Jeff Vorva's Extra Point: Sibling revelry with Palumbo family

  • Written by Jeff Vorva


Richards sophomore wrestler Rocco Palumbo admits that on occasion he shoves his younger sister, Mia, around.

But that’s a good thing.

“I shove her around to make her tougher,” he said. “But I help coach her because she knows I know a lot about the sport. She watches my matches. We’re a good duo, I guess.’’

A good duo, he guesses?

Actually, this duo is much better than that. This is a history-making duo. And there is no guesswork there.

The Palumbo siblings are just the second brother and sister combination to ever win Illinois High School Association regional wrestling titles on the same day and the first bro/sis combo to accomplish this has a Richards’ connection.

Mia, a freshman seeded second, won the 106-pound championship in the Class 2A Lemont Regional title on Saturday while Rocco, who was seeded first, took care of business at 145.

Mia also made history when she became the first freshman girl to win a wrestling regional title. She is believed to be the fourth female regional champ in state history joining Mohamet-Seymour’s Mary Kelly (2002), Glenbard North’s Caitlyn Chase (2005) and Carbondale’s Alli Ragan (2010).


By the way, Mary Kelly, a senior at the time, won the 103-pound title the same day her brother, Chris won at 112. Mary and Chris Kelly’s names might not be widely recognizable around these parts, but their father is Jerry Kelly, who won Class AA titles for Richards in 1977 and 1978. Their uncle, Bill, won a couple of state titles as well and an NCAA championship while uncles Jim and Paul were also strong on the mat.

So, the Palumbos do not make up the first family of Richards wrestling, but they are still pretty darn good.

Jason Maholy, a longtime journalist who wrestled at Lockport High School and is not one who throws out hyperbole very much, said Mia winning the South Suburban Red conference championship as a freshman girl was “an amazing story.’’

“A freshman girl winning a conference championship is one of the greatest individual accomplishments I have ever heard of in any high school sport,” he said.  

Mia took it to another level on Saturday after beating Brother Rice’s Michael Loughney in the semifinals 8-4 and top-seeded St. Rita’s Noel Rosales, 3-1, in the finals to improve to 25-3.

“This is the best feeling,” she said. “My matches were close and I never worried about losing – I just kept going and going.’’

Rocco is a pretty cool name for a wrestler and in the semifinals, he pinned a kid with an even cooler name – Lemont’s Connor Stomp – in 2 minutes, 27 seconds. Rocco won the title with a 6-1 victory over St. Rita’s Nate Bennett to improve to 27-3.

He might be a little overshadowed by his sister’s success but the sophomore is poised for a huge career. Last year, Rocco won a regional title and qualified for state. A year later, he is now a target.

“It’s fun to have that target on your back to prove that you are worthy,’’ he said. “I lost the first round at state but it was a great experience. Richards did a great job buying us hotels and team apparel.’’

Rocco sported a United State Marines cap at the regional after he was done wrestling and said if he can’t find a collegiate fit, he’s going right into the Marines. 

“It tough and I love to push myself,” he said. “I would love a chance to defend my country.’’

Growing up, he said he played several sports but he is concentrating on wrestling now.

About the only thing that didn’t go Richards’ way was winning the team championship. The Bulldogs (158.5 points) finished behind champion St. Rita (191) and runnerup Lemont (181).

But they will still bring a solid number of individuals to at Hinsdale South on Friday and Saturday.

Aside from the champion Palumbos, Jason McIntyre (132), Marty Cosgrove (220) and Marquis Hall (285) finished second and Adam Alkilani (113), Basil Muhammad (126) and Andre Jefferson (195) finished third and all will be heading to Darien.

Bulldogs coach Nick Grabarek was hoping his team could win its first regional since the Kelly boys were dominating in 1979. But he was happy with the way his team competed. The Bulldogs won conference titles on all three levels so the future is bright.

“This is the toughest regional – St. Rita and Lemont have great programs,” he said. “Our program is getting better and better. Mia and Rocco met or exceeded their expectations. The kids are buying in and we hope to be strong for a while.’’


IHSA history is within Mia Palumbo's grasp

  • Written by Jeff Vorva



Photo by Jeff Vorva

 Mia Palumbo won a conference championship on Jan. 20 and her coach at Richards thinks she can be a state champion contender. 


The swim cap.

The pin.

Those are the two things that Mia Palumbo remembers about her first wrestling match.

That was 10 years ago. She was four.

“I’m not sure where it was at,’’ she said. “My mom (Jeannette) put me in a swim cap. I ended up winning my first match and pinned a kid in the first period.’’

Soon, the swim cap was gone.

“My dad (Rob) bought me an actual wrestling cap.’’ she said.

