By Bob Balgemann


Harlem was expecting a rebuilding season in wrestling, what with losing nine experienced, four-year starters to graduation. What ensued was described by head coach Sam Enderle as a “unique season.”

First of all, wrestling for years had been a winter sport. But not 2020-21, throughout the state of Illinois, as the coronavirus pandemic, which struck the world in March 2020, created a fourth season that saw wrestling move to summer competition.

For the Huskies, that resulted in a roster with 17 wrestlers, well below the usual complement, consisting of seven freshmen, six sophomores, three juniors and one senior.

“This group was different from most of the Harlem teams in recent memory, with very few of the kids having much mat time coming into the season,” coach Enderle said. “They made a lot of improvement as the season progressed and nearly all of them wrestled varsity matches at some point. With the small roster, we needed to move kids around and it wasn’t unusual for our guys to move up a weight class to fill an open weight.”

When all was said and done those Huskies led the NIC-10 with eight all-conference selections. Team-wise, they finished with a 6-2 dual match record that tied Rockford East for second place in the league, behind undefeated champion Freeport.

One of the dual match highlights came early in the season when Harlem edged rival Hononegah, the perennial NIC-10 champion, 31-26.

Here are the Harlem wrestlers named first team, all-conference:

* Sophomore Donavin Vanderheyden, 120 pounds, posted a 13-4 record and, during a normal season with a postseason, he would have been looking at a possible NIC-10 championship.

* Sophomore Myles Babcock, 126 pounds, also 13-4 and also a likely contender for a conference title in a usual setting.

* Junior Marshal Cruz, 160 pounds, his 13-2 record being the team best. He was one of the Harlem captains and is looking forward to a summer of freestyle and Greco wrestling.

Huskies who received honorable mention, all-conference honors were:

* Freshman Justin Lewis who weighed in at 93 pounds but wrestled at 106 and still finished with a 7-3 record.

* Junior James Nelson was one of the team’s most valuable competitors, moving back and forth between 138 and 145 pounds, wherever he was needed. He wound up posting an 8-8 record.

* Senior Captain Collin Swinney, 170 pounds, a respected leader for this young team and who evolved as the squad’s most improved wrestler. He split 14 matches, with six of his losses coming at the hands of state-ranked wrestlers.

“Collin Swinney was the most improved and mature kid on our team and we will miss his presence in the room next year,” coach Enderle said of his only senior. “Hopefully, someone else steps up to take that leadership role.”

* Sophomore Tayson Primm, 182 pounds, though he weighed in mostly at 170 pounds. And he finished with a respectable 8-6 record, rebounding to go 8-3 after opening with three consecutive losses. One of those three setbacks came late in the season in what his coach described as “a physical, competitive match with three-time state champion Dylan Connell from (Woodstock) Marian Catholic. We look for Tayson to take that next step up for us next season.”

* Junior Zack Hawkins, 285 pounds. Coach Enderle described his overall performance this way: “Zack turned his season around, changing to a more aggressive, physical style and it showed in his 8-3 record, with eight pins.” 

Coming back

The large core of returning wrestlers for 2021-22 will be in action almost immediately. That’s because the usual group of winter sports teams are expected to resume their customary places during that time period. And that includes wrestling, which is coming off a first-ever summer season.

Freshmen: As stated earlier, there were seven freshmen on the varsity starting with the already mentioned Lewis at 106 pounds.

Continuing at the lower weights was A.J. Sauberlich at 132 pounds, who also wrestled at 138 when necessary, while finishing at 6-7. Jason Taylor competed in a tough weight class for freshmen, 145 pounds, and wound up 5-6. Michael Halvax juggled wrestling with baseball and usually practiced with the mat squad just once a week. He broke even in his eight matches.

Andrew Redmond was in a difficult spot, wrestling behind team captains Cunz and Swinney, but gave the Huskies depth and posted a 1-1 record while showing improvement throughout the year. At 195 pounds, Ethan Cannell injured his knee early in the season. “He’ll add to our upper weight depth next year, after rehabbing this offseason,” coach Enderle said.

At 220 pounds, Mason Williams was 1-1 before a rib injury ended his season. “He is an athletic, big kid that will fill an upper weight spot for us next year,” his coach said.

Sophomores: There were six sophomores with this year’s varsity, beginning with the previously mentioned first team, all-conference choices, Vanderheyden and Babcock.

Gabe McNames wrestled at 132 pounds and finished at 3-10, which his coach said was misleading: “He was much better than his record showed.” At the higher weights, “big guys” Nik Cannell (220) and Dylan Hogan (285) both “wrestled a loaded schedule this season,” the coach said. “Nik finished 5-6 and Dylan, 2-6.”     

Juniors: The three juniors and soon to be incoming seniors, Nelson, Cunz and Hawkins, all were covered earlier and are expected to be among the leaders of Harlem’s 2021-22 team.

The summer 

Summer is here and with it comes a continuation of wrestling for the Huskies. Some will be busy reclaiming their weight classes for 2021-22, while others will be out to fill the few vacancies that exist in the lineup.

“We are running open mat practices for the month of July on Tuesday and Thursday nights, with Hononegah and Auburn,” Enderle said. “That probably wouldn’t sit well with some of our Harlem fans, but we actually have a pretty good relationship with the Hononegah coaches and former Harlem wrestler, Jake Messink, is the coach at Auburn.

“Some different, fresh practice partners and coaches should make it a little different. We are hoping to get a few kids that didn’t come out this year to come” to the practices.

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