By MIKE GAROFOLA
Nestled in and around several of the south side super powers sits a first class program from Lemont.
John St. Claire, now in his 14th year, has, along with his staff, done a remarkable job to keep the Indians right in the thick of things nearly each and every season – witnessed by its current spot at No. 8 in this week’s IllinoisMatmen.com Go Earn It Wrestling Apparel team ranking feature.
Among those who have made their mark in the 2A class, the Indians have done quite well for themselves, most recently making its fourth team appearance in the dual-team state tournament two years ago, while adding several names into the books as state medal recipients.
St. Claire would serve his apprenticeship at Marian Catholic under Don McKillip, before moving out of the area – returning to assist one season at Joilet Catholic before taking the Lemont position in advance of the 2003-2004 school year.
His first three years produced a less than dazzling 23-47 overall record, but things were on the upswing soon thereafter.
“I came in not knowing what to expect – it was obvious the south side teams were ‘all in’ as were the private schools, who asked for, and got what they needed in order to be successful each and every year,” recounts St. Claire.
“But once we received that same consideration (here) and the kids club (Lemont Bears) and I developed a terrific relationship – things turned around quickly, and it’s been great every since.”
2007 proved to be the best season in program history to that point, with the Indians going 19-4, and soon thereafter fueled by a boat-load of state medals, highlighted by the state champion duo of Matt Leibforth and Angel Cabral in 2009, the Indians had the wind in its sails and flying forward.
“We all couldn’t wait to come into the program from the Bears, I saw how great it was first hand when my (twin) brothers (Matt + Eric) went through before me – and the fact was, coach St. Claire was really developing and expanding the program (plus) he’s a good dude on top of everything else,” says senior, Jake Kirkman, one of four seniors on the club whom St. Claire has come to rely and lean on during their time here.
“Yeah, all of us, Jake, Jack (Leffler) and Dameyn (Gothard) came in here at the same time from club, and we knew from being around (St. Claire) what to expect, both in and out of the room – and like the guys before us, there were certain expectations right from that very first day, which each of us (knew) and accepted,” added Egan Berta, currently the No. 1 guy at 145 in the state polls.
St. Claire’s 2009 and 2010 teams collected third and fourth place dual-team medals after going 23-3-0, and 20-7-0 respectively, but the Indians head coach says that 2012 was likely his best ever, despite its failure to add a third state trophy following a program best, 20-2-0 overall record.
“That was quite a team for not earning a state trophy,” says St. Claire.
“Regional championship, ten state qualifiers, seven place-winners (it) was quite a year for Lemont wrestling.”
The aforementioned senior quartet have been shining stars since the very beginning. All but Leffler were in the starting lineup as freshmen, Berta and Kirkman earned the first of their three trips to the state tournament, Gothard his first last season.
“I was on the varsity, but I was way too small to compete that first season, so I just ate a lot to add some weight and get myself on the varsity my sophomore year,” says Leffler, 11th in the state at 113 this season.
Plenty of hard work, lifting and offseason training has put Leffler on a clear path his reaching his goal of getting downstate
“We’ve got a great room, but to have coach St. Claire in there – teaching and pushing each of us to get better is the best way to succeed,” said Leffler, who will either attend the College of DuPage for two years, or give wrestling a try at Joilet Comunity College, on the advice of the Indians coaching staff.
Gothard won 23 on his way to Champaign a year ago at 160 pounds, and finds himself as the No. 8 rated 70-pounder right now.
“Obviously for me, getting downstate last year was the highlight of my career, but to be around the three guys who have been my friends has been the best thing so far, and if all of us medal at state – that would be unbelievable,” says Gothard, who spent most of his offseason working on his cardio, and conditioning.
“This coaching staff gets everything out of us, and to have guys like Egan and Jake in the room as partners is the absolute best way for me to improve.”
Berta and Kirkman were friends long before putting on the Indians singlet, and Kirkman, who will enter the highly regarded Aviation Program at Western Michigan University next fall says before, and all throughout his time with Berta and the Lemont Bears kids club, the two have hung out together, and have built that all-important bond of friendship.
