Illinois High School Wrestling Turns 75

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Illinois High School Wrestling Turns 75

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A native of Chicago’s south suburbs, Rob Sherrill first covered wrestling for the Star Newspapers in 1978 and has covered the sport for the Chicago Sun Times and USA Today, in addition to starting his own publications: The Grappler and The Illinois Best Weekly. He has been the National High School Editor for WIN magazine since 1997 and was a 2006 inductee in the IWCOA Hall of Fame. He recently published his second book on IHSA wrestling, entitled Tales From the Mat: Illinois High School Wrestling at 75, which can be ordered at

What made you decide to write this book?
Originally, when I wrote the predecessor of Tales From the Mat: Illinois High School Wrestling at 75 in 1996, it was to ensure that future anniversaries of the history of the sport did not go unrecognized. Mat Madness, the original book, was written at the sport’s 60th anniversary. Tales from the Mat, as the title illustrates, marks the 75th. The sport’s history brings wrestling people from all eras together as a family. This book is just part of that effort.

Was there anything you came across in your research that really surprised you?
The discovery of the 1944 “invitational” state tournament was an eye-opener. Actually, it was Joliet Central coach Pat O’Connell who shared that information with me. He expanded on it and I did, too. It showed how much wrestling people wanted to keep the sport going, even in a difficult time.

Give me your top five wrestlers in IHSA history?
Rick Bay, Waukegan – he epitomized the great Waukegan teams coached by his father, and he was a three-sport star who won the last 71 matches of his high school career. He played football and wrestled at Michigan as a collegian and was an All-American in the latter.

Jim Farina, East Leyden – his older brother, Mike, had a very dominating season in 1976, but Jim had the longer career. He absolutely dominated the state tournament as a junior and a senior.

Joey Gilbert, Andrew – as the first in Class AA to win four state titles, he blazed the way for those who followed him. Many felt Sean Bormet might dethrone him in 1988, and Bormet was seconds away from that chance. But fate intervened, as you’ll read below.

Joe Williams, Chicago Mount Carmel – the best I saw. He wasn’t as flashy as his older brother, Steve, but he was every bit as athletic and always in control. He was truly an icon.

Israel Martinez, West Aurora – the events of his senior year, which ultimately kept him from competing for a fourth title, shouldn’t distract from his domination of the state tournament over three seasons. He scored 71 points against four seniors as a freshman and 56 as a junior, including an 18-7 major decision over a fellow defending champion.

Who is a wrestler or team you saw that you will never forget, but not necessarily because of their success?
The Rock Island wrestlers of the 1980's, especially, were very exciting. You never knew what to expect from them. When William Gay lateraled Bormet in the 1988 semifinals and pinned him after a long fight, while down 17-4, it was just an example of what they were always capable of accomplishing.

In your opinion, what accomplishment in Illinois high school wrestling is the most difficult to duplicate?
The pressure of winning four state titles is pretty crushing. You’re a target from the state finals your freshman year on. That’s why it’s so amazing that every wrestler who has taken the mat at the Assembly Hall as a three-time state champion has been successful the fourth time.

Putting you on the spot…the best wrestler and best team in the 75 years of IHSA wrestling are?
Wrestler – Joe Williams, Chicago Mount Carmel. He was an illegal move with a 12-0 lead away from being the only unbeaten wrestler in state history. He was a lock in any situation.

Team – this is too close to call. My personal favorite is the Carl Sandburg team of 2006, but there are a lot of great ones. The 1999 and 2000 Providence teams were outstanding, too.

What will the next 75 years of high school wrestling in Illinois bring?
It will create 75 additional years of thrills and excitement...and a new wealth of shared memories for a new three-plus generations of Illinois high school wrestling fans. That's what we all look forward to.
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