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From Knox Sports Information
Galesburg, IL – The man who coached the Prairie Fire wrestling team for over a decade has resigned to become a high school administrator.
Tony Islas took over the Knox wrestling program in 2001 and completed his 12th season last March. He stepped down to become assistant principal at the Woodruff Career and Technical Center in Peoria. Islas said he’ll be responsible for the high school side of the building, essentially serving as its principal.
Islas knows being away from coaching, especially during the 2013-14 season, will take some getting used to.
“For so many years I knew what my days, nights, and weekends were going to be filled with from October through March,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do when October comes around and I’m not running the wrestlers around the fieldhouse, working them out tirelessly in the wrestling room, and shouting at them to not settle for anything but their best and to give me more.”
A Rockford, Illinois native, Islas was a four-year varsity letter winner in both wrestling and cross country at Upper Iowa University. He placed sixth in the 1992 Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (IIAC) Tournament, was the runner-up in the Gold Division of the UW-Stephens Point Open, and he placed third in the Iowa Collegiate State Championships.
During his senior season at Rockford Auburn High School, Islas compiled a 33-3-1 record on the mat. He was the school’s first state qualifier in nearly 14 years and still holds several wrestling records at his alma mater.
Islas said initially he’ll miss everything about coaching at Knox.
“I enjoyed all the headaches of coaching, celebrating the success of victories and picking up the pieces after losses, the weekend travel where I had chances to speak one-on-one with guys about life after Knox; their future careers, relationships, and everything under the sun. I am also going to miss recruiting. I truly loved recruiting. I never felt like I was ‘recruiting’ a student-athlete, but more giving someone a chance to see how great Knox is and why I and many others feel the way we do about the college – and wrestle too.”
Islas added that he enjoyed the hours of set-up the team and coaching staff did to prepare T. Fleming Fieldhouse for the Knox Invite and Chuck Porter Duals. “There is no better sight to behold than when the fieldhouse floor is covered with wrestling mats on the Friday night before the Invite and the Duals; then on Saturday when the fieldhouse is littered with wrestlers, coaches, officials, and fans to watch all of the action.
“I am also going to miss the alumni. They supported me through every season and cared deeply about the program, and still do,” he said.
Islas said one of the highlights of his career was when he and the entire team went to the 2007 National Tournament in Dubuque and witnessed Jaran Rutledge ’08 become Knox College’s first wrestling All-American.
“(Rutledge) lost his first match of the tournament on the opening night. It was a close match and a tough loss to accept. I had to get him mentally focused and ready because another loss would have put him out of the tournament. He dropped down to the consolation bracket and awaited the next opponent. The rest is history. He won that match, earning All-American status, and then rattled off five consecutive match victories on the final day of the NCAA’s for a third place finish.”
Islas said that also propelled the Knox wrestling team to a 24th place team finish. “Then in the 2008 season, Jaran was the number one ranked (heavyweight) wrestler in the country. That was awesome to see.”
Another highlight Islas cited was Edel Vaca ’11 winning the Milwaukee School of Engineering Tournament in 2009 over a very highly touted wrestler from St. Olaf College. Vaca received the Outstanding Wrestler Award and a national ranking. “He had a great year, also placing fourth in the Great Lakes Regional and missed the NCAA’s by just two points. I still think about that third place match,” Islas said.
The long-time coach said he has so many memories. Islas concluded by sharing a story about 2012 Knox graduate James Wagner.
“James came in as an underweight heavyweight as a freshman and struggled greatly to get wins. We worked year in and year out to improve his wrestling abilities and conditioning. Coaching him his senior season and watching him lead by example, because James wasn’t always the most vocal, was incredible. He transformed himself into a force to be reckoned with. James had a signature move, an outside cradle, which was held together with what the team and I called the Jimbo lock. He would throw himself on top of guys’ backs and just nail them with it all the time. Watching him in the NWA wrestling conference tournament go after and attack guys on their feet and then punish them with his relentless cradle tickled everyone on the team.”
Islas said Wagner pinned two opponents that had beaten him his entire wrestling career en route to capturing the NWA heavyweight title. Wagner finished sixth the following weekend at the Great Lakes Regional. “He proved that hard work pays off, and listening to the coach helps too.”
Asked if he is done coaching for good, Islas didn’t close that chapter of his life entirely.
“Anyone who knows me knows I am a coaching junkie and I will definitely be coaching somewhere, in some kind of way, just not right at the moment. Wrestling has been a part of my life for so long I can’t just quit cold turkey.
Knox athletic director Chad Eisele said a national search for the Prairie Fire’s next head wrestling coach is underway.