COACH CORNER: PETE KOWALCZUK, WRESTLING

Meet the former U.S. Olympic hopeful from Oak Park (OPRF) who is relentlessly pursuing a state title for Fenwick.

By Mark Vruno

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The first observation most people make upon meeting Pete Kowalczuk, Fenwick’s first-year Head Varsity Wrestling Coach, is that he is a very large man with a broad frame. When he still was competing five years ago, Kowalczuk wrestled as a 265-lb. heavyweight. That weight class was trimmed down by 20 pounds from his high school days at Oak Park River Forest, where he was named All-State and finished as the #2 heavyweight wrestler in Illinois as a senior in 2007. (For three seasons, he also played on both sides of the line for the Huskies’ football team.)

Wrestling is the sporting circle in which the K name is best known. In 2008 after high school, Kowalczuk placed fourth at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Greco-Roman wrestling and was a Junior World Qualifier at the Fédération Internationale des Luttes Associées (FILA), which is the sport’s international governing body (and changed its name to United World Wrestling in 2014). Since his days of grappling on the mat officially ended five years ago, the XL man known by friends and former teammates as “Big Petey” answers to a different moniker: Coach K.

The 28-year-old still likes rolling around on the Wrestling Room floor at Fenwick and maybe even clamping on a vise-like, “figure-four” leglock move, especially with 200-pound Jacob Kaminski ’20. Kaminski is last season’s All-State freshman phenom — 22-2 record, CCL and Sectional Champ — who has his sights set on being a legitimate state championship contender in early 2018. He was undefeated heading into the Christmas Break, currently competing in the 220-lb. class.

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Fenwick’s “Coach K” demonstrates a take-down technique on sophomore sensation Jacob Kaminiski.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines relentless as showing or promising no abatement of severity, intensity, strength or pace: unrelenting. There is a highly intense, physical brand of wrestling that Kowalczuk is trying to instill into FHS’s hallowed halls. “I was brought in here to change the culture,” he notes, “to bring an element of toughness back to Fenwick Wrestling.”

The young coach is beginning to make his tough, hard-nosed mark. During their daily practice grind, he preaches to his sweat-drenched matmen about “giving your best” and the quest for ongoing improvement. There are 21 wrestlers on Fenwick’s Boys’ Wrestling Team this season; Kowalzcuk wants to get that number up to around 35. “We will never be at 100 kids like a [large] public school,” he realizes, “but that [35] is a good number for us.”

Among the team’s members are nine freshmen boys, about half of whom played football and are in the process of losing their “baby fat,” getting into optimal shape. But Coach K is not happy about that number, either. “I want between 16 and 20 frosh next year,” he states, stressing that number as critical to his program’s growth, development and future success.

Kowalczuk and his creative coaching staff welcome inexperienced “newbies” and are trying their best to make practices more fun. On social media, they are employing hashtags such as #scratchandclaw and #enjoythejourney to help inspire their athlete-followers. “For me, it’s all about giving maximum effort and trying to get better every day. I tell my guys to enjoy the journey and not be as concerned about the outcome.” Kowalczuk adds what he knows from experience: that once the kids buy into his methods of teaching physicality and being relentlessness, the victories will come.

A Sophomore Shall Lead Them

Kowalczuk and Fenwick Wrestling are pinning their championship hopes largely on the strong shoulders of sophomore Kaminiski, who aspires to greatness and already is one of the best wrestlers in the United States, let alone in Illinois. Coach K knows who the national competition is. For the past three off-seasons, he has led Team Illinois’ frosh/soph Greco-Roman wrestling program to a national title and a third-place finish. So the 16-year-old protégé wants to prove to his new mentor just how dominant he can be. The coach admits to Kaminski being a “huge pull” for him taking the Fenwick job, and expectations already are sky high for late February at the State Farm Center in Champaign, IL. (Last season, Kaminski was undefeated heading downstate and was the only underclassman among his 16-man field.)

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Friars Basketball Legends to Have Jerseys Retired

Three women’s basketball superstars from Fenwick – Erin Lawless, Devereaux Peters and Tricia Liston — soon will have their numbers hanging from the rafters in the Catholic school’s gym.

Compiled by Mark Vruno

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Tricia Liston (from left), Devereaux Peters and Erin Lawless back in their Fenwick days.

In the illustrious, nearly 90-year history of Fenwick High School, only two retired jerseys have been displayed atop the Fieldhouse Gymnasium: those of Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner ’50 (football) and former NBA player Corey Maggette ’98 (boys’ basketball). But that number is about to more than double in a pregame ceremony (2:30 p.m.) on January 13th, when the jersey numbers of three alumnae will be added: Erin Lawless #34Tricia Liston #32 and Devereaux Peters #14.

“Lattner and Maggette: That’s some elite athletic company,” observes Dave Power, Head Girls’ Varsity Basketball Coach who mentored all three of the honorees when they played for his Friars. “Each of these women is so well deserving of this recognition from our school,” adds Coach Power, now in his 41st year of coaching (first at Proviso West, then at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Westchester).

