Some of the names on the wall of the Shabbona wrestling room are quite legendary. As it should be since the Braves have produced 12 IESA champions over the years, not to mention a slew of state place winners.
However, Shabbona has just one champion (Nik Countryman in 2009) in the past 18 years. That fact, plus a decline in participation of the sport by Shabbona Middle School athletes, led to an agreement in early October as the school is now allowed to be a cooperative with other Morris schools such as Nettle Creek, Immaculate Conception and Saratoga.
“I definitely think it’s a positive move. It’s going to give kids an extra option, no matter if a kid wants to wrestle for the school or for club or even for both,” Shabbona wrestling coach Matt Mazgay said. “It’s definitely a move in the right direction in terms of expanding the sport and our program. We’ve had a lot of success here in the past and we’d like to get back to that.”
Getting back to that
Since Shabbona scored three state champions back in 1995 – Ryan Anderson, Ryan Ferguson and Brad Rodeghero – success has been fleeting for the Braves.
“I think success and reputation are going to speak for themselves,” Mazgay said. “A good, quality program; a successful program – people are going to want to become a part of that. That goes for any sport.”
Shabbona has been the lone grade school in Morris in the past four decades, but now it’s an equal opportunity for all.
“Unfortunately for the sport of wrestling, its popularity has kind of died down,” Mazgay said. “Now it looks like it’s starting to come back and we are hoping we’ll be able to put together that kind of competitive team again.”
By the numbers
Last year the Braves reportedly had 18 athletes out for the program, which had everyone hopeful about the future of the team. However, that number has been cut in half this year – even with the addition of the co-op.
“I think it’s a good idea, but it would be even better if we had more people,” Shabbona eighth grade wrestler Jeffery Palmer said. “We have two kids who came out – one from ICS and one from Saratoga.”
To this point, despite the lone participation of ICS sixth grader Ben Virgo, ICS principal Kim Deslauries thinks the co-op is a good thing.
“If it benefits the need of even one kid, it’s worth it,” ICS Principal Kim Deslauries said.
Saratoga sixth-grader Spencer Peterson is the other to have joined the Braves this winter.
Off the ground
Before the start of the season, IESA Executive Director Steve Endsley and his organization wholeheartedly endorsed the Morris co-op idea.
“This co-op agreement is a fantastic opportunity for the three schools to offer a wrestling program for their kids,” he said in a statement in October.
Peterson said he wanted in as soon as he heard about the opportunity.
“They passed out the flier in P.E. about the wrestling program here and I knew then that I had to join, so I did,” he said. “I like wrestling because it’s a good contact sport. It’s a good workout and good exercise.”
“If you play football, wrestling helps you our for the next year a lot,” Palmer said. “It’s a sport that builds your core muscles.”
Virgo is attempting to both play basketball for ICS and wrestle for Shabbona at the same time.
“I like to wrestle. This is my sixth year. I’d recommend it because it’s a fun sport,” he said.
Come one, come all
Although the practice season has officially started at Shabbona, with nine guys in the wrestling room, statements become obvious.
“We still need people,” Palmer said.
Shabbona’s first day of practice was Dec. 2 and it opens the season on the 21st at the Troy Tournament.
So, is it too late for someone to join the team?
“The nice thing is that it’s never really too late. You can wrestle 30 matches or you could wrestle one match before the state tournament. Obviously, the longer you are out during the season the more it’s going to benefit you,” Mazgay said. “Basically, the answer is any time. We’ve had some kids that have come out later in the season. Kids last year who were wrestling club. We were able to take care of them. The nice thing about wrestling is that it’s the same everywhere. It’s not like football and having to learn a different playbook. It’s the same sport everywhere you go.”
There have been recent rule changes that allow club wrestling teams to exchange or share wrestlers in a bid for a state medal.
“Wrestling is a great sport. If a kid wants to wrestle, I think it’s great,” Mazgay said. “Whether he is wrestling for club or whatever. My job is to get the kids ready for this school team and for them to be ready to take the step up to the next level. If they are getting ready here or somewhere else, it comes down to choice. I don’t think that club is taking anything away from us and I don’t think we are taking anyone away from them. I’m hoping the day is coming where we can work with them in a coordinated effort. I know Wilmington has great coordination between its club and school team. I’m hoping we can do that, too – to further collaborate and make sure that everyone is getting what they need.”
Collaboration that sounds like knowing core numbers.
“Right now the IESA is allowing kids to do both and that definitely benefits us. Last year was the first year that it went into effect, so it is pretty new,” Mazgay said. “It’s all about a kid getting a certain number of matches for club teams and if he does that, he can still come in and wrestle for a school team. It comes down to the individual’s decision when it comes to the state series.”
Mazgay said if anyone who attends Nettle Creek, Saratoga, ICS and, of course, Shabbona, are interested in wrestling this season that it’s never too late.
“Come on out. Get ahold of us here at the school. That’s probably the best way,” Mazgay said. “Either get ahold of me or Mr. Tom McLaughlin, who is the athletic director here. Basically, you’d have to fill out some paperwork, put on some wrestling shoes and you’ll start wrestling. It’s really that simple. Again, it’s one of those sports where it’s great if you are there all season, but you can always catch up. It’s never too late.”