But the pins -- and the wins -- stayed around for 10 years.

Palumbo had a strong club career in grade school wrestling mostly boys for the Oak Lawn-based Mean Green Machine team and against girls, she earned a title at the USA Preseason Nationals at the 105-pound weight class in October.

Now she is in high school. She is taking on boys – some of whom are three or four years older than her.

And, she is still winning.

Palumbo won 21 of her first 24 matches during the regular season and won the South Suburban Red 106-pound championship on Jan. 20. The freshman beat Reavis’s Jack McDonald, one of the three opponents who had beaten her earlier.

High expectations

The Illinois High School Association regionals open on Saturday and her coach, Nick Grabarek, is not shy about setting high goals for his freshman as the Bulldogs head to Lemont for a Class 2A regional.

“She has the potential to do very well – not only in the regional and sectional, but during state,” he said. “We fully expect her take first in regionals and first in sectionals and be a state champion. That’s our mindset going into every practice.’’

Illinois high school wrestling historian Rob Sherrill said he can only recall two female regional champions and one state qualifier. He said Glenbard North’s Caitlyn Chase won a regional title in 2005 at 103 in Class AA, took second in the sectional and qualified for state but was pinned in her only match at that level.

Sherrill added that Alli Ragan of Carbondale claimed a regional title at 130 in 2010 but went 1-2 in sectional action and did not advance to state.

He also runs the rankings for the Illinois Coaches and Officials Association and although he doesn’t have Palumbo ranked in the top 10 in the state at 106 in Class 2A, she is one of six honorable mentions on the list. As a team, Richards is ranked ninth.

The odds are stacked against her for a state title, but she could be the first freshman female to win a regional.

“Winning regionals is a goal – I have to just keep wrestling hard every match,” she said. “It’s going to fun and I will be going up against some of my friends. We’ll still be friends off the mat, but on the mat, you have to keep wrestling hard.’’

 High-octane style

Wrestling hard is her style, according to her coach.

“Her offense is high octane,” he said. “It’s fun to watch. She loves to open up the offense and just go. It’s a style of constant movement. She just goes. Some people might see it as a risk but with how talented she is, it works.

“She doesn’t care who is in front of her. She just competes. Some people might worry about who they are wrestling but she just has so much confidence and that helps her excel.’’

Years ago, there was huge controversy and outcry when females wrestled males. Some schools would sooner forfeit than have their male athletes wrestle a female.

Now that there are more than 14,500 females wrestling in high school, according to, there is more of an acceptance of girls competing on the mat against boys. But it’s not 100 percent.

“There have been a lot of conflicts where people were not OK with me wrestling guys,” Palumbo said. “But some people don’t care and treat me like everyone else. Since I’ve been in the sport so long, I’m used to all of the talk about how girls don’t wrestle. But I just keep going.’’

 Girls don’t wrestle

The first person who told Mia that ‘girls don’t wrestle’ was her mother. Mia was taken to tournaments to watch her older brother, Rocco, compete and she liked the sport at an early age. Mia said Jeannette told her that ‘girls don’t wrestle,’ but when they saw a girl at a tournament tearing up the competition, Jeannette changed her mind.

That girl that they saw wrestle was Haley Augello of Lockport who grew up and competed in the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Over the years, Palumbo (who also has Olympic aspirations) continued to get stronger and better but the true test was going to be how she would fare against high school boys and thus far, she has been successful.

“We knew coming in how talented she was,” Grabarek said. “She has really developed during the season. She placed in every single tournament that we had. She’s very serious. We try to get her to smile a little more and open up and have fun. But that’s a good thing. She’s very intense.’’

 Bulldogs hope to break dry spell

The Bulldogs, which won conference titles on all three levels this season, have high hopes that this season is the start of something big.

Richards' wrestling team was the first Regional/Reporter team to win a state title in any sport when it won the Class AA crown in 1975. The Bulldogs also won a title in 1977, finished second in the state in 1976 and third in 1978.

Since winning a district title in 1979, the Bulldogs have not won any postseason team hardware, according to IHSA records.

The Bulldogs have a solid core of wrestlers who hope to break that 36-year drought Saturday in Lemont. 

Adam Alkilani (113), Basil Muhammad (120), Rocco Palumbo (145) and Marquis Hall (285) took second in the conference while Marty Cosgrove (220) claimed third and Jason McIntyre (132) placed fourth.

Brother Rice and Evergreen Park are other area teams in the eight-team regional.


Rewards for jobs well done for Marist coaches

  • Written by Jeff Vorva


Photos by Jeff Vorva

Maggie Strus, shown as an assistant coach at Marist in the fall, is expected to be announced as an assistant coach at DePaul.


