‘It’s a big deal for us’: Hawk Invite highlights the girls wrestling boom

The rise of girls high school wrestling is no longer a surprise. But it is a big deal.

One of the biggest deals in Illinois is Hoffman Estates’ Girls Hawk Invitational, a 46-team, two-day tournament this Friday and Saturday.

It’s the fourth year of the invite. The first two years it was held along with a freshman boys tournament. It became its own entity in 2023, and this year the Hawk Invitational has expanded to a two-day format to simulate a sectional tournament.

Not coincidentally, it’s Leo Clark’s fourth year as Hawks girls and boys wrestling coach. He “absolutely” feels a sense of pride offering the tournament.

“It’s a big deal for us,” he said. “We feel like we were one of the very first schools to implement girls wrestling. We always take pride at Hoffman Estates to find ways to be successful, and the girls really bought into it, and they’re finding ways to be successful.”

Clark credited the support of athletic director Steve Lacni.

“He’s been a big proponent for girls wrestling and anything I’ve asked for,” said Clark, who previously coached at Schaumburg and wrestled at Prospect, Class of 2010.

Not all 46 teams will fill out all 14 weight classes, but neither do all boys teams. Clark said last year’s invite brought in about 2,000 girls; this year he anticipates about 3,500.

They’ll include defending state champion Emma Engels of Bartlett and 2023 state placers Valeria Rodriguez and Madeline Zerafa Lazarevic of Schaumburg, Jasmine Rene of Wheeling and Hoffman Estates’ own Sophia Ball, among the Hawks’ five state qualifiers in each of the last — and Illinois’ first — two girls wrestling seasons.

Emma Engels of Bartlett (right) hugs opponent Alexandra Sebek in the 100 pound championship match at the IHSA girls state wrestling championships Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023. Engels took the win. Sandy Bressner/

An additional 21 returning state qualifiers scheduled to compete at the Hawk Invite include Hoffman Estates’ Anjali Gonzalez, Abi Ji and Emmy O’Brien, Dundee-Crown’s Perla Lomeli, and Schaumburg’s Nadia Razzak.

Clark said defending tournament champion Homewood Flossmoor, runner-up Oak Forest, third-place Hoffman Estates, Schaumburg, Wheeling, Lockport, and Minooka all have a shot at the title.

Wrestling starts at 5:30 p.m. Friday and picks up again at 8:30 a.m. Saturday. Clark figures finals will begin around 3 p.m. Saturday.

“It’s great to have an athletic director that supports girls wrestling,” he said.


Following Marty Maciaszek’s Jan. 7 Daily Herald article on the West Suburban Conference’s 100 years, we received an email from Glen Ellyn resident Harold “Snub” Prichard.

“Great article. Got me thinking of the past,” he wrote.

He’s a Glenbard graduate, Class of 1946. Prichard is now the last of the original “Old Codgers,” those alumni who with their Thermoses of tomato soup watched Hilltoppers football from the top row of the Duchon Field bleachers, under the press box, at every home game.

Prichard said even before he was in high school he’d watch his older brother, Merrill, or “Boz,” a Glenbard defensive back decades before they became known as the “Hitters.”

“I saw my first WSC game at Downers Grove High School in 1938,” Snub wrote.

“I bet there aren’t many around who can beat that history.”


It’s much easier to get Benet Academy boys basketball coach Gene Heidkamp to talk about his wife, Kate — Benedictine University’s 26-year softball coach, senior associate director of athletics and its senior woman administrator — than for him to address his own accomplishments.

“I can brag about her, I don’t have too much to say about me,” Gene Heidkamp said.

Of course. He noted the former Kate Enochs was a four-time All-America pitcher at Benedictine, which inducted her into its hall of fame and named its softball field after her. She also is in the East Suburban Catholic Conference Hall of Fame for her career at Benet.

After Gene Heidkamp won his 400th game 67-39 over St. Viator on Jan. 5, we still had to get his humble take.

“It makes me realize how fortunate I’ve been to coach the kids that I have and to work with the assistant coaches I have, and work with all the other people,” he said, crediting assistant Scott Veselik, with Heidkamp all 16 years at Benet, and Mike Bremner, who stepped down after last season.

Heidkamp entered this season with a sterling 361-96 record and three state runner-up finishes with the Redwings. Counting three seasons at Nazareth, entering Wednesday his record is 400-154.

In his 31st year overall coaching basketball, Heidkamp has no plans to retire anytime soon.

“I’m just appreciative of the opportunities I’ve had. You don’t take it for granted, that’s for sure,” he said.

West Chicago girls basketball coach Mark Fitzgerald recently won No. 200 — half Heidkamp’s total yet impressive considering Fitzgerald didn’t become a head coach until after turning 50.

More impressive are Fitzgerald’s abilities as a program doctor.

Beating Fenton on Jan. 4 for win No. 200, then earning No. 201 on Tuesday, the Wildcats enter Friday’s game at East Aurora with a 16-5 record.

Those 16 wins are more than West Chicago had in the three seasons before Fitzgerald took the job in 2019-20. Last season’s 17-15 mark was West Chicago’s first winning record since 2011-12.

It was the same at Aurora Central Catholic. In 2008-09 Fitzgerald grabbed a chance to be the girls head coach after coaching in the DuPage Parochial League and in the St. Francis High School boys program.

Within three seasons the Chargers had their first winning record since the 1970s. The next season, 2011-12, ACC finished fourth in Class 2A.

“They were in need of some TLC,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m just real proud that we were able to turn those programs around and have them become competitive.”

Last season Fitzgerald told the Wildcats he’d get a tattoo, his first, if they won 20 games. The team fell short but the offer still stands, with at least 10 games left.

“If they do their job I’ll do my part,” he said. “It’s the last thing I want to do, but I’ll do it.”

Junior guard Jasmyn Trigueros presents West Chicago girls basketball coach Mark Fitzgerald with a basketball signed by the Wildcats following Fitzgerald's 200th victory on Jan. 4. Courtesy of Joe Trigueros
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