By JEREMY HINES
Ike O’Neill spent his first year of high school wrestling competing at the junior varsity level. He wasn’t overly strong or fast and his technique was average. There weren’t any real indicators that O’Neill would be a stellar grappler.
O’Neill may not have had many believers that freshman season, but he would soon change that. O’Neill would prove that wrestling was no different than everything else he did in his life. O’Neill has a worker’s mentality and was willing to do more than anyone else to get the results he wanted.
That attitude has led him to be a stellar student. His grade point average is 4.3. It also led him to become an Eagle Scout. O’Neill has proven time and time again that whatever he sets his mind to, he masters.
“Ike is every wrestling coach’s dream, to be honest,” Westfield coach Phil Smith said. “He is a phenomenal student. He’s an Eagle Scout. He’s a phenomenal leader. He’s one of those kids where everything about him is work ethic and being tough.”
As a sophomore O’Neill cracked the Westfield varsity lineup and eventually qualified for semistate. According to Smith, that’s when they knew that O’Neill could be special.
Last season, as a junior, O’Neill qualified for state. It was a bittersweet moment for the Shamrock. While Ike wrestled on mat 4 in the ticket round of the New Castle semistate his older brother Thadeus was wrestling on mat 3. As Ike was wrestling, he could hear the crowd’s reaction and knew his brother had lost his match. So, when Ike won, it just didn’t feel right. He cared about his brother and knew what he was going through.
Thadeus has been able to push Ike to get better in a lot of things. Mainly because the brothers are insanely competitive with each other. Thadeus was going for his Eagle Scout award, so Ike wanted to try and get his first.
“Thadeus and I were always on the same sports teams growing up,” Ike said. “We did everything together. Naturally we started to compete with each other. If he beat me at wrestling, I wanted to go home and beat him at ping-pong or pool. It has developed into competing in everything.”
On the mat Ike has a toughness that some people might not expect.
“My teammates like to poke a little fun at me,” Ike said. “They say I look unathletic in a singlet. I’ve heard it a lot in high school. My friends say I’m the most unathletic kid to ever qualify for state. I just laugh it off.”
Coach Smith says that a lot of people are surprised by Ike’s physicality and strength.
“From his freshman year, on the surface, we didn’t know what he could do,” Smith said. “But we think every kid is capable if they put in work. With Ike, he didn’t have flashes of pure wrestling technique that really inspired us – but I think we always knew with him, it was a toughness thing.
“He’s not the most flashy guy. But after he wrestled someone, his opponents usually come off the mat shaking their heads and thinking, wow, he’s a lot stronger than I thought.”
Ike’s dad, Terry, was the longtime coach at Westfield. In fact, he was Smith’s high school coach. But Terry never forced Ike into wrestling.
“He always gave us the option to wrestle,” Ike said. “Now, he says that, but if we stopped, I’m not sure how kindly he would have taken it. But he never wanted us to burn out in middle school. He let us control the pace that we developed.”
Currently O’Neill is ranked No. 6 in the 145-pound class. His goal this season is to place at state.
“Where Ike was at and where he is now is amazing,” Smith said. “He’s not the most gifted athlete but he certainly outworks everyone around him and his wrestling technique has really responded. That’s a testament to the kind of kid he is. He’s a no-mess around guy. He’s always there. He’s always trying to improve. He’s been our captain for two years now. He’s found his rhythm and it’s fun to sit back and see how good he can get.”