There were quite a few honors and accolades thrown Marist players’ way after they won the Illinois High School Association Class 4A State Championship in girls volleyball in November and were named national champions by FloVolleyball.

Now the coaches are receiving some notice.

Head coach Jordan Vidovic was named’s National High School Coach of the Year while his assistant, Maggie Strus, is heading a few miles north to be DePaul University’s women’s assistant coach.

Vidovic, who also coaches the RedHawks’ boys team, had already captured a unique daily double as he was named East Suburban Catholic Conference Coach of the year for the boys in the spring and the girls in the fall of 2017. Now his reputation has spread to the national level.

The former Brother Rice star who played at Lewis University and was a 2007 USA Beach Volleyball Player of the Year, is usually pretty calm on the bench. It’s likely that his quiet, confident demeanor helped during boiling points of a 41-1 season, including those agonizing moments for the RedHawks when they were down 8-4 in the third and deciding game against Minooka. They rallied and dominated the rest of the way for a 22-15 victory.

“We didn’t waver too high or too low,’’ the coach said minutes after receiving his championship medal. “There were points in the match when we didn’t play our best. We were able to stay even keel and grind it out. We’ve been in those situations before and our senior leadership carried us through.’’

Strus has not been officially announced at DePaul but insiders say an announcement is expected shortly that she will on the Blue Demons’ new staff. Nadia Edwards was let go by the school in December after eight seasons and was replaced by Marie Zidek, an Orland Park native who attended Marian Catholic and Northern Illinois University.

Strus has a family history with DePaul. Her mother, Debbie, had a hall-of-fame volleyball career at the school and her younger brother, Max, is DePaul’s leading scorer on the men’s basketball team.

She said she enjoyed her time at Marist.

“Winning a state championship and national championship was extremely rewarding but I don’t think it would have ever happened if it wasn’t for every single girl on our roster and without anyone that supported the program,’’ Strus said. “Each player in their own talents are extremely remarkable young women so I couldn’t be happier to share that experience with them. We put a ton of work in last year and to see it all pay off is indescribable.”

The Hickory Hills native helped Stagg win four SouthWest Suburban Red championships and played four seasons at UIC, where she left with a school-best 1,677 digs. She is also one of two coaches in the family as her brother, Marty, is the boys basketball coach at Stagg.

Volleyballmag also named setter Molly Murrihy first-team All-America last week. Mother McAuley’s Charley Niego was an honorable mention.


Rare title within reach for Oak Lawn

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Oak Lawn senior Dan Lillard reaches out for the ball Friday night against Richards. The Spartans are within reach of winning their first conference title since 1983.


There it is, on the East wall of the Oak Lawn gym for all to see.

There are bunch of boxes indicating all of the conference titles Oak Lawn athletic teams have won.

In the boys basketball box, it reads “1967 1971 1979 1983.”

The Spartans haven’t won a league title since guys such as Randy Stanick and Tom Baxa were helping the team to a SICA West title. They have never won a South Suburban Red title, as that conference was established in 2006.

It’s been a long dry spell.

“We’re very aware of that,” Oak Lawn coach Jason Rhodes said.

The Spartans put themselves in a good position to end that after beating crosstown rival Richards, 57-52, in a home game Friday night. Heading into this week’s action, Shepard and Richards are on the top of the hill with 5-3 marks, while Oak Lawn is 4-3.

Senior Adem Osmani had 15 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter to help with the victory. He added 10 rebounds and five assists.

He also knows about the conference title drought and wants that to end.

“That’s been the goal since I got here,” he said. “We’re in a good position now.’’

Last year, Oak Lawn broke a long losing skid to Richards with a 66-64 victory thanks in part to Osmani’s tip-in with 1.6 seconds left at Richards to close the regular season. It denied the Bulldogs their 11th league title in 12 years and allowed Evergreen Park to win its first conference crown since 1994.

After Friday’s game, some Oak Lawn fans stormed the court for a celebration.

Which game was more exciting?

“Honestly, both,” Osmani said. “I’m just glad we could beat them two years in a row. Oak Lawn has not had a great record against Richards and I wanted to end that. I want us to be the best team in Oak Lawn.

“We knew Richards was good and it was going to be close. But when you get to the fourth quarter, it’s winning time.’’

“This year’s game was more important,” Rhodes added.

Sophomore Sami Osmani added 13 points for Oak Lawn, which is 12-6 overall. Trevon Jones had 22 points and sophomore Paul Zilinskas added 11 for Richards (7-11 overall).