Power is one of only three 900 (935 now and counting) game-winning basketball coaches in Illinois history, and teams on which the trio of Lawless, Peters and Liston played contributed to nearly 43% of that win total. Keep in mind that Fenwick was an all-boys institution for its first 63 years; it went coed in 1992 – the year Power came to Fenwick. Here, in chronological order, is who these players are, what they did at Fenwick, and what they’ve done since moving on from Oak Park:

#34 Shoots, She Scores!

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Lawless played her powerball for the Boilermakers.

Erin Lawless ’03 is no relation to legendary Fenwick Coach Tony Lawless, but the 6’2” Berwyn native set her own reputation as a center on the hardwood. Post-Fenwick, Lawless played in the Big Ten at women’s basketball powerhouse Purdue University. She also played professionally, briefly for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever and then in Europe, where she enjoyed an eight-year career.

As a Friar Lawless won a state championship* (AA) as a sophomore and twice earned first-team All-State honors (as a junior and senior). Other highlights:

  • scored more than 2,000 career points in high school
  • averaged 21.6 points per game as a senior
  • as a junior, averaged 21.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4 blocked shots and 3.7 assists (the Friars went 30-4)
  • scored a school-record 51 points vs. St. Ignatius
  • overall record: 125-12

Lawless was the Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year in ’03 and a McDonald’s and Nike/WBCA All-American. She was first runner-up for the Chicago Tribune’s Ms. Basketball in Illinois. (Naperville Central junior Candace Parker won her second Ms. Basketball title that year, and would win her third as a senior in 2004. In the ’03 state title game, the Friars lost to Parker’s Redhawks by four points in overtime.) Lawless was named second-team Parade All-American and third-team USA Today All-American.

Such accolades are even more impressive for the tall, former seventh grader — Lawless was 5’11” at age 12 — who started playing hoops on doctor’s orders at Lincoln Middle School (Berwyn). Two years earlier, “I was diagnosed with a rare blood disease called ITP,” she was quoted in a Purdue University publication as a college freshman in 2003. ITP is short for idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, an autoimmune disease that causes a low platelet count in the blood. (Sonya Lawless, Erin’s mother, also suffers from the condition.) “My hematologist told me that if I picked up a basketball, it actually builds up my immune system and would help keep me active and keep me healthy,” Lawless said.

Once she caught the basketball bug, Erin’s late Uncle Bud helped her to hone her skills. Fast forward three years, to when Lawless cracked the starting varsity line-up as a Fenwick freshman in 1999-2000. The rest, as they say, is history. The ITP has gone into remission, and basketball probably played a large role in helping to build up her immune system and get the platelet count to a safe level.

Today, Lawless is in her second year of coaching at La Plata High School in Maryland, where she lives with her husband and two-year-old daughter. She also teaches Chemistry and AP Environmental Science. “The team I coach has not had a successful track record, and I am working on changing that for the program,” she reports. The 32-year-old adds, “While I have ‘retired’ from basketball, I continue to get offers to play — and if the opportunity presents itself, I may just go back!”

#14 Perseveres through Adversity

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Forever Friars: The Dobber

Fenwick High School periodically profiles people affiliated with our community who have since passed on …

Dan O’Brien ’34 (1917-2003)

Remembering DOB, “the Dobber:” a coaching/training legend affiliated with Fenwick for seven decades.

By Mark Vruno

In the basement of Fenwick High School sets the Dan O’Brien Natatorium. Our swimming Friars will host the 30th Annual Dan O’Brien Relays this coming January. Younger alumni and present-day students may wonder: Who was this O’Brien guy and why is he a such a legend at Fenwick?

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Dan O’Brien was more than a stellar swim/dive guru; he was versatile. DOB was a FHS student (Class of 1934) who then served as a physical education teacher at his alma mater. “Dan’s first Fenwick paycheck predated the Social Security system and had no social security withholding,” deadpans Jerry Lordan, PhD., who teaches social studies at Fenwick and wrote the preface for O’Brien’s oral history, a hardcover book entitled Fenwick Over the Years.

In 1937 Football Coach Tony Lawless hired O’Brien to lead his freshman team. Football was O’Brien’s first love in sports. In the fall of 1930, seven years earlier, Fenwick was only one year old. Dan was a scrawny, 128-pound freshman who showed up for tryouts at the new school, only to be snickered at by burly classmates and upper-classmen. “Sorry, son,” said Lawless, according to a 1972 Oak Leaves article. “I can’t use you. You’ve come out for the wrong team.”

O’Brien, however, was determined and refused to give up easily. Here’s how reporter Ted Londos recounted the story 42 years later:

“The kid faced the wise, young coach and replied firmly, ‘Mr. Lawless, I’ve come out for the team. You’ve asked for candidates. Here I am. You’ve got to give me a chance to show you what I can do.’ And so, to get rid of that reckless kid, Tony put him into a scrimmage – just for laughs. But on the first play, Coach Lawless’s eyes popped when he saw the tiny freshman bring a varsity giant down with a devastating tackle. Again he tried him out, and another regular bit the dust. Young Lawless shrugged his shoulders and decided to let the gutsy little guy hang around. ‘What’s your name?’ asked the coach.”

