ROCKFORD • Two years ago, the Illinois Kids’ Wrestling Federation was planning on hosting its fiftieth state championship in less than twenty-four hours, and then, in one moment, everything stopped. The tournament was canceled. Suddenly, there was a great deal of uncertainty on where not just wrestling was headed, but where everything was headed.
“It was Thursday morning when I got the call,” IKWF President Jim Considine said. “I was told by the Rockford Health Department that the tournament had to be cancelled. I was in shock—I was speechless. We had already ordered everything and were hours away from teams arriving.”
Considine immediately called the Board, and everyone started doing their part to contact coaches and clubs and let them know what was going on, but no one believed him.
“When I started contacting people,” Considine remembered, “everyone thought I was joking around—coaches and caravans of communities were on their way to Rockford with their teams, and they all had to turn around and go home. At the time, no one knew the impact of COVID and what was really going on or what would happen because it was so early in that process, so it was a surprise to everyone. And, like a lot of things, everything was put on hold.”
Fast forward two years now. Through a lot of work by a great number of selfless people, and clubs and organizations getting back on their feet as kids are wrestling again, the celebration that was scheduled for 2020 will now be happening in 2022.
Throughout the journey of the IKWF—in its fifty years of existence—there have been some aspects of the state championships that have become tradition and may never be changed because, simply, they are too good to change. And then there have been some improvements due to finding better and more efficient ways, or through technology, to improve. However, whichever aspect is being looked at, the IKWF is not only the largest kids’ organization under USA Wrestling, but it is also considered the premier kids’ wrestling organization in the country, and that is not by chance.
“Our main goal is the kids,” Considine explained regarding when and why and how changes are considered and then made. “It is about the organization doing everything properly so that the kids have the best experience of their lives.”
In making those experiences memorable, here are some of the newer traditions that have put the IKWF in front of a number of other state organizations.
“When we added the stage for the finals,” Considine explained, “it changed so much of the atmosphere of being in that state final’s match. With the lights down and the ‘Parade of Champions’ and the finalists meeting in the center of that mat shaking hands with that spotlight on them, it is special. With the addition of the stage, the finals are more commonly referred to as ‘The Show,’ and it has never disappointed. The look alone on the kids’ faces makes it all worth it.”
Aside from the stage, the use of TrackWrestling has added an efficiency to the tournament and to the time of the Board.
“Prior to using TrackWrestling,” Considine commented, “we use to have what we called ‘Bracket Sunday.’ We would all get together and most of it would start at 8:00 a.m. and we would not be done until around 4:00 p.m. We had to get all of the kids’ names down on cards and piece all of the brackets together with the blind draws. We also had to put the programs together and who would be working where and doing what. With Track involved, brackets and bouts are much easier, and fans can follow along easier as well.”
However, even though the way brackets are viewed, and bouts are communicated, the presentation of the famous IKWF State Championship bracket has remained consistent.
“For the past twenty-five years,” Considine said proudly, “Mrs. Pat Urwin and Monica Schaub have written them all out in calligraphy. They do such a beautiful job with it. When those brackets are all done, we put them into a custom frame that is made by the Belleville Little Devils’ Club. We are always complimented on how classy those are for the kids. They have stood the test of time and will probably continue to do so.”
The IKWF still has twenty-four-man brackets, but there are now two divisions. For about the first twenty years, there was only one division. Thankfully, the Board decided that it would be more positive for the kids, and safer, if there were two separate age-appropriate divisions—and they were right. That change allowed for kids to grow at a more appropriate rate with positive experiences and, thus, grew participation and the sport in Illinois.
However, with a number of small changes here and there over the years, Considine feels that everything really started to change for the better when the IKWF was given the opportunity to run the spring season.
“When we took over Freestyle and Greco,” Considine explained, “we put a plan together on how we were going to make it successful and make it about the kids—and that’s what we did. Once we implemented our plan, Illinois became a powerhouse.
“Every goal we set, it was about making the kids better,” Considine continued. “We had a system that got the kids to the national duals easier and faster, how we implemented our plan to make Fargo a better experience, to make the camps more effective—everything just came together. Our goals were about improving the lives of kids, and we feel good about what we have been able to do so far.”
