By Marty Farmer
During his tenure as Fenwick High School's athletic director, Scott Thies has shown a willingness to make bold head coaching moves.
He hired Gene Nudo to replace Joe DiCanio as the varsity football head coach in 2011 and then appointed Rick Malnati to take over for John Quinn as the varsity boys basketball head coach in 2013. While DiCanio and Quinn were proven coaches, the hiring of Nudo and Malnati has undeniably elevated the visibility and success of Fenwick football and basketball, respectively.
Last week (Aug. 9), Thies chose Oak Park and River Forest High School grad (2007) Peter Kowalczuk, 28, as the new head coach of Fenwick wrestling.
In this instance, however, Kowalczuk reached out to Thies.
"I heard from a couple of coaches that Tony Poro had left the Fenwick [wrestling] job," Kowalczuk said. "Once the job was posted, I had a buddy of mine actually email me all the information. I sent an email to Scott instantly, and we exchanged emails back and forth. I just kind of jumped in and it worked out."
Unlike seasoned and successful coaches like Nudo and Malnati, Kowalczuk takes over as a first-time head coach.
Nevertheless, he is hoping to transform Fenwick wrestling from solid to spectacular.
Kowalczuk has always been a winner on the mat. During his senior season at OPRF in 2007, he went 40-2 with 32 pins and finished second in the state in the 285-pound class en route to All-State status. As a junior, he won 37 of 40 matches. His teammates included standouts like Ellis Coleman, Lillashawn Coleman, Peter Lovaas and Weldon Rogers.
After high school, Kowalczuk excelled in several international competitions and spent 3½ years at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is a four-time Olympic Trials qualifier (2008-2012), a USA Wrestling Junior National Champion and a two-time Fila Junior National Champion.
Reflective of his career, excellence at Fenwick is the goal of the charismatic coach.
"It might take a little time but I think we can take Fenwick wrestling to another level," Kowalczuk said. "I've always wanted to be a head coach and this is a good fit for everybody. I think Scott sees me as a young, passionate and creative coach who knows wrestling.
"I work with a lot of the top wrestlers in the state during the offseason. My name is out there in the wrestling world," he added. "I'm looking to find a great coaching staff to build our program. There's no reason why Fenwick can't be an elite wrestling program that's exciting for the wrestlers, their families and the Fenwick community."
While some may find it ironic that a former OPRF wrestling star has been brought on board to elevate the Fenwick program, Kowalczuk takes an inclusive view of the crosstown rivals.
"First and foremost, I'll always be an Oak Park guy," Kowalczuk said. "My wrestling roots are based on how [OPRF coaches] Mike Powell and Paul Collins taught me, but I've always respected the tradition of Fenwick wrestling. When I was in high school in the 2000s, Fenwick had so many great wrestlers."
By winning state titles in 2009, 2014, 2015 and 2016, OPRF is not only the best wrestling program in Oak Park but essentially in the state.
Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, who could blame Kowalczuk for citing his alma mater as a template of success to follow?
"I look at having OPRF right down the street as a huge positive rather than a negative," he said. "First of all, the two schools are in different classes (OPRF is 3A; Fenwick 2A) so they can both benefit from being in the same town. For whatever reason, I don't think there's been a relationship between the two schools in terms of wrestling. I hope that changes in the coming years."
Kaminski-led Friars have talent
While some of his fondest memories are wrestling in the heavyweight class and also working as an assistant coach with the Huskies, Kowalczuk is all in on the Friars now.
This week, he's meeting with Thies to discuss the selection of assistant coaches, review the varsity roster and create a vision for the program.
While Kowalczuk hasn't met most of the wrestlers yet, he already has a close relationship with sophomore star grappler Jacob Kaminski from Riverside.
As a precocious freshman last year, Kaminski compiled a 22-2 record at 195 pounds while winning Catholic League, regional, and sectional titles. He became the first freshman wrestler in school history to advance to the state finals and collected All-State accolades.
Kaminski was undefeated until the state semifinal, where he lost to eventual champion Jacob Warner of Washington. Yet even after losing that match and subsequently finishing fourth in the state, Kaminski established himself as a rising wrestling star with state title aspirations the next three seasons.
The success continued for Kaminski this summer. He traveled to Fargo, North Dakota to compete in the Cadet National tournament, which features many of the nation's top high school wrestlers.
Wrestling in both the Freestyle and Greco-Roman divisions, he placed third in each. Both of the losses — just like in the state finals — came at the hands of the eventual champions. Currently, Kaminski is ranked third nationally in the Cadet Division and is one of the top 20 wrestlers overall in the country.
Unequivocally, Kaminski is the cornerstone for the rebuilding Friars
"Jake Kaminsi is a tremendous talent, one of the best wrestlers in the country," Kowalczuk said. "I've coached him the past couple of years with the Greco team in the offseason. He's such a special talent that we can build our program around him."
Other notable varsity returners include seniors Harrison Graves and Liam Mahon and juniors Adam Aguilar and Brian Ziech.
"I want to push every one of our wrestlers to reach his or her maximum ability," Kowalczuk said. "I don't know Fenwick's past in terms of female wrestlers, but that's a growth sport and opportunity for girls that I'm open to having in the program."
Regardless of who is competing on the mat for the Friars, there will be a commonality among them.
"We will focus on creating a sense of family with the program," Kowalczuk said. "The coaches, wrestlers, parents and supporters of the program will commit to making Fenwick wrestling the best it can be.
"My main goal is to create great young men and women. I want a team that's built on character, integrity, hard work and determination. Right away, we will become well conditioned and mentally and physically tough. Those are things we can control and will be the hallmarks of our program."
While it might be a bit unorthodox to have a Huskie hired to help the Friars, Kowalczuk is simply happy to be home.
"In 2012, I had to make a decision about continuing to chase my dream (wrestling in the Olympics) or come home to coach wrestling at OPRF," he said. "I was able to have a great international career and see the world, but I'm happy to be back in Oak Park.
"Once I earned my teaching degree from DePaul this summer, I interviewed for the Fenwick job and a job as a physical education teacher at [Gwendolyn] Brooks on the same day," Kowalczuk said. "That was obviously a great day. I'm blessed and humbled to be teaching in Oak Park. It's the only place I want to be."