But the feisty O’Brien’s gridiron career with the Fighting Friars was short-lived. As a sophomore he suffered severe medical complications from the surgical removal of a kidney, which kept 15-year-old Daniel out of school for an extended period of time in 1931-32. “His surgeon warned him that the procedure may either fail and/or kill him,” Lordan later learned. “Dan outlived the surgeon and saw the surgeon’s grandchildren (twin boys) attend Fenwick.”

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Dan O’Brien circa 1954.

 

Fast-forward 45 years, to when two of his former swimmers-turned-doctors came to O’Brien’s aid. “I had come back to Chicago in 1977,” recalls Leonard Vertuno ’57, M.D., a Loyola-educated nephrologist (kidney specialist), “and Pete Geis knocked on my door.” Dr. Peter Geis ’60 was a transplant surgeon and an All-State swimmer three years ahead of Vertuno at Fenwick. “Pete said, ‘Dan needs a doctor, and you’re it.’”

So began a reuniting of player and coach – and an adult friendship that would span more than a quarter-century. It was Dr. Vertuno who would give the eulogy at Dan O’Brien’s funeral in 2003. “He was an amazing man,” the retired doc said in early November from Sarasota, FL. “Dan was renowned nationally and internationally. He chose to stay at Fenwick and work with Tony [Lawless].”

From field to pool

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Faculty Focus: October 2017

Alumna Samantha Carraher ’96 is in her 18th year teaching Spanish at Fenwick.

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What is your educational background?
SC: After finishing my elementary education at St. Giles in Oak Park, I had the honor of attending Fenwick as part of the first class of girls in school history. When I graduated from Fenwick, I went to the University of Dayton, where I earned my bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education with a concentration in Spanish. I also have my master’s degree in Teacher Leadership from Elmhurst College and had the opportunity to study in Spain (Segovia and Madrid) on two separate occasions.

What did you do prior to becoming a teacher at Fenwick?
SC: I actually began teaching at Fenwick immediately after graduating from Dayton in 2000.

What are you currently reading for enjoyment?

SC: After seeing Hamilton, I decided to read the biography about the title character to learn more about him and the impact he had on our nation’s development following the Revolutionary War.

What interests do you pursue outside of the classroom?

SC: I am an avid fan of the men’s basketball team from Dayton and the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs. (I’m pretty sure I heard an exasperated groan coming from the direction of Mr. Arellano’s classroom before I even put the period on that last sentence.) I also love gardening and musical theater. My husband and I have tried to get into a variety of shows on cable and Netflix. However, with a two-year-old at home, our television viewing consists primarily of “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” “Doc McStuffins” and “Peppa Pig.”

To what teams and/or clubs did you belong as a student?

SC: I played volleyball and basketball during my first two years at Fenwick, and Coach Power is still trying to recover from the experience. I was a member of Fenwick’s varsity softball team for four years and played for a traveling softball organization called the Windmills. I was also in the cast of the spring musical my sophomore year.

Which clubs/sports/activities do you run at Fenwick?

SC: I am a coach for both the freshman girls’ volleyball team and boys’ varsity volleyball team. I am also a moderator of the Friar Mentor tutoring program.

What quality/characteristic marks a Fenwick student?

SC: There is no shortage of superlatives to describe the quality and character of our students. They are dedicated learners who are incredibly intelligent and hard working. They also exhibit a genuine kindness, concern and compassion for others on a daily basis. I truly appreciate what outstanding people our kids are both in and out of the classroom.

When did you decide to become a teacher, and why did you choose this field?

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In Loco Parentis Does Not Mean ‘Crazy Parents:’ Why We Place So Much Value on Private Education

Fenwick High School, Oak Park, IL, was founded by Dominican Friars in 1929.

Parochial teachers serve as parental supplements, not substitutes — and therein lies the difference between the Fenwick community and its public-school counterparts.

By Gerald F. Lordan, O.P., Ph.D., Social Studies Teacher

Parents of parochial school students almost universally value their decision to choose religious-based programs over public education for the formation of their children. However, beyond intuition, parents sometimes find it difficult to articulate why they value that decision. An examination of the philosophical foundations of parochial education may enable us to understand on a rational level what we already value on an intuitive level.

Parochial schools have greater social capital than their public school counterparts. Social capital is the agreement among families concerning the core values which identify their behavior.  Parochial school communities often have great diversity among their families by ethnicity, geography, income, and language, but these schools are successful in achieving the goals of their ministries because there is a congruence of core values among families. Good families gravitate toward good schools with good community values. With their obligation to service all families within their geographic attendance area, public schools often have less value congruence and less social capital.

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