Since the IKWF took over and has implemented their plan, Team Illinois has dominated the national duals, Fargo, and is the model by which other organizations are trying to follow and keep up with.
“The process was simple because our goal was making everything revolve around the kids’ experience,” Considine admitted. “We simply tried to make coaching Team Illinois a seamless process where coaches could focus on the kids, and we could handle the administrative side. If the coaches have to worry about other things outside of coaching, weigh-ins, being on time, and being there for the kids in all the supportive ways that are wrestling focused, then the kids aren’t getting all of the attention and energy they deserve. And we have been lucky to have not just wonderful coaches, but we also have so many great people who have been selfless in giving their time to handle the administrative half of the responsibilities. In some way, everyone’s focus is on the kids.”
And, in looking at the IKWF logo, there is a great mantra that has been attached to the IKWF since 1982.
“Jim Didi came up with the slogan, ‘The ‘K’ is for kids,’” Considine acknowledged. “And that is because the kids are the focus—it is a great slogan.”
In speaking about the history of the IKWF championships, Considine remembered a few great championship moments, but one stood out immediately.
“Herb House and Joe Williams,” Considine jumped in without hesitation. “It was at Northern Illinois, 1988, for the 119-pound title—and Herb House won an incredible match. It was a packed house in the old NIU fieldhouse, and the place was crazy—what a great atmosphere. You had Oak Park-River Forest against the Harvey Twisters and two guys that could wrestle and two communities that backed their guys in every way.”
In addition to the individual crowns and impressive seasons and champions, there were several great team races over the years.
“In 1984,” Considine remembered, “when Vittum beat Burbank by six points in the Senior division, it was amazing. That race, along with Villa-Lombard defeating Lemont in 1994 by seven and a half points, or Tinley Park beating the Harlem Cougars by three in 1996—they all stand out. Having that tournament race—and we do duals as well—but that race is so exciting and just adds another dimension to the tournament and the overall experience.”
With the growth of wrestling and teams finding new and creative ways that ultimately become adopted by others over time, the pride taken in the clubs and by the parents is just as special as what the IKWF does.
“It is great when teams walk in and they all have their personalized t-shirts with the club on the front and the qualifiers on the back,” Considine remarked. “The way the clubs and parents and communities help make the tournament special has everything to do with them knowing the experience for the kids is what matters most—they go all out for their kids, and it is great.”
On Friday morning, the IKWF will continue with one of their greatest traditions, “The Grand Parade.” This is where every state qualifier will journey around the mat organized by their sectional—the sectional champions in both divisions will lead the way with the other teams following in alphabetical order.
After that, the moment will happen—the fiftieth IKWF State Championship tournament will be underway, and there is nothing like it in Illinois.
“I think what makes this tournament so special, and what makes the IKWF so special,” Considine commented, “is that the level of competitiveness is so tough that it makes the kids better.”
A number of IKWF alumni and coaches would agree, and the transfer of success from the IKWF to high school is fairly common.
And when the first whistle blows around 8:30 a.m. to kick off the opening round matches, fifty years of IKWF wrestling and tradition and history will be on display. The following day when the stage is erected and the “Parade of Champions” marks the opening of the finals, another new chapter of the state’s strongest kids’ organization will be written, concluded, and looked back on fondly.
Fifty years marks a greatness in any organization, and the IKWF takes pride in what they have been able to do for kids and the sport of wrestling along the way.
“It’s a privilege to be part of an organization that’s recognized as the best in the country at what we do,” Considine concluded. “And I want to do nothing but credit the IKWF Board of Directors over the past twenty-five years. I don’t want to leave anyone out because everyone has helped make this organization special and good for kids. Everyone believed in the plan and has worked on being the best.”
And whether it is the slogan or the focus, the message is clear regarding the IKWF’s success, and it is because it has had one focus, and that focus will be on display this weekend at the BMO Harris Bank Center in Rockford, and that is the kids.
Good luck to all the participants and coaches and volunteers and everyone in attendance, it should be a special championship tournament that has been two years in the making.
• TC LIFONTI / tclifonti.com / LEAD WRITER FOR ILLINOIS MATMEN