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Herron: Healy set standard in wrestling

Keith Healy didn’t have to accomplish anything Saturday in his final day as Providence Catholic’s wrestling coach to be regarded as one of the legends in his sport and one of the greatest coaches of all-time from the Joliet area.

Healy finished his 26-year career as the Celtics coach with a 557-125-3 dual meet record (.815 percentage) after his team took third place in the Class 3A dual team state finals. He captured six state titles, three second-place finishes, four thirds and a fourth place in 14 state appearances.

His teams enjoyed one of the greatest runs of success in state history from 1993 to 2004 when they won six straight titles, just missed out on capturing two more and added three third-place finishes to account for
11 trophies during a 12-year span.

With an already successful resume, it was hard to imagine that Healy could accomplish anything more in his final trip to state, but it appears he did just that.

As he’s done so often in the past, Healy juggled his lineup to produce a 33-30 win over favored Barrington in the quarterfinal. After falling to eventual champion Montini in the semifinal, the Celtics beat Huntley in the third-place meet to wrap up his memorable career.

While his team was awaiting recognition for its second trophy in three years, a few reporters met with the retiring Celtics coach to get a few comments and congratulate him on a job well done after leading his 22-11 team to a trophy.

And that’s when I raised the possibility that Healy had completed his career doing something that perhaps no other coach in IHSA history in any sport with a bracketed tournament had ever done before that had made so many state appearances. And that was winning a trophy each time he led a team to the state finals.

After making that claim, I was determined to find out if it indeed was correct. I did a lot of research over the next few days and felt fairly confident in my findings, but I wanted more validation. That’s when I turned to the state’s top high school athletics historian, IHSA Assistant Executive Director Scott Johnson.

Scott and I started collaborating on our research of IHSA sports more than 30 years ago, so I knew if anyone could help to verify Healy’s accomplishment, it would be him. He sent me a list of all quarterfinalists in each tournament sport and after going through that, it certainly appears that Healy is the only coach to take as many teams to state and then win a trophy each year.

No wrestling coach has won as many trophies in the dual team competition, and he’s tied with Mater Dei’s Fred Rakers (girls volleyball) and Casey-Westfield’s Denny Throneburg (softball) for fourth place overall for quarterfinal wins during their career.

The only coaches who had more quarterfinal wins are three of the legendary names in IHSA history, Mount Carmel’s Frank Lenti (football), Marshall’s Dorothy Gaters (girls basketball) and St. Francis’ Peg Kopec (girls volleyball). It appears that only 25 Illinois coaches have taken 14 or more teams to the quarterfinals during their careers.

Healy’s 1.000 percentage in quarterfinal appearances obviously is the IHSA standard, while Throneburg (.933) and Kopec (.905) appear to be the only others to own a winning rate of 90 percent or better in their quarterfinal appearances.

While often overlooked among key victories en route to state glory, the quarterfinals obviously are very significant, since it’s now the contest that determines who gets a trophy in tournament sports, except for football.

Although the Celtics’ narrow victory over Barrington would figure to have been one of the closest calls to seeing Healy’s amazing streak get snapped, his team actually built up a 33-18 lead with only two matches remaining.

In fact, three of his teams that won championships were on the ropes in the quarterfinals but pulled out close wins, and then proceeded to win their next two meets to claim the big trophy.

In 1997, Celtics won a two-point decision in the finale to beat defending champion Moline, 26-22. And then in a 27-25 win over Willowbrook in 1999 and a 25-24 victory over Mount Carmel in 2000, late pins were avoided and instead were just major decision defeats to help the Celtics keep their amazing streak of consecutive state titles alive.

After a second-place finish in 2008, the Celtics’ fortunes fell for several seasons. But motivated by a bunch of athletes who were determined to bring back some of the glory to their school, this year’s team put it all together when it counted to give the program its second trophy in the past three years.

Not surprisingly, the Celtics coach downplayed the significance of his historic coaching achievement and kept the focus on what his athletes had achieved.

Never is a long time, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that wrestling probably won’t see another master of the dual team series like Keith Healy anytime soon.

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