OPRF’s White named February Prep Athlete of the Month

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Isaiah White already had won just about everything a wrestler could coming into this season.

Among his trophy haul: five kids state titles, a pair of IHSA individual championships, two Class 3A team titles with his Oak Park-River Forest teammates and a Cadet National freestyle championship.

"One thing we talked about coming into this year is there wasn't a lot (more) for him to accomplish wrestling-wise," Huskies coach Paul Collins said. "What we really wanted him to do was show some leadership."

That hasn't been a natural role for White, a senior 160-pounder.

But White stepped up to finish his own high school career with a flourish, and he helped the Huskies extend their reign as the top program in the state and one of the best in the nation.

He won his third individual state title on Feb. 20 and then had three more dominant victories — two first-period falls and a major decision — a week later to lead the Huskies to their third consecutive Class 3A team championship. White went 30-0 and was 72-0 over his final two high school seasons to finish with a 160-7 career record. For his efforts, he's the Tribune/WGN-9 Athlete of the Month for February.

Leader by example

White got a chance to display his leadership the week of team state when he helped teammate Deundre Garner cope with the death of his brother Diamond.

"The second we heard about it, we all sent him a text (saying), 'We love you,'" White said. "I wasn't sure about him wrestling (at state). That's tough."

But with the support of his teammates, Garner not only wrestled in the team finals, he delivered a key win in the final against Marmion. That was a testament to the culture White helped nurture at Oak Park.

"We're family," he said. "Those are my brothers and I love them."

That's why one of his highlights — in a season filled with so many — was simply getting back on the mat after missing the early part of the season to focus on his grades.

"Coming back, just being with my teammates, is something I'll always remember," White said.

He'll also recall how the Huskies flipped the script on their season after competing in one of the nation's top tournaments over Christmas break in Rochester, Minn.

"Our turning point (was) after The Clash," he said. "We took a couple 'Ls' ... the next practice was probably the best practice we had all year."

Competitive fire

The rest was history for the Huskies and for White, who wrapped up a high school career that began with considerable promise.

"When we had him coming in ... it was fun to see him and Kamal (Bey) and Gabe (Townsell) roll around with each other because they brought a different level of competitiveness to the room," Collins said.

Mike Powell, who was Oak Park's head coach during White's first two seasons and is now an assistant, saw the same thing.

"He's one of the most competitive people I've been around," Powell said. "He'll throw his arm out the day before a big meet to win a dodgeball game."

Along with that fire inside come some physical gifts that have helped White rise to an elite level. Collins cites his star's "massive" hands and tells how he had a standing broad jump of 9 feet at an intrasquad competition last fall.

White is ready to take his skills to the next level, having committed to Ohio State.

"I'm going to be lifting," he said. "I've got to get stronger. I've got to get bigger, get in better shape. ... I want to go into college ready."

That's exactly the mindset he needs to have, according to Powell.

"In Division I wrestling, talent means so little," Powell said. "In college, it's a lot more about what you want."

What White wants is to keep getting better in wrestling, the sport he chose after giving up baseball and football upon arriving in high school.

"Wrestling is a tough sport," he said. "It teaches you toughness and discipline."

And it could take him a long way.

"I think Isaiah has been special his whole life," Powell said. "I can't say that he has a great work ethic. But he has everything else to be a world champion at some point."