Dakota High School’s Josh Alber is on the verge of history. Is the 132-pound wrestler also on the edge of greatness?
In the first 76 years of IHSA prep wrestling in Illinois, no individual has ever won every match of his high school career.
Alber was an unbeaten champion as a freshman. He followed up with an unblemished sophomore season in 2012 and secured the three-peat last year.
He brings a 40-0 season record — including 20 pins and eight technical falls — into the Class 1A division of the state tournament, which starts at 1 p.m. Thursday at State Farm Center.
If Alber accomplishes a feat that has never occurred, will that give him claim to being the state’s best wrestler in history?
Opinions from state coaches are mixed.
“I am not willing to say he is the best ever, but I am willing to say he is one of the best competitors ever,” Lincoln-Way East coach Tyrone Byrd said. “He has put that unblemished record on the line against some of our state’s best wrestlers (including Jered Cortez and Johnny Jimenez) and came out on top. I am forever impressed with his unwavering confidence, poise under pressure and competitive spirit.
“This kid is certainly one of the best ever. His college and international career will definitely be a determining factor on where he falls on the long list of greats. He is definitely on the list, though. They most certainly have to entertain his name when talking about the best,” added Byrd, a former two-time state champion at Clinton.
For several coaches, the class system is what creates difficulty in evaluating some of the state’s greats. It’s a valid point, according to Granite City coach George Kirgan.
“The 3A tournament is tougher than all 1A and 2A combined, in my opinion,” Kirgan said. “The 1A success during his freshman and sophomore years may not have been duplicated in 3A. I think Josh Alber is the best 1A wrestler of all time.”
Crystal Lake Central coach Justen Lehr prefers to take a smaller view on the topic.
“Bottom line is you beat who is put in front of you,” Lehr said. “The fact that he is undefeated, to this point, in my opinion, makes him the greatest wrestler of this four years. Too many other factors play into comparing other wrestlers to Josh across the decades.”
Alber is seeking a state championship for the fifth consecutive year. He was an IKWF state champion as an eighth-grader.
“There will always be the argument that if a Class 1A wrestler goes undefeated and is a four-timer, that he won’t be considered the best because the competition at the bigger schools is so much better,” Richmond-Burton coach Bret Wojcik said, “but if a Class 1A wrestler goes undefeated, wins four state titles along the way and he goes to the biggest tournaments in the state two years in a row and beats the best kids from 3A a couple different times, then I think he is the greatest wrestler in state history.”
Wojcik is describing Alber’s path the past two seasons.
“He has proven himself against the best 3A and 2A schools, not to mention a very tough offseason schedule,” Lena-Winslow coach Kevin Milder said. “Josh has also wrestled up (in the next weight class) a number of times to wrestle tougher kids.”
Aurora Marmion’s Jimenez and Glenbard North’s Cortez — an Illini recruit — are in position to win their fourth state championships this weekend. Both are ranked No. 1 in their Class 3A divisions, Jimenez at 126 and Cortez at 132.
Alber defeated both during the regular season, edging Jimenez 3-1 and Cortez 5-3 in overtime.
Former Mahomet-Seymour state champion Rob Porter — now the head coach at Naperville Central — said seeing is believing when it comes to Alber.
“I watched video of Josh beating Cortez,” Porter said. “Cortez is signed to wrestle for the University of Illinois next year and is a blue-chip recruit. So yes, Josh Alber is legit.”
For Wojcik, that’s a major selling point.
“Those wins speak for themselves,” he said. “In my opinion, he is the best wrestler in state history.”
Two former prep wrestlers in the state came close to winning every match. Sterling Newman’s Mike Mena had one tie to show on his illustrious career.
Chicago Mount Carmel’s Joe Williams won 177 of his 178 prep matches. The loss came when a referee called him for what was considered a controversial illegal slam.
As for where Alber would rank by joining the short list of four-time state titlists, Mattoon coach and former M-S athlete Brett Porter believes it’s an issue that doesn’t need to be addressed.
“Nobody should take from the past four-time state champions because of different generations,” Brett Porter said. “These few individuals should not have to justify their place in history or be ranked.
“They should be cherished for bringing excitement and entertainment to the fans wanting to watch excellence.
“They should be the benchmarks, dreams and goals for future wrestlers who aspire to this legacy.”
Though the subject is one that will be debated throughout the weekend as Alber continues his quest, Mahomet-Seymour coach Rob Ledin believes ultimately there is no right or wrong answer.
“This ‘greatest’ tag is a tough call for anyone in any sport,” Ledin said. “It’s much like the Michael Jordan/Magic Johnson/Larry Bird debate. Or the Tom Brady and Peyton Manning debate. It’s hard to compare, yet they are all great in their own right.”
Though Alber’s high school career is nearing an end — Dakota remains in contention in the team-dual series, so he will return to the mats Tuesday — many coaches think what occurs after the teenager enrolls at the University of Northern Iowa will help determine his place in the history books.
“The state of Illinois has had an incredible amount of success at the next level, and I think that’s how a wrestler’s legacy is earned,” said Dakota coach Pete Alber, Josh’s uncle. “His legacy has really just begun.”
Pete Alber doesn’t buy the automatic superiority of wrestlers in 3A over their counterparts in 1A or 2A.
“It doesn’t matter if you go to a school of 500 or 5,000,” he said. “If you do all the right things and are committed to being the best, then success will be inevitable. The hard work and that extra mile is what separates the best from the rest.
“Since middle school, Josh has been committed to wrestling in the offseason, finding the best competition and practice partners, and working hard to get where he is now.”
Many of those four-time prep champions continued to excel beyond high school. Mena was a four-time All-American at Iowa. Williams was not only a three-time national champion for Iowa but also a two-time Olympian.
Four-time winner T.J. Williams, also from Mount Carmel, was a two-time NCAA champion for the Hawkeyes.
“If you asked people to make a top 10 list, there would be an incredible amount of variation because Illinois has a very rich history of wrestling that really got kick-started in the 1970s,” Pete Alber said.
Also relevant to the discussion are the weight classes in which an individual competes.
“Sometimes at the lighter weights, you see more underclassmen than you do at the middle to upper weights,” Sycamore coach Alex Nelson said. “You don’t see the depth in the smaller classes because they have less students to choose from, so match in and match out, you are not seeing that tough competition as often as you would in bigger classes.”
The Alber family has been one of the most decorated in state history. Josh’s father, Tony, was a state champion, as were his uncles, Pete and Greg, along with a cousin, Vince (Pete’s son). Between the five, they have 13 top-three finishes at state.
There has been no stopping Josh Alber on the mat. There’s also no stoppage of the speculation on what’s his rightful place on the all-time charts.
“People will always say ‘what if he was 3A’ or ‘what if he wrestled so and so from 10 years ago,’ ” Geneseo coach Jon Murray said. “It’s a great discussion. Wrestling people love debating this stuff.”
The bottom line was perhaps best summed up by Oak Park-River Forest coach Mike Powell.
“Trying to compare Josh to someone like T.J. Williams is like trying to compare Mozart to Beethoven,” Powell said.
Josh Alber at a glance
Season-by-season results for the Dakota High School athlete who holds the state record for consecutive matches won in wrestling:
YEAR RECORD WEIGHT
Freshman 37-0 103
Sophomore 44-0 120
Junior 50-0 120
x-Senior 40-0 132
Career 171-0 —
x — entering state meet Thursday at State Farm Center