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Oak Park-River Forest wrestling's Fab Five freshman class (from left): Allen Stallings, Roberto Campos, Gabe Townsell, Isaiah White and Kamal Bey. | George M. Wilcox~Sun-Times Media
Any high school wrestling program that brings in five talented freshmen is bound to hear from critics.
In the case of Oak Park-River Forest’s freshman class, fickle fans took to the internet in a series of postings wondering how the Class 3A state runner-up could attract five of the Chicago area’s top young wrestlers to its program. The posts were placed on the forum at illinoismatmen.com, the eight-year-old Peoria-based website that provides comprehensive coverage of the state wrestling scene from the youth level to colleges.
The posts were eventually removed by the website. Owner Mike Bare said that he and two other staff members try their best to monitor the forum.
“We saw some things that were not in good taste,” Bare said. “We are about having a good wrestling discussion.”
OPRF coach Mike Powell saw the posts and did not like what he read.
“I don’t like people making accusations that are completely unfounded,” Powell said. “People were writing things about 14 year olds that should not be written.”
Bare told Pioneer Press that at no time was he ever contacted by an OPRF coach or official about taking down the posts.
Though OPRF coach Mike Powell steers away from using the word “controversial” about the matter, there is little doubt the five freshmen, or Fab Five as they have been called by teammates, have helped make an impact for the Huskies, which lost 30-24 to Sandburg in last year’s state dual team final.
OPRF beat previously No. 1-ranked Sandburg 286.5-278 to win Hinsdale Central’s Whitlatch Invitational Dec. 15. The top two teams in the state are in opposite brackets for the Clash XI, a national high school dual meet Dec. 28-29 in Rochester, Minn. The Huskies open the tournament at 4 p.m. against Rochester Mayo. The only other Illinois teams in the tournament include Marist and Class 2A power Montini. The 24-team tournament includes schools from as far away as California, Washington State and South Dakota to New Jersey, Florida and Georgia.
The Huskies won at Whitlatch behind champions Matt Rundell (120 pounds), Larry Early (132), Johnny Gahagan (145), Davonte Mahomes (160) and Joe Airola (182). But each member of the Fab Five reached the championship semifinals to place, led by runner-up Isaiah White (14-1), who lost to Harlem’s Jordan Northrup 8-0 in the 126 final.
The other freshmen finishers were Kamal Bey (third, 8-1 at 152), Bobby Campos (fourth, 13-3 at 106), Gabe Townsell (fourth, 14-3 at 113) and Allen Stallings (sixth, 9-7 at 170).
All five freshmen moved into Oak Park in the last few years to seek out the coaching expertise of Powell, an OPRF grad who won the 1994 Class AA state title at 171. Powell was the high school coach for Greco-Roman Olympian Ellis Coleman, who made national news by performing the Flying Squirrel move in an international meet.
Powell gained his own fame in the spring with a number of appearances to publicize his bout with polymositis, a chronic muscular disease. Powell appeared in Sports Illustrated, was profiled by ESPN’s E:60 and even threw out the first pitch at a White Sox game in June.
Powell has wanted to build the profile of OPRF wrestling into a program others would wish to copy. He provides study tables for his wrestlers, monitors their grades and has helped send at least three of his previous state champions into major Division I programs.
He also led the Huskies to their first state title in 2009.
“There is an intensity in the room at practices,” White said.
“Practices are even more tougher,” Townsell said. “When you come from practices, you are even better prepared in meets. He’s made a huge difference in our mindset.”
“He’s not afraid of telling us what we do wrong,” Bey said of Powell. “He is not afraid to tell us that we are not working hard. He tells us to turn it up.”
“I’ve improved a lot under coach Powell,” Campos said. “I want to get better as we go on. I want to improve more.”
The freshmen come from different clubs and different areas of Chicagoland. Their previous hometowns were Maywood (Stallings), Bolingbrook (Campos), Chicago’s west side (Townsell), Romeoville (White) and Naperville (Bey). Townsell and Stallings wrestled for the Gladiators in Maywood, White and Bey were with the Harvey Twisters and Campos belonged to his hometown Junior Raiders.
Powell has known Townsell since he was little boy. Townsell is the son of former OPRF volunteer coach Richard “Doc” Townsell, whom Powell credits with helping him win his state title. Stallings has worked out with OPRF’s Little Huskies youth program since age 10 and White has practiced at OPRF for the last four years when he was not competing for the Twisters.
At the state championship in March, White became only the third five-time state champion in Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation history.
As of Dec. 20, three of the freshmen were ranked by illinoismatmen.com in their weight class: White (fifth), Townsell (seventh) and Bey (12th).
“With our freshmen and sophomore class, I want them to have the right foundation as they grow older,” Powell said. “I want them to have the right GPAs and go to the right school.”
Oak Park-River Forest athletic director John Stelzer said there are full-time staff within the district that regularly investigate residency issues. The district is used to dealing with the issue since it shares a border with the Chicago Public Schools.
Stelzer said he did not get to see the posts about OPRF’s freshmen wrestlers at illinoismatmen.com.
“I prefer not to comment on anything whatsoever,” Stelzer said. “I feel we run a program with high integrity. Our district office rules and approves all residency (matters) whether they are athletes or non-athletes.”