Every year at the Fox Valley Conference Wrestling Tournament, former Wizards Wrestling Club members gather on the mat for a group picture.
On Saturday at McHenry West Campus the group included about 30 wrestlers. Despite a lot of the former Wizards now on different high school teams, the connection remains.
Crystal Lake Central junior Andrew Marsden started wrestling with the Wizards when he was 6. Like any reunion, it was a time of fond remembrance.
"We always talk about the good times we had with the Wizards," Marsden said. "We like looking back on it."
For Wizards head coach Tony Fontanetta, it's a source of great pride for his club to see the number of quality wrestlers he helped deliver to area high schools.
"Incredible. I’m amazed every year," Fontanetta said. "You forget how many kids come through."
And while the emphasis is wresting, Fontanetta knows that the relationship his wrestlers developed at the club are just as important as anything they do on the mat.
"It’s like a family. That’s what we preach," Fontanetta said. "Those friendships last forever."
Fontanetta said the Wizards have about 160 wrestlers ages 5 to 14 in the program, mostly from the area but some as far away as Rockford. The club has former members at about 20 different high schools.
"We’re in a good spot right now with our success," Fontanetta said. "We’re the biggest [club] in the state."
Part of the reason for the Wizards' success is their emphasis on team competitions rather than just individual tournaments. On Jan. 25, the Wizards' Midget team took first place at the Didi Duals tournament in Tinley Park, and the Senior/Novice team took fourth at the Dual Team State Tournament in Willowbrook.
This year, the Wizards competed in eight dual team tournaments and took first in five of them. Fontanetta said competing as a team teaches his wrestlers the importance of putting the team first.
"If they're available, we like to do them just to get them the exposure," Fontanetta said of team tournaments. "The atmosphere is different than a regular tournament. Even if you lose, don’t get pinned (and allow bonus points)."
Seeing his midget team succeed is good news for the future of local wrestling Fontanetta said.
"That’s our future is the little guys," Fontanetta said. "Cultivating that is how we’ve been fortunate."
Although Fontanetta is proud of the training and coaches the Wizards provide, he said the most beneficial thing they offer is great practice partners.
"You beat the kids in this room, you're going to have success," Fontanetta said he tells his wrestlers. "No one's going to push you as hard as the coaches, and no one's going to bang you as hard as your partners."
• Rob Smith is a sports writer for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org