By MIKE GAROFOLA
Who would have thought when Dominick Ambrose and Cole Smith stepped into the room at Providence Catholic four years ago – the Celtics fortunes would have such a tremendous and quick return.
Ambrose and Smith, that’s who.
The Celtics’ duo prediction for success would come true during their second season under Keith Healy when a young Celtics club advanced into the 3A dual-team state tourney – and came away with a fourth-place trophy – the 19th in program history, and 13th in Healy’s storied career.
“Those of us who came in as freshmen knew we could have something special here, and with a great coach like (Healy) and equally great assistants, I think all of us knew if we put the time in, good things could happen for us,” admits Ambrose, who followed big brothers Tom and Vince into the hallowed halls of Providence.
“Yes, I have to agree with Dominick,” begins Cole, who like his teammate got his start at the Junior Celtics, and still remembers a technical fall loss to Ambrose during their early days of IKWF competition.
During their rookie season of 2015, Ambrose, Smith, Ben Emery (106) and Logan Anderson (182) finished a respectable third overall at the Lincoln-Way Central behind the tourney host and second-place Lincoln-Way West to lay the ground work for bigger and better things the following season.
“When Jake (Lindsey), Josh (Ramos) and Juan Bazaldia joined us the next year, our lineup was complete, and all the work we put in finally paid off,” said a proud Ambrose.
The Celtics won their own regional by 41 points, then sent off Edwardsville in sectionals to book their place in the Elite 8.
Once there, they went past Grant to reach the semifinals, only to see their hopes for a title dashed by eventual state runner-up and Nathan Traxler, AJ Jaffe led- Marmion Academy.
“That was an incredible year for all of us (but) to tell you the truth, I really feel our team last year (2017) was better (but) we had to go through Lockport at regionals, and they ended up as state champs,” said Ambrose.
“It all began with Cole and Dominick,”says Healy.
“They came through our youth program (there) was a lot of family history (wrestling) here at Providence, they were incredible hard workers and leaders – but to top it off, both are just incredible young men, who are proud to be a part of the Providence program.”
Ambrose’s father wrestled himself at St. Laurence back in the ’80’s, but was forced to quit to help support his grandmother when his grandfather passed.
Dominick would get his start at the Orland Park Pioneers when he was five years old and would learn the ropes along the way from his brothers at the school of hard knocks.
“They taught me a lot, and they still do: Tom runs the Lemont Bears, so I help him sometimes, and Vince, who was a big, strong guy who wrestled at 220 his senior year (2016) shows me things only a big man can.”
Ambrose bleeds Celtics green (and) the sport.
“I love wrestling!”
“The life lessons learned cannot be matched (the) discipline, commitment and mental strength gained is unmatched in my opinion, and just being around my friends and teammates everyday is like having a second family (so) it cannot get any better than it is right now.”
The senior admits he ‘squeezed’ through his sectional as a sophomore to reach Champaign, but felt more at ease a year ago, until a 3-0 first-round loss to Jimmy McAuliffe
of Reavis ‘ripped a hole in his heart’ – while his major decision loss to Anthony Cheloni dashed his hopes for good.
“I went into the tunnel, took my shoes off, put my head into my hands and just cried my eyes out,” says Ambrose.
“Coach (Healy) came up to me to offer his condolences, and basically told me to put it all behind me, and from that point (do) whatever it takes to get back here again in order to get on top.”
Ambrose, rated at No. 4 in the latest IllinoisMatmen.com ‘Go Earn It’ state polls, surpassed 100 victories in his career, and after lifting the championship trophy at the Rex Whitlach, he pushed his record to 14-4 overall.
“I was cutting weight, which was no excuse, and took a bad loss to Reece Heller (Marian Catholic) then had real good effort with Jake Stiles (No. 1 at 145) during a 5-2 loss.
“I gave up a reversal and back points to (Tony) Madrigal, who’s the No. 4 rated guy in the nation, so all-in-all, I feel real good right now almost halfway through the season.”
Ambrose has done a wonderful job of balancing academics and sports, and in that, he’s taking a long look at continuing his education and wrestling next season at SIU-Edwardsville, when afterwards, he hopes to coach in some capacity.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have been coached by Keith Healy, who gives you; tough love, tremendous knowledge in the sport, the ability to be a mentor, and second father, and all the other things he’s given to me since I began with him when I was eight years old.”
Cole Smith couldn’t have said it better, admits the two-time state medalist, who last season ran into superman, otherwise known at Austin O’Connor.
Smith would collect his second consecutive state medal, while O’Connor joined the stratosphere in IHSA history with his fourth.
“Being down on that big floor in Champaign, and a part of the Grand March, was amazing, and for me, I just kept telling myself to calm down (then) and just before that final because everything was going a million miles an hour,” quips Smith.
That the affable four-year Celtics star would reach the title match highlight his roots – and where they will continue to grow next fall.
Smith, as his teammate Ambrose, began at the Junior Celtics, and when the Channahon resident entered Providence, he would play football as a freshmen – quickly realizing one thing.
“I came to Providence to wrestle – and nothing else,” said Smith, No. 2 in the latest IllinoisMatmen.com poll.
In his rookie season, he won a regional title on his way to another the following year, racking up 70-plus victories, and the first of two state medals, this one, fifth place.
2017 was truly a ‘break-out’ year for him, as he drove through regionals and sectionals and his state bracket, including an impressive major decision to reach his final with the aforementioned O’Connor.
“I’m in the room with Matt Ortiz (Montini) at Izzy, so we knew each other real well, which made my quarterfinal with him very difficult, so that decision over him to advance was one of the highlights of last year,” admits Smith, who finished his season with 43 victories.
Smith isn’t anxious for this, his final season at Providence to end, but when it does end, he’s already secured his new address for next fall.
The two-time Celtics’ MVP signed his National Letter of Intent to attend Old Dominion, joining Tyler Delaware (Washington), Savion Haywood (Bloomington), and Matthew Hennessey of Plainfield North.
“I took a look at Northern Illinois because they were close to home, but everything about ODU felt good right from the start.”
“Daryl Thomas, an assistant at ODU, is from Edwardsville and wrestled at Illinois, and he impressed me a lot, as did Brandon Ramos, a good friend, from Lockport, who said he really enjoys going to school and wrestling there.”
“All of that made it easy for me to decide, and now, with that out of the way, I can concentrate on just academics and school.”
Smith plans to major in Psychology, with a minor in Education, with the hope of one day of teaching and coaching.”
Smith credits much of his success thus far with his teammates, the Celtics program, and of course, Healy, to which he had this to say about the man who in now in his 26th year in charge.
“Even after I’m done here at Providence, I’ll be back in the room to visit and work with the younger guys – and that’s because of coach Healy.”
“He’s a great technician, and he can be tough, but it’s because of him that I’ve been able to improve every year, and all of us have been very fortunate to have a guy like him as our head coach.”
Healy recently announced he will be stepping down following the 2017-2018 wrestling season.
During that time, Healy won six straight state titles, three second-place trophies, while guiding 69 state medalist, and 21 state champs, all which should see those numbers increase come February.
“Our sophomore year, when we finished fourth overall is one that I’ll never forget, all the pieces were in place for us that year, and it looked like we could go even further the following year if not for having Lockport stand in our way,” admits Smith.
“The program was struggling before Dom, myself and a couple of others came in, so to be a part of this run has been great.”
“If we can get everyone healthy, and our lineup sorted out, we’ll have a chance to claim one more trophy this year, and individually, the goal, as always, is to get on top of that podium in Champaign.”