Photo by Jeff Vorva
Mia Palumbo won a conference championship on Jan. 20 and her coach at Richards thinks she can be a state champion contender.
The swim cap.
Those are the two things that Mia Palumbo remembers about her first wrestling match.
That was 10 years ago. She was four.
“I’m not sure where it was at,’’ she said. “My mom (Jeannette) put me in a swim cap. I ended up winning my first match and pinned a kid in the first period.’’
Soon, the swim cap was gone.
“My dad (Rob) bought me an actual wrestling cap.’’ she said.
But the pins -- and the wins -- stayed around for 10 years.
Palumbo had a strong club career in grade school wrestling mostly boys for the Oak Lawn-based Mean Green Machine team and against girls, she earned a title at the USA Preseason Nationals at the 105-pound weight class in October.
Now she is in high school. She is taking on boys – some of whom are three or four years older than her.
And, she is still winning.
Palumbo won 21 of her first 24 matches during the regular season and won the South Suburban Red 106-pound championship on Jan. 20. The freshman beat Reavis’s Jack McDonald, one of the three opponents who had beaten her earlier.
The Illinois High School Association regionals open on Saturday and her coach, Nick Grabarek, is not shy about setting high goals for his freshman as the Bulldogs head to Lemont for a Class 2A regional.
“She has the potential to do very well – not only in the regional and sectional, but during state,” he said. “We fully expect her take first in regionals and first in sectionals and be a state champion. That’s our mindset going into every practice.’’
Illinois high school wrestling historian Rob Sherrill said he can only recall two female regional champions and one state qualifier. He said Glenbard North’s Caitlyn Chase won a regional title in 2005 at 103 in Class AA, took second in the sectional and qualified for state but was pinned in her only match at that level.
Sherrill added that Alli Ragan of Carbondale claimed a regional title at 130 in 2010 but went 1-2 in sectional action and did not advance to state.
He also runs the rankings for the Illinois Coaches and Officials Association and although he doesn’t have Palumbo ranked in the top 10 in the state at 106 in Class 2A, she is one of six honorable mentions on the list. As a team, Richards is ranked ninth.
The odds are stacked against her for a state title, but she could be the first freshman female to win a regional.
“Winning regionals is a goal – I have to just keep wrestling hard every match,” she said. “It’s going to fun and I will be going up against some of my friends. We’ll still be friends off the mat, but on the mat, you have to keep wrestling hard.’’
Wrestling hard is her style, according to her coach.
“Her offense is high octane,” he said. “It’s fun to watch. She loves to open up the offense and just go. It’s a style of constant movement. She just goes. Some people might see it as a risk but with how talented she is, it works.
“She doesn’t care who is in front of her. She just competes. Some people might worry about who they are wrestling but she just has so much confidence and that helps her excel.’’
Years ago, there was huge controversy and outcry when females wrestled males. Some schools would sooner forfeit than have their male athletes wrestle a female.
Now that there are more than 14,500 females wrestling in high school, according to Statis.com, there is more of an acceptance of girls competing on the mat against boys. But it’s not 100 percent.
“There have been a lot of conflicts where people were not OK with me wrestling guys,” Palumbo said. “But some people don’t care and treat me like everyone else. Since I’ve been in the sport so long, I’m used to all of the talk about how girls don’t wrestle. But I just keep going.’’
Girls don’t wrestle
The first person who told Mia that ‘girls don’t wrestle’ was her mother. Mia was taken to tournaments to watch her older brother, Rocco, compete and she liked the sport at an early age. Mia said Jeannette told her that ‘girls don’t wrestle,’ but when they saw a girl at a tournament tearing up the competition, Jeannette changed her mind.
That girl that they saw wrestle was Haley Augello of Lockport who grew up and competed in the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Over the years, Palumbo (who also has Olympic aspirations) continued to get stronger and better but the true test was going to be how she would fare against high school boys and thus far, she has been successful.
“We knew coming in how talented she was,” Grabarek said. “She has really developed during the season. She placed in every single tournament that we had. She’s very serious. We try to get her to smile a little more and open up and have fun. But that’s a good thing. She’s very intense.’’
Bulldogs hope to break dry spell
The Bulldogs, which won conference titles on all three levels this season, have high hopes that this season is the start of something big.
Richards' wrestling team was the first Regional/Reporter team to win a state title in any sport when it won the Class AA crown in 1975. The Bulldogs also won a title in 1977, finished second in the state in 1976 and third in 1978.
Since winning a district title in 1979, the Bulldogs have not won any postseason team hardware, according to IHSA records.
The Bulldogs have a solid core of wrestlers who hope to break that 36-year drought Saturday in Lemont.
Adam Alkilani (113), Basil Muhammad (120), Rocco Palumbo (145) and Marquis Hall (285) took second in the conference while Marty Cosgrove (220) claimed third and Jason McIntyre (132) placed fourth.
Brother Rice and Evergreen Park are other area teams in the eight-team regional.