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Montgomery, Mekeel reap honors at banquet

Rich tradition

Sterling's Don Mekeel (left) and Rock Falls' Rich Montgomery were honored recently by the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association at their annual banquet. Mekeel was named Official of the Year, and Montgomery received the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Sterling's Don Mekeel (left) and Rock Falls' Rich Montgomery were honored recently by the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association at their annual banquet. Mekeel was named Official of the Year, and Montgomery received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

The northwest corner of Illinois has become famous for its excellence at the individual and dual team state wrestling tournaments.

The same can be said for the region at the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association gathering last weekend.

Rich Montgomery of Rock Falls and Don Mekeel of Sterling were two of the prominent honorees at the IWCOA hall of fame banquet April 12 in Countryside.

Montgomery was honored as a 2014 IWCOA Lifetime Achievement Award winner, while Mekeel was named the IWCOA Official of the Year.

“It really is an honor,” Mekeel said. “It verifies that some people, at least, think that what you’re doing is good, and that you’ve made a contribution in various ways. I am really proud of it.”

“Considering the people that are in that organization and have won that award, it’s humbling,” Montgomery said. “Denny Hastert, Charlie Anderson, Rich Holtfreter from Harvard – the list goes on and on. These people, in the history of our sport, they’re giants.

“To be in an organization with them, and to be at that level with them, it’s unbelievable,” Montgomery finished.

Montgomery started his teaching and coaching career at Jerseyville, his alma mater, but lasted there just 2 years due to budget cuts. He then came to the Sauk Valley, and has been a fixture here ever since.

Montgomery was the head wrestling coach at Newman from 1980-91. The Comets won a Class 1A state championship in 1985, and finished third in 1988.

In 1992, he went across the Rock River to Rock Falls, and guided the Rockets’ wrestling program until 2006. Montgomery’s teams won 420 dual meets, six conference titles, 10 regionals, and two sectionals.

Individually, Montgomery coached 17 state champions, 36 medal winners, and 62 state qualifiers.

“I was begging for a job after I got RIFed at Jerseyville, and lo and behold, I stumbled into the Newman deal,” Montgomery said. “I don’t know why it worked there, but it did. I had pretty good success here [at Rock Falls]. Again, I don’t know why, but it worked. I feel I owe wrestling now as much as I can.”

Montgomery has served on numerous IWCOA committees over the years, and is now the organization’s president. He spreads the word to coaches across the state about the benefits of joining and being active in an organization that promotes wrestling on many levels.

“I think now it’s more of a giving back to what wrestling gave to me,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery has served as the Rock Falls High School athletic director since 2001. The IWCOA also honored him as its Class A athletic director of the year for 2014.

On May 3, the Illinois Athletic Directors Association will honor Montgomery as its Division 4 Class 3A/4A AD of the year at a banquet in Peoria.

As a coach, Montgomery crossed paths often with Mekeel, who has been a wrestling official for the past 39 years. Mekeel dealt out high praise for Montgomery when it came to how coaches should deal with officials.

“He always treated me top-notch,” Mekeel said. “Even if I made a mistake, you didn’t hear from him. I always felt he’s a guy that could teach the class on how to work an official. You don’t work a guy by badgering him or belittling him. You work a guy by making him so comfortable working for you. You get a guy’s best work when he’s totally comfortable working in your environment.”

The duo were also adversaries in the coaching ranks, as Mekeel served as the Sterling coach from 1994-2003. He guided the Golden Warriors to 140 dual meet wins, two conference titles, two regional titles, and one sectional championship. They qualified for team state in 2002.

“Of course, Sterling and Rock Falls never want to lose to each other,” Mekeel said, “but I still think we maintained a very professional approach to our competition.”

Mekeel had 16 years of officiating under his belt when he took the Sterling coaching job. That lasted 10 seasons, after which he returned to officiating full-time.

“The coaching, you have to eat, drink, and sleep it,” Mekeel said. “It’s 24 hours a day of worrying about kids making weight, making the bus, making grades, and behaving. It was fun and rewarding, but I was happy to get back to the officiating.”

Mekeel has worked 13 state wrestling finals, either at the individual tournament or dual team tourney. He has twice been the coordinator of officials – at the 2012 dual team tourney, and the 2014 individual event.

In 2012, Mekeel and his son, Ryan, became the first father-son combo to work the dual team state wrestling finals, and they repeated that feat in 2014. Another son, Chris, is also an accomplished official, and has worked in the postseason at the sectional level.

“My boys both started officiating when they were 17,” Mekeel said, “and I thought, ‘Boy, it would really be neat if we got to do the Midlands [Tournament] together or the high school state tournament together. It was just a real sense of pride to see that happen 2 years ago. We’re hoping we take another step next year and get to work the individual state tournament.”

For the past 9 years, Mekeel has operated a local officiating class, helping 50 officials get their start. Mekeel also travels throughout the state, putting on clinics for new and veteran officials.

Mekeel was also instrumental in starting a scholarship program for the Sterling High School wrestling team. Through various fundraisers and saving tournament proceeds over the years, a nestegg of $100,000 was raised.

This year, $7,000 in scholarships were distributed to three graduating seniors.

• Also at the IWCOA banquet, Kevin Heller of Sterling was nominated for Class 2A assistant coach of the year. Newman’s Jake Snow was honored as a state champion wrestling.

Local officials Jim Busser of Polo and Roy Snyder of Rochelle were 2014 hall of fame inductees.

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