In a short period of time, DeKalb Athletic Director Peter Goff announced a new coach, a new program and a new chapter to an old rivalry.
Last week, the school announced it is starting a girls wrestling program next school year while also naming a new girls basketball coach, Bradley Bjelk, currently the boys and girls tennis coach and an assistant on the girls basketball team.
All this happened in the lead-up to the DeKalb-Sycamore baseball doubleheader on Saturday, which for the first time is being played under the umbrella of the First National Challenge that the basketball and football games in the rivalry series are played. First pitch is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, although there is heavy rain and thunderstorms in the forecast all day Saturday.
Goff said he was approached by current wrestling coach Sam Hiatt about starting a girls wrestling program. The IHSA just sponsored its first state tournament, which Hiatt, Goff and the Barbs got to witness in person in February. The tournament took place at the same time as the boys dual tournament, in which DeKalb took second in Class 3A.
“We saw it firsthand this year when we were down at the state tournament,” Goff said. “It was great to see all those student-athletes wrestling for their state championship. I think that, hopefully, will open up and show girls that there is a sport for them, and it’s trending into the colleges.”
Hiatt said not only was seeing the state tournament an eye-opener, but there have been increasing numbers of girls in the lower levels of the programs for a while, and he said those athletes bring the same work ethic that has made the boys program one of the best in the state.
“We knew it was time. We didn’t want to wait around,” Hiatt said. “These junior high girls are focused on working out and doing club this summer, working just as hard as the boys. It’s exciting to see. Some are coming into high school next year, so we decided to see this girls team grow.”
No coach of the girls wrestling program has been named yet. But for girls basketball, Bjelk was named the coach to replace Mark Sykes, who stepped aside to focus on his assistant AD and teaching duties.
Bjelk is a 2000 DeKalb graduate, and he said one of his top goals is to bring consistency to a program that now is on its fifth head coach since the 2015-16 season.
“I was born and raised in DeKalb, and I have pride in this community,” Bjelk said. “There’s nothing I want more than to build a program in DeKalb that can win regionals, win sectionals and achieve the ultimate goal of competing for that state championship.”
Bjelk has been with the girls program in various forms for almost a decade. He’s been an assistant at the high school level and last year was at Clinton Rosette. There he saw some young talent and enthusiasm for the spot that has him optimistic about the future of the program.
His daughter, Jeamme Howard, is in sixth grade and in the program as well.
“It’s a good group,” Bjelk said. “There’s a great group of freshmen coming in, there’s good numbers and increasing numbers at the middle school and a good group of eighth graders. It seems like all the students in the program will still be in the program next year, only two or three seniors graduated. I feel like we’re going in the right direction in terms of numbers, and it’s a really bright future.”
Bjelk will step down as the girls tennis coach but remain coach of the boys team.
Goff said Bjelk is a strong learner with a real connection to the athletes.
“He really cares about student-athletes,” Goff said. “He’s a sponge on learning and to everybody about becoming a great, all-around coach.”
His first taste of the First National Challenge as a head coach likely will be in January in the annual rivalry game between the Sycamore and DeKalb girls basketball teams, part of a doubleheader with the boys basketball teams at the NIU Convocation Center.
On Saturday, the Spartans and Barbs meet in DeKalb on the baseball diamond in a doubleheader.
Tickets to the game are $6.50 and include a hot dog, chips and a drink. Sycamore baseball coach Jason Cavanaugh said if the game gets rained out, there is a possibility the teams could make it up May 7.
Goff said both booster clubs worked hard to make the game happen and he said it will expand next year.
“We want our spring athletes to get the same recognition as the fall and winter athletes,” Goff said. “Next year [Sycamore AD Chauncey Carrick] and I are going to sit down and see if we can do everything all at once. I know at DeKalb we can host the baseball, soccer and softball game at the same spot at the same time. Something like that.”