The Spartans were scheduled to visit Bremen in its final crossover game against SSC Blue foes on Tuesday and hosts Evergreen Park on Friday. The remaining conference schedule finds the Spartans hosting Shepard Feb. 9, hosting Reavis Feb. 13, visiting Eisenhower Feb. 16 and visiting Argo Feb. 23.

Richards’s remaining conference schedule finds the Bulldogs hosting Eisenhower on Friday, visiting Argo Feb. 2, visiting Evergreen Park Feb. 13, visiting Shepard Feb. 16 and hosting Reavis Feb. 23.

Shepard is also going to have a say in all of this and the Astros host Argo Friday night, visit Evergreen Park on Feb. 2, visit Oak Lawn Feb. 9, host Richards Feb. 16 and visit Eisenhower Feb. 23.


Marist holds Brother Rice to two third-quarter points in 10-point win

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Photos by Jeff Vorva

Marist’s David Daniels winces as he shoulders a collision with high-flying Brother Rice sophomore Deandre Hagan in Tuesday’s 52-42 Marist victory.


Marist senior Jack Ellison couldn’t help but to laugh and he probably didn’t want to answer the question.

But who is a better expert to ask?

Ellison, who transferred from Chicago Christian before his senior year, has been involved in two of the fiercer rivalries area basketball teams play in as he had a taste of the Chicago Christian-Illiana Christian wars in the past. Tuesday night picked up his first experience in the legendary Brother Rice-Marist neighborhood battle, which was won by host Marist, 52-42, in front of an estimated crowd of 2,000.

So, when he was asked to compare the two rivalries he allowed himself a couple of chuckles before answering.

“Both are great,” he said. “But I think this is a lot better. There were way, way more people out there. My teammates told me to prepare myself for the fans. They talk so much and you have to block them out.  This was amazing and I was glad to be a part of it.’’

Brother Rice (12-7) had a 25-23 halftime lead and Marist (18-1) shut the Crusaders down in the third period, allowing just two points and grabbed a 37-27 lead after three and Brother Rice couldn’t mount a comeback.

“We definitely rebounded better,” Ellison said of the third quarter. “Our guards helped with the rebounding. And I take pride in being able to clean it up. Our effort and intensity wasn’t where it should have been the first and second quarters. Coach (Gene Nolan) got after us at halftime and we got to it.’’

In the first half, it was the Marquise Kennedy/Morgan Taylor offensive show with Kennedy scoring 17 for Brother Rice while Taylor had 15.

In the third quarter, Marist’s zone helped give the Crusaders fits and Taylor did a bulk of the work quieting Kennedy down while the RedHawks took a double-digit lead.

Taylor is one of the top scorers in the south suburbs with 24 points per game and has not committed to a college. His defense in the third quarter should help his overall resume.

“They threw me in the middle and I take pride in my defense,” Taylor said. “He (Kennedy) got some points in the second half but I was able to slow him down a little. I’ve been trying to play better defense since I came to Marist and that’s been helping us win a lot of games.”

Taylor, who transferred from Brother Rice after his freshman year, finished with 25 points and Kennedy came up with 26.

It’s the ninth time Marist beat Brother Rice in the last 14 seasons. Since 1990, the teams have played 30 times and both teams won 15 games while Marist has outscored Rice, 1,768-1,759 in that span.

Despite the fact it lost some key weapons to graduation and transfers, Marist is having a huge season. Prior to Tuesday’s night’s game, the RedHawks beat Marian Catholic, 53-47, Thursday night in Chicago Heights to stay perfect in the East Suburban Catholic Conference at 3-0.

It was Marist’s first victory at Marian since 2012 and Taylor led the squad with 27 points and Ellison added 10.

Brother Rice has had its up and down moments but entered the Marist game winning six out of seven games, including a second-place finish in the 32-team York Tournament and Friday night’s 68-52 victory over Mt. Carmel.  Kennedy had 16 points and Brendan Coghlan added 12 against the Caravan.

The two teams will be concentrating heavily on their conference schedules for the rest of the regular season.

Marist is tied with St. Viator for the East Suburban Catholic Conference lead and will host Benet Academy (2-1 in the league) on Friday. Marist, which is hoping to win its second straight ESCC title, will not play St. Viator until February.

Marist had never won a league title outright in the past and is trying to be the first team since Benet (2009-10 and 2010-11) to win back-to-back ESCC championships. The RedHawks were co-champs with St. Joseph in 1993-94 and 1995-96 and were co-champs with St. Viator in 1996-97.

Brother Rice is in the middle of the pack in the new Chicago Catholic League Blue conference with a 2-2 mark and Fenwick (4-0) in the lone unbeaten team in league play. The Crusaders resume conference action Friday night hosting De La Salle (1-2).