Bowen among city’s bestThe Championship matches of the Chicago Public League wrestling tournament held at Chicago State University. At 112 Ronzel Darling of Bowen (top) battles Johnny McCarthy of Lane Tech.| Joe Cyganowski~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 8, 2011 6:54PM
Bowen has a pretty good wrestling tradition, though you wouldn’t have known it when Ron Wilson arrived at the Southeast Side school.
The Boilermakers had three top-10 team finishes at state in the late 1930s and early ‘40s and produced four individual champions during that span. But they did not have a team when Wilson went to work there in 2001.
That situation quickly changed. A program of Chicago Park District programs and a state qualifier for Hirsch in the late ‘70s, Wilson had coached at his alma mater after getting out of college. He left education to work in retail for more than a decade, but eventually found his way back.
“I missed it,” he said. “I ran into a friend of mine on the football field and he said, ‘Wilson, you got to come back, man, and get back to the kids.’ ’’
Landing at Bowen involved more luck than planning. “I was applying for a teacher’s assistant position and they had one available there,” he said.
He wanted to relaunch the wrestling program and the first day of practice, five kids showed up. “I told every guy to bring a friend,” Wilson said. “The next day, 10 showed up.”
Repeating the request, he slowly built up the Boilermakers’ numbers. With quantity soon came quality, as Bowen won a Class A regional title in Wilson’s second season.
The school’s increasing enrollment pushed Bowen up to Class AA by 2005. When expansion to three classes left the Boilermakers in Class 2A — the middle one — beginning in 2009, it actually was a mixed blessing.
While Bowen was competing with more similarly sized schools, it wound up in the state’s toughest Class 2A sectional, one dominated by national power Montini.
But Wilson and his kids have kept plugging along, helping to make wrestling by far the most successful sport at Bowen and joining a group of schools like Lane, Kelly, Uplift, Mather and Fenger that have raised the reputation of Public League wrestling.
Ronzel Darling, a senior 113-pounder looking to become the first four-time city champ since the late ‘70s and a two-time state qualifier, has watched the rise of the program in particular and Public League wrestling in general.
“It feels good that we’re getting more respect,” said Darling, who is ranked fourth in Class 2A by Illinois Best Weekly. “We feel that wrestling in the city is getting a little better.”
One reason for that is the slow but steady rise in the number of Public League wrestlers who know the basics of the sport by the time they get to high school. Wilson has worked to build programs at neighboring grammar schools and some Boilermakers, including Darling, also came up through the highly successful Harvey Twisters youth program.
But there are also guys like senior Dequence Goodman, the top-ranked 220-pounder in 2A who last year became the school’s first state placer since 1942 when he was fourth at 215.
Wilson spotted Goodman playing football as a freshman and asked him to come out for wrestling. “I don’t know how to wrestle,” Goodman said, and Wilson responded, “I’ll teach you.”
He has done that and now the Boilermakers are respected far beyond the boundaries of the city. They are No. 20 this week in Class 2A, starting the season 7-3 in duals while competing against the likes of Montini, Mount Carmel and Lane.
“I don’t care if we lose the match,” Wilson said. “I want our kids who are state quality to get quality matches.”
Toward that end, he’s trying to get into the Dvorak tournament, which is the state’s premier in-season event and has a waiting list of prospective teams. Even if that doesn’t happen this year, Wilson’s willing to be patient. Now that he’s back in wrestling, he’s not going anywhere. And neither are the resurgent Boilermakers.