demos, who was on Team Illinois last season, qualified for Fargo, and currently trains in the room with the boys varsity team.

“I did all I could in (cheer) – so when I got involved in wrestling, the thing I liked (was) you put everything you have as an individual out on the mat, and the physical and mental part of the sport is something I really enjoy.”

Demos, who was unable to participate at Fargo due to a concussion, goes 24-7 when it comes to training.

“Three days a week I go to Izzy Style from 5:00-8:30 to train, but I really like being in the room working with the varsity, and watching guys like Joel Vandervere, who is a real role model for me to follow,” says Demos of Vandervere, who is No. 1 in the IWCOA boys 3A  poll at 138 pounds.

“Joel is great because he’ll see something I’m doing and he’ll offer suggestions on how to improve and be better (and) it makes me feel like I am part of the wrestling program at Warren, and that’s important.”

Demos, whose older brother (Andrew) was a three-time state qualifier, and state medal winner (currently wrestling at the University of Nebraska-Kearney) sees the big numbers here at this tournament as a sign of future in her sport.

“We’re all here because we love the sport, and all of us are doing our best to get better to make it be the best it can be, and I want to see it become an IHSA sport before I graduate in order to compete for a state championship.”

Elgin High School freshmen, Ariana Luna, inspired by teammate Natalie Gonzalez, is thrilled to be a part of wrestling, and believes it is the sport for her.

“Natalie is the one who provided the inspiration for all of the girls at Elgin to be a part of wrestling, and because of her, and the respect given to us by the coaching staff, and the boys program, I know I am in the right sport,” says Luna, who would use a technical fall in her Novice 138-pound final to win top honors.

“It’s not about success, it’s more about effort and hard work, and that’s what keeps me in the sport, but I know if I continue to work hard and improve, I’ll have the success Natalie has,” added Luna, who will play soccer in the spring at Elgin.

For the record, Natalie Gonzalez is a two-time IWCOA state qualifier, and 2018 state runner-up, who also happens to be a starter on the boys varsity team.

“The success of Natalie has given girls wrestling a lot of exposure at Elgin, so when we go out to talk to girls in other sports, there’s more of an interest to participate than ever before,” echoed Elgin assistants, Jon DeCoste and Gary Parciak, who were on hand for the three girls here.

“We have five in the program right now, and we’ve ordered brand new two-piece singlets for the girls to make them feel a part of things (and) all of them train in the room with boys everyday, and I can tell you the guys make them feel like they belong in there (it’s) fun to see,” added Parciak.

Edwardsville made the near 300-mile trip north to be a part of this terrific tournament, and for coach Sarah Doty and her nine wrestlers, it was a road trip worth making.

“We came in the day before, stayed in a hotel, and it was a great way for the girls and families to bond and have some fun before going out there and competing,” said Doty, who brought an impressive resume to her new downstate ‘wrestling’ home.

Doty, who came to Edwardsville after stops in California, and most recently Missouri, is a former three-time college All-American, and obviously excited for the future of a sport that become such a big part of her life.

“The Edwardsville Wrestling Club (EWC) has 20 girls in the sport, all in middle school right now, and we’re growing, and thanks to the support of the boys program over at the high school, we feel like we’re a part of their program, which is the best way for everyone to grow and improve,” said Doty.

“Wrestling is a tough sport, but it’s one that will help all of these girls to learn a little bit more about life itself (the) ups and downs, and (knowing) that hard work and perseverance will pay off in the end.”

“Girls wrestling is on the rise here in Illinois and all around the country, and the girls that came here are a part of the future, and hopefully sooner than later, as a IHSA sanctioned sport.”

Thirteen-year old Rosie Sanders’ father and older brother have been in the sport, so Miss Sanders feels it’s the right sport for her as well.

“I’ve been wrestling for nearly ten years, and I cannot think of being in any other sport than this one,” said Sanders, who enjoys training at the high school alongside the boys program.

Sport is a great driver in gender equity, and in this particular one, it has the power to reach and change lives, regardless of gender – so says Oak Park and River Forest freshmen, Louise Calkins, who would finish second in the Novice 145-pound division at days end.

“Wrestling is obviously not a traditional sport for women, and I know there are those from the older generation who might feel we don’t belong (but) the younger coaches in our room do not feel that way, and the guys don’t either, but I think we all realize it still might take some time for us to earn total acceptance into the sport,” said Calkins.

Passionate about wrestling, Calkins has ben involved in basketball, swimming, dance, volleyball and soccer, and she knows this one is the right one.

“OPRF obviously has a great tradition, so that kind of brought me into the sport, but I’ve become addicted to (it), and have learned it builds character, makes you tougher, gets you in great shape, and as a female, it makes me and others part of history,” continued Calkins, who in her film class made a documentary on wrestling.

The affable Calkins, who was one of nine from OPRF here, trains twice per week at 6:15 in their own room, splitting off on other days to work-out with the freshmen boys team.

“It’s a little frustrating at times to wrestle and train with the boys because they have that genetic advantage over us (but) we all know it will make us better in the long run.”

Calkins and her teammates were part of the first girls dual-meet recently against Downers Grove South, and it was that ground-breaking event, plus this Holiday Open that gives hope to Calkins for the future of her new sport.

“All of us want to see wrestling to be a part of the IHSA, and to have the chance to compete for a real state title, and hopefully that will happen very soon.”

Kalia Del Toro has enjoyed plenty of success already in her young wrestling career, but the Taft High School sophomore believes this tournament, and others on the calendar ahead will have an impact on the shaping of the future of her favorite sport.

“Everyone is here because they love this sport, and they want to be a part of a sport that gives girls the same chance as the boys have (and) when I go to other tournaments, it’s pretty clear to me the sport is growing, and there’s a lot of girls who work hard, and want to see it get the attention it deserves,” said Del Toro.

Del Toro came in from Mixed Martial Arts, while also dabbling in boxing, and jiu-jitsu, but neither compare to girls wrestling according to the Elite 120-pound champ.

“I just love wrestling because it’s an individual sport, it pushes you in so many ways, and it’s hard, and I like the challenge of getting better at something.”

Better is something Del Toro has mastered in her career thus far: she was third at 111 pounds at the 2019 IWCOA Frosh-Soph State tournament last year, Chicago Public League champ at 113 pounds, was an All-American with her fifth-place finish at Fargo, then finished up with a third-place medal at the Illinois Girls Freestyle State championships.

“Wrestling is not a boys sport anymore, we (girls) can do this sport, we’re hard workers, and just as dedicated, so there’s no reason why it cannot be an IHSA sport, and one that we can compete for a state title.”

These are proud times in the sport of girls wrestling – and from the several interviews and chats conducted last week here at Niles West – the athletes involved are fully aware they are the future.