Little Huskies are big boost for OPRF wrestling
Updated: March 8, 2013 6:19AM
OAK PARK — When Matt McDermott took over the Little Huskies youth wrestling feeder program nearly a decade ago, the team had about 10 wrestlers.
Today, the club features nearly 100 wrestlers from ages 6-14 with 16 volunteer coaches in two practice rooms each weeknight at Oak Park-River Forest.
Once coach Mike Powell started building OPRF’s varsity into a perennial power with at least 16 dual-meet postseason wins from 2005-10, including the 2009 state title, it seemed natural that a growing interest in the Little Huskies would follow.
“It starts at the top, once Mike Powell got involved in the (varsity) program, it got buzz,” McDermott said of the Little Huskies. “It helps that you would have a couple of kids that got to state.”
Flyers publicizing tryouts for the Little Huskies are sent out to elementary schools in the area. McDermott coaches in the Huskies youth football program and has convinced many players over the years to try out for wrestling. McDermott said about half the kids in the program are under age 8. He estimates that there are around 30 core kids who come to practice regularly and compete in meets, but many others come for a little while to try the sport out.
Powell runs the high school program, but leaves McDermott, a former OPRF wrestler himself, to handle the administrative duties of running the Little Huskies. McDermott also coaches, but receives help from co-coach Richard “Doc” Townsell, whose son Gabe is a freshman on the OPRF varsity team. Townsell runs many of the practices.
“Matt McDermott is the organizer and father to the program,” Powell said. “He’s selfless. He’s an amazing guy. He’s a master carpenter and he even builds bikes.”
The Little Huskies placed ninth last season in the Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation’s state meet. This year’s state championships will be held March 7-9 in Rockford.
McDermott said the goal of the Little Huskies isn’t to accumulate medals in IKWF meets, but to build a stronger team for OPRF.
“Me and Doc help take young boys and help them become men (by wrestling),” McDermott said. “We teach responsibility and how to work hard (through competition).”
McDermott, a 1987 OPRF grad, wrestled for the Huskies several years before Powell came along to win a state title for former coach Norm Parker. McDermott has been an assistant freshman coach for the Huskies.
“I love it to see the (Little Huskies) program where it is,” said McDermott, whose sons Maxwell, 13, and Sam, 8, belong to the club. “I’m glad to see the kids do it. I’ve coached before (the Little Huskies) and I’ll coach after (my sons) are done. I’m glad to see the kids part of something bigger.”
J.W. Middlebrooks grew up as a wrestler, competing for Proviso East and Triton College. His sons — Chris, 13, an eighth-grader at Julian, and Daemyen, 10 — joined the Little Huskies this season.
“I think it’s an excellent program,” J.W. Middlebrooks said. “It’s a good family environment. I love the discipline. It’s a way preparing the kids for the next level.”
Chris Middlebrooks played basketball and volleyball before trying wrestling. He said a friend, OPRF freshman Carl Carlton, encouraged him to join the Little Huskies.
“I wanted to do something else. I wanted to try something new,” Chris said. “I think I can do this all throughout high school and I will do it in college.”
The level of competition the Little Huskies’ room has attracted wrestlers from other clubs. Before moving to Oak Park and joining the Little Huskies, OPRF freshman Kamal Bey was with the Harvey Twisters and would work out with current teammate Gabe Townsell.
“It was great. It helped me a lot,” Bey said. “He helped me make the IKWF finals. Working out with Gabe was amazing. He never stops.”
One of the program’s most famous alums is Iowa freshman Sammy Brooks, a two-time state champion for OPRF in 2010 and 2012. Both Brooks and 2009 OPRF grad Ellis “The Flying Squirrel” Coleman, a 2012 London Olympian, have dropped by Little Huskies practices to visit with the kids.
Cameron Bates, 12, a student at Julian Middle School in Oak Park, is in his third season with the Little Huskies. He remembers being introduced to Coleman.
“I met him at a meet through my friend, Max McDermott,” Bates said. “We were talking to him and he said, ‘You’re right. Maybe you could be really good.’ I showed him what I can do (with a move).”
The pipeline continues at the Little Huskies level. The younger brothers of OPRF junior Aiden Thurston and freshman Malik Stallings are currently competing for the Little Huskies.