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updated: 2/6/2014 9:45 PM

Froelich, Cortez leave their mark as winners

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  • Dave Froelich has coached 29 wrestlers to Mid-Suburban League titles in a standout coaching career at Rolling Meadows.

      Dave Froelich has coached 29 wrestlers to Mid-Suburban League titles in a standout coaching career at Rolling Meadows.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Fremd's Ralph Cortez has delivered 45 wrestling state qualifiers and four state champs in a 34-year high school coaching career.

      Fremd's Ralph Cortez has delivered 45 wrestling state qualifiers and four state champs in a 34-year high school coaching career.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

By Mike Garofola
Daily Herald Correspondent

Even without all the victories, team trophies and time served in the sport of wrestling, what you have in both Dave Froehlich and Ralph Cortez are credentials nothing short of brilliant.

The retirement tour continued for both Saturday afternoon, just before the finals of the Mid-Suburban League wrestling tournament took place. Host school Hersey and coach Jim Wormsley recognized the marvelous careers of both men to a rousing ovation from the large crowd on hand.

And there's plenty to salute, as these two have dedicated a combined 70-plus years to coaching high school wrestling.

"It's a little embarassing, all of the attention we've received," said Froehlich, who was feted last month in a ceremony at Rolling Meadows by current and former staff and wrestlers.

"I feel the same way as Dave," said Cortez, who's finishing up his 34th year at Fremd. "It's very nice that you're recognized, but when you do what the both of us have done for so long, you kind of want to slip away very quietly, without fanfare, and step aside for the younger guys."

Poring over the coaching accomplishments of this duo would be interesting, but the real story is in how they've affected their sport through the people they've influenced.

Just ask Neal Weiner, wrestling coach and athletic director at Wheeling. He'll take over as dean of MSL coaches when Froehlich steps down after the academic year ends in June.

"If you didn't know the history of each at Fremd and Rolling Meadows, then you wouldn't know how many great kids and teams they have coached," said Weiner, now in his 28th coaching year. "But more important, each are fine men, great teachers of our sport who always put their kids before anything else. And that's something you have to really admire about them.

"One more thing about those two guys -- they were great college wrestlers. Maybe two of the best who became coaches in our conference."

A quick check shows Froelich was a third-place state medalist at 155 pounds during his senior year at East Leyden before going on to excel at Northwestern. There he became a Big 10 champ in 1975, a two-time NCAA qualifier who placed fourth at 167 and the Wildcats' points leader in 1974 while earning All-American honors.

Cortez garnered a second-place state trophy during his senior year at Addison Trail at 126 pounds in 1976. He then thrived at Illinois, where he captained the Illini in his final season. In 1976 Cortez added a national championship in Greco along with a third-place trophy in freestyle.

Their history in the sport is both impressive and concurrent.

"Most don't know that Ralph and I go way back," said Froehlich. "He wrestled with my brother Pete at Illinois, and before that, the rivalry between East Leyden and Addison Trail was pretty intense, so we all got to know each other. Then years later, my two boys wrestled for Ralph at Fremd, where they had a great time and wonderful experience."

One of Froehlich's fondest memories was when his youngest, Michael, competed for and won a regional title on the Mustangs' mats during his senior year in 2007.

"It was a great moment for the Froehlich family, as was the time that Ralph let me coach David in an important match. We were always friendly rivals, but that type of thing is something I'll always remember and appreciate."

Cortez has amassed 369 dual-meet wins, 4 divisional and MSL titles, 2 regional crowns, and a trip downstate in 1996 with a 21-3-0 record. Along the way, he's produced 45 state qualifiers, 19 place-winners, and four state champs, including his last from Robert Panayi in 2005, which brings a big smile from Cortez when recounting the night he won it all at 215 pounds.

"I'll never forget after his win in the semifinals, he comes over to me and says, 'Cortez, it's all over now -- I am going to win a state title.'

"That's the beauty and joy of being a coach ... watching them go from a grasshopper, to a tough, confident, and mature young man."

"That's the thing about Ralph that always impressed me about him. It was always about the kids," says Augie Fontanetta, who worked hand-in-hand with Cortez as the athletic director at Fremd for five years before becoming the Director of Athletics and Activities for the District 211 Administration. "I actually was an assistant for Ralph early on, and what I saw was a guy who brought a lot of intensity and work ethic into the room everyday, someone who would make you into a better wrestler and person, and at a level that kid didn't know he could reach.

"He ran the kids program for a long time, which everyone in the sport knows turns into a seven day-a-week job. And he was always going to clinics to help him learn as much as he could, which made him a great technician as well."

Current Vikings assistants Dan Ruettiger, Dave Morelli and Scott Klein are united in their admiration of Cortez.

"Anyone who knows Ralph knows he has a unique coaching style," Ruettiger said. "He doesn't care about awards or recognition, and it's always about the wrestlers. He may have a gruff exterior, but he cares so much about his guys, not just as athletes, but as people."

One of Froehlich's former stars, current assistant James Kohlberg, has seen up close exactly how Froehlich operates.

"After going on to Northwestern and wrestling there, I came in here as an assistant with that Big 10 attitude of winning -- but it didn't take long for me learn and find out it's more than that when you're working and coaching with young men at this level," says Kohlberg, third in the state in 2005 at 125 pounds with 44 wins. "I always kind of knew what Dave was after with us, but as a high school athlete, it's always more about yourself -- making weight, winning, advancing and getting downstate.

"He's taught me there's so much more to coaching. And a day doesn't go by were he amazing me with his genious when it comes to the pyschology of sports and coaching, how to mold a team from different personalities while helping turn kids around and into strong leaders, as well as successful guys on the mats."

Dave Udchik, who assisted Froehlich for four years and now is an assistant in Ken Hoving's Barrington program, concurs.

"You learn so much more, about more than wrestling, from being around Dave," Udchik said. "He's not a yeller or screamer, but he knows the culture of the sport and the guys in the room, and he knows how to motivate in order to get the best out of everyone, both in and out of the room."

Froehlich's career numbers reflect his impact. He's amassing 380 career victories, with five divisional and two overall MSL titles, 29 conference champs, 37 state qualifiers and 11 state medalists.

One of the program's finest moments was the performance of Mikal Johnson in 2008. He took the wrestling world by storm during the postseason with several stunning victories in Champaign against a handful of big-named 215-pounders en route to a third-place finish.

"Mikal was on hand at that recent gathering, and he got up and said several nice things -- in particular, how he was just a lost soul when he came to us from basketball, with no experience in our sport.

"That's what it's all about. We're educators first, and it's important to teach, encourage and introduce many things to these kids. And in an age of sports specialization, I want our guys to do other things because I know if I was around wrestling 24-7, and 12 months a year, I'd burn out and wouldn't be around as long as I have."

Froehlich isn't sure what his next move will be, but he knows it's vital to the program that he step away to allow for a smooth transition.

Cortez, too, is ready to let his program take the next step without him.

"It's hard to believe that Dave and I have been doing this for nearly four decades combined," Cortez said, "but I think I can speak for both of us when I say it's given us a great deal back in a lot of ways, and it's been a fantastic ride as well.

"I've enjoyed it very much. But I look forward to moving on, and letting someone else run the show."

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