Chicago Public League makes splash downstate

By Nader Ihmoud

Even though the Chicago Public League was the first to adopt wrestling at the high school level in 1926, CPL wrestlers have rarely taken home medals downstate.

That changed on Feb. 18 when five CPL wrestlers placed in the 2012 individual state tournament, including three from Bowen High School, matching a school record set in 1938.

Prior to 2002, the CPL would have been guaranteed 39–42 representatives at the Illinois High School Association individual state tournament before an automatic berth was removed that gave first, second or third-place finishers in the CPL sectional tournament a spot in the state tournament. The change forced CPL wrestlers to place at regionals and sectionals to make it downstate where they are faced with Catholic League and Suburban League opponents.

“Now it’s the toughest of the tough,” said Bowen coach Ron Wilson. “I actually like it like that. I want my kids to be able to earn their way there [and] not just get an automatic berth.”

According to Illinois Best Weekly publisher Rob Sherrill, the rule change suits city wrestlers better. He said before 2002, the city was considered one school district. City wrestlers who qualified for state were forced to wrestle in the largest enrollment class, which was a disadvantage for some.

“Even though they had more numbers, you were bringing a lot of two and outs downstate,” Sherrill said.

Kelly and Lane Tech high schools are the only Chicago Public Schools in Class 3A, the largest enrollment division.

“When they gave [the automatic berth] up, they gave up some qualifiers, but they also opened the door for kids to be wrestling against opponents from schools with enrollment,” Sherrill said. “The kids who do get [to the IHSA individual tournament] now are much better equipped to get through a bracket.”

Although the CPL is beginning to have a showing downstate, it is not equivalent to the success of the Suburban and Catholic leagues’ teams.

Wilson and Ray Hagerty, head coach of Gage Park High School, believe the CPL’s disadvantage now lies in the wrestler’s lack of experience.

“That’s hard to surpass sometimes when you got a kid who’s been wrestling 10 years against a kid who’s been wrestling three years,” Hagerty said.

According to Wilson, a lot of schools in the Suburban and Catholic leagues get their wrestlers out of camps all over the state.

“[They] build a team,” he said. “They get the top eighth-grader coming out of each club, put them on their team and sit in their chair and watch the kid go to work.”

Sherrill said the removal of the automatic berth has caused the CPL to better its game, and now there is more wrestling club activity in Chicago.

“The public league is getting a lot more notoriety out of the fact that they have quality, not just quantity,” he said.

Wilson and Hagerty said some of their wrestlers go to wrestling camps such as Harvey Twisters in Illinois or Camp of Champs in Wisconsin.

Although the summer camps do not make up for years of experience, Hagerty said when kids have the talent and the motivation, they can still be successful downstate.

He coached Gage Park senior Chris Ballard to a third place finish at the 285-pound weight class in Class 2A. Ballard, who never wrestled prior to his freshman year, lost his first match of the tournament to the eventual state champ but wrestled back, pinning three opponents and winning by a minor to take home the third place medal.

Lane Tech senior Max Schneider ended his wrestling career by taking home his second state championship in Class 3A. He defeated senior Brian Murphy of Glenbard North High School, the top-ranked individual at the 152-pound weight class, 3-1 to take home the title.

By winning his second title, Schneider joined only three other CPL wrestlers to ever accomplish the same feat. The last to do so was Jack Monroe of Tilden Tech High School during the 1952–1953 school year, according to Sherrill.

Wilson coached three placers: Ronzel Darling, who placed fifth in the 113-pound weight class; Rudolph Johnson, who placed sixth in the 126-pound weight class; and Dequence Goodman, who placed third in the 220-pound weight class, his second straight year placing at the tournament.