“It’s been pretty cool to be along for the ride with Egan. We were part of that Elite 8 team two years ago, we’ve been at state three straight years, and he, along with Jack and Dameyn and myself all have a chance to do something at the end of the year, hopefully at dual-team state as well (to) make our last year the best of all.”
“This is a real tight team. (St. Claire) helps make it that way because he doesn’t force any one particular style on us, but he expects hard work, and respect for and from each other.”
“I’ve done a service project under his guidance, he was my running back coach in football, and he’s the best as far as I’m concerned.”
Berta (145) and Kirkman (170) are Nos. 1 and 2 in their 2A weight class, a position in which Berta says little meaning at this point in the season.
“It’s just a number – certainly not anything I feel is the highlight of my career, or something there should be much focus on,” says Berta, who will begin his college search in earnest after the season is over, and he hopefully climbs atop the podium in Champaign in late February.
Last season, the four-year star ran into Hunter Grau of Geneseo in the 145-pound final, and things didn’t turn out as well as Berta and the Indians faithful would have hoped for.
“I knew going in (Grau) would be looking, and going for the knee pick (and) it was something we were working on prior to that, but to be honest, he just overpowered me in that final, and you know what happens after that,” admitted Berta, who, nonetheless, finished with a remarkable 43-3 overall record.
Berta, who lost in the quarterfinals to Grau during his freshmen year, is rapidly approaching 140 career victories, yet again, not meant a lot to this gifted senior in the grand scheme of things.
“When your (this) close to winning a state title, the obvious goal is to get back and finish what you started, but it’s also about keeping everything in focus, and concentrating on what’s important, such as providing the leadership, along with my senior teammates, and to help our young guys move forward,” says Berta, who went to Fargo, and spent hours upon hours working on improving foot speed and his attacking during the offseason.
“This current group of seniors are really something else,” says St. Claire, “you cannot ask for a better bunch of guys to be your leaders, and face of our program.”
The Wave of the Future
Before Berta, Kirkman, Dameyn, Leffler came aboard, St. Claire would lean on that brilliant group from the 2012 to set the tone, and continue the Indians tradition with the type of leadership, in and out of the room that inspires those new to the program.
Berta and his mates, to a man, have embraced that role, and have already seen their veteran influence pay off with a trio of rookies.
“Those guys have a bright future, I think all of us saw that from the very first day,” began Berta.
“They came in from club and did the work, listened, and showed a lot of fight, and a willingness to do what it takes to be successful – they’re going to be a terrific group to carry on the tradition here.”
Kirkman, who would have some rather large footsteps to follow in just after his older brothers left, remembers his early days, and the value of having veterans in the room leading the way.
“I know when Egan, Dameyn, Jack and myself came in, we were next in line to lead the team and program – (St. Claire) counted on us to do that right off the bat, and with this group of freshmen, I see a lot of (us) in them already, both on the mat and in the room.”
“All of them seem ready to be the pace-setters, and that makes me feel really good about the future of wrestling here at Lemont.”
The four next in line, and who have impressed from the opening weekend: Kyle Schickel, Drew Nash, Grant LaDuke (126) and Kyle Zator (132) have each showed they belong here with the big club.
Schickel is currently the top rated 106-pounder in Illinois Matmen’s Go Earn It Wrestling Apparel’s recent state poll, while Nash holds down the No. 4 spot at 120.
“Those young guys have made the transition into the high school game very well, but quickly found out this isn’t the IKWF anymore,” says St. Claire.
“Don’t get me wrong, the IKWF is and has been wonderful for this sport, but it doesn’t replicate the everyday grind, work rate, and discipline needed to be a success here in high school.”
“It’s those long bus rides, cutting weight, extra work in the room, training, academics, and all the other things that go along with this sport.”
“With the way my seniors have worked, and dedicated themselves to the team (first) while providing a healthy atmosphere in the room (there’s) no doubt they have made a positive impression on those young guys, who have endured, thus far, the ebbs and flow of this very difficult high school sport.”