By JARED BELL
When Travis Cherry took over as head coach of the Wheaton North wrestling team four years ago, he made a proclamation to his squad.
“When coach took over, he kept talking about this four-year plan to win the conference,” 160-pound senior Devin Donovan said. “He knew it would take a little while to build up the program, get some more people in and turn it all around and, at that time, Glenbard North had won 15 straight conference titles.”
On Saturday, right on schedule, Wheaton North fulfilled its coach’s prophecy.
In a hotly-contested and intense DuPage Valley Conference Tournament, the Falcons sweated it out until the final match before Wheaton North officially edged Glenbard North by just three points to win the DVC title and end North’s amazing 18-year conference title streak.
“When coach first told us we’d win a conference title one day, I don’t think any of us really believed him,” 126-pound junior Jamie Suarez said. “Glenbard North had won the conference so many years in a row and they were always so consistent so we weren’t so sure, but now that we did it it’s so really relieving and very exciting.”
It’s the pinnacle of Wheaton North’s four-year rise under Cherry.
“We didn’t know that we had actually won until after the heavyweight match,” Cherry said. “It’s been 18 years since someone beat them, and Naperville North was the last team to do it in 1998. I think it’s something pretty special, and I think people are going to remember what we did.”
It turned out to be special in more ways than one for Cherry.
In addition to winning his first conference title as a coach, he did so by beating his former school and his former coach, Mark Hahn.
“Being an ex-Glenbard North wrestler, winning a conference title with Wheaton North was special,” said Cherry, a 2003 Glenbard North alumnus whose father coached football and wrestling at Glenbard North. “I grew up with coach Hahn. My dad and him are best friends, and they work still together. I grew up working on Hahn’s farm, so we kind of kept the title in the family in a way.”
The championship also showed that the hard work had paid off for Wheaton North, which over the past few years has gradually climbed in the Illinois Matmen GO EARN IT Wrestling Apparel rankings.
This season, the Falcons are ranked No. 11 in the current Class 3A team rankings.
“When I became head coach, I definitely had to win the kids over,” Cherry said. “I came in with a different work ethic, a different philosophy and a different mentality, and the kids weren’t as accepting of it at first. I had a couple of kids leave the program to go other places, but I think now that I’ve established a tradition I hope we can get kids to stay, kids who want to be part of the program and hopefully we can become a staple of Illinois wrestling.”
Winning titles like Saturday will definitely help.
After Wheaton North beat Glenbard North in dual earlier this season, the conference tournament title race was still razor close as it went down to the wire.
“After every weight class, I had my assistant go to the head table to find out if we were down or up or what was happening,” Cherry said. “It was fun and kind of a cool experience to go through.”
The Falcons hope they aren’t done winning titles yet as they will compete in the Class 3A Leyden Regional on Saturday, but if Wheaton North is to win the program’s first regional since 2001 it will have to beat 3A No. 2 Oak Park-River Forest, the three-time defending 3A dual team state champion.
“It’s going to be very tough and we know that if we want to have a chance to make it to team state that we’d have to beat them,” Donovan said. “If we’re going to do it, everybody is going to have to wrestle their A-game, but we believe it’s possible.”
Jared Bell can be reached at (815) 220-6938. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsJared.