NORTHBROOK — A midseason injury left a hole in the Highland Park wrestling team’s lineup, but a freshman team call-up has provided the Giants with stability and excitement for the future.
When John Ciancio went down with an injury, it was freshman D.J. Penick who was brought up to the varsity team to help fill the gap.
“[Coming up to varsity], it was a good feeling,” Penick said. “Coach [Chris Riley] thought I was ready to move up and that I could perform on the next level.”
Penick had no problem proving that Riley made the right decision. He made his presence felt right away, winning the Leyden Wrestling Invitational at 145 pounds in just his third week wrestling with the varsity.
“I was extremely impressed by the way he was able to fill such big shoes,” said senior Dom Ciancio, John Ciancio’s brother. “He was able to step up when we need him and even won a pretty competitive tournament at the varsity level.”
Penick has earned an 8-2 record so far at the varsity level, but it hasn’t come as much of a surprise to Riley.
“He’s been wrestling well; coming up to varsity and making those adjustments is tough,” Riley said. “Many times the kids that come up their freshman year are wrestling at 106 and 113 [pounds]. He’s wrestling at 145, wrestling juniors and seniors.”
While that transition has been challenging physically for Penick, it’s been made easier by the support of the rest of the Highland Park team.
“They were very proud of me and the things I accomplished,” Penick said. “They all accepted me and they gave me little tips like, ‘stay low’ and ‘don’t waste your energy.’ ”
“They all brought me into the varsity family,” he added.
As the team moves into the most important part of the season, it is hoping that Penick can continue his strong performance.
“I think [Penick] will go into conference this weekend with momentum and hopefully take home the gold,” Dom Ciancio said. “Depending on the timing of John’s return, he’ll either represent Highland Park at the regional tournament … or he’ll be a great workout partner for my brother, myself and the rest of the guys.”
Penick said he has no problem with whatever role the team needs him to take on.
“I’m just going to continue to bring a hard-working attitude into the meets and practices,” he said. ”And be willing to do anything to help the Highland Park program.”