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Prep wrestling: O'Connell honored for career in wrestling

Joliet Central coach Pat O'Connell was recently inducted into the IWCOA hall of fame.
Joliet Central coach Pat O'Connell was recently inducted into the IWCOA hall of fame.

Of the nearly 600 inductees of the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association Hall of Fame, the vast majority are naturally wrestlers and head coaches along with several officials.

But a group of individuals who have been critically important to the sport’s success, the assistant coaches, are represented by a much smaller group of individuals.

That’s why longtime Joliet Central and Joliet Township coach Pat O’Connell was not only surprised, but also very grateful to learn that he would be one of 16 inductees in this year’s Hall of Fame class, which included a Steelmen wrestler whom he nominated, the late Joei Bales, as well as former Plainfield Central coach Paul Faris.

“I was definitely surprised and the group that I went in was amazing,” O’Connell said of his induction ceremony earlier this month. “I’ve worked the state tournament for 38 years, and that’s been big. And I’m assuming that getting JJC wrestling back had a lot to do with it.

“It was wonderful. I had the family there, and it was good to also have some friends there. And it was good to get Joei in at the same time and his daughters were able to accept the award. There’s quite a few from JT who are in the Hall of Fame, and I’m still trying to get in some more and sometimes it takes four or five years.”

O’Connell, who has been coaching in the sport for 41 years, realizes that volunteering at the IHSA finals as a weigh-in official since 1981 and heading a committee that helped to bring back the wrestling program at Joliet Junior College also greatly enhanced his qualifications.

Although he’s stepped down as a paid assistant at Central, he plans to continue to volunteer there. He assisted JJC coach A.J. Blahut by helping in the weight room and hopes to do more volunteer coaching with the Wolves.

“One of our selling points is that this is a hot bed,” O’Connell said of JJC. “There’s so much talent here and there were kids at JJC that I knew were good wrestlers. That was the best fit for them, but they didn’t have wrestling at the time, so we missed out on a few. They hired A.J. early and gave him time and he was able to see kids and talk to them.”

After starting his coaching career at his alma mater of Joliet East in 1979 with Sam Parker, the pair moved to Central in 1983-84, and O’Connell began his 27-year association as assistant for the Steelmen under hall of famer Mac McLaughlin. After a three-year stint as head coach, he has served as an assistant for Gardner Coughlen since then.

“That was a hoot, we had a lot of fun,” O’Connell said. “We won the dual team title in 1985 and took second in 1986 and realistically could have won it three years in a row. I got to sit in the chair when Joe Herron won state and then Mac sat with me when Trayvon [Zabala] wrestled in the finals and took second. So it was kind of neat to go back and forth like that.”

O’Connell started his wrestling career competing for hall of famer Ron Larsen. He was a four-year letterman at Millikin University and competed in cross country and track and field.

He comes from one of the famed coaching families in the Joliet area. His father, Dale, was the first basketball coach when Joliet East opened and his brothers Dale, Mike and Bill also coached, and many of his nieces and nephews are currently coaching at various levels.

In addition to his many years in the corner chair, Pat O’Connell also coached cross country, track and was head boys soccer coach to start Central’s program.

But wrestling was the sport that won O’Connell over, which isn’t surprising considering who he was fortunate to work with and the great success that it has enjoyed in the Joliet area.

“There’s always been great wrestling here,” O’Connell said. “It was amazing in the 1970s and it’s continued. The level is strong across the board and today’s kids are coming in ready due to the clubs. It’s still a great blue-collar sport where hard work pays off for the average kid. If you follow what your coaches say and learn the basics, you can go a long way.”

Certainly one of the best that O’Connell was around was Bales, a 1985 Central graduate who was a state runner-up in 1984 and an undefeated champion in 1985.

He was a four-time state qualifier and three-time sectional and regional champ who went 114-11-2 while helping the Steelmen to two state dual finals.

He continued his success at Northwestern University, where he was an All-American and also competed at the Espoir level. Bales passed away in 2008 at age 41.

“I nominated Joei a few times before they put him in and I didn’t even know all of his accomplishments until I researched it,” O’Connell said. “When I was coaching freshmen, he would show me stuff that he did and I still show kids some of that stuff to this day.”

O’Connell is getting closer to finishing his historical research of the Steelmen program, which is the area’s oldest and among the few statewide that date back to the sport’s early years.

He takes pride that his research has led to several JT wrestlers being inducted into the IWCOA Hall of Fame.

“One other thing that I’m really proud is that I discovered the 1944 state tournament that nobody knew about,” O’Connell said. “Don Govoni and Earl D’Amico always said that Dave Shapiro was a state champ in 1944, but there supposedly wasn’t a tournament that year. So I researched it and basically found all of the brackets and turned them over to the state.”

O’Connell is appreciative of the experiences that he’s enjoyed while in wrestling.

“I’ve got a special thing with wrestling, and I don’t want to say that it saved me, but I owe the rest of my life to it,” O’Connell said. “I got to go to college doing it and wrestled at Millikin for four years. So I try to get kids out for the same reason that I did it. It’s going to build you up both mentally and physically. It’s just such a great way of life.”

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