Huntley senior Aj Henkle considers being compared to a certain former Red Raider as the supreme compliment.
Raiders coach Andy Jakubowski regards Henkle as a “mini Jeff Heinrich,” referring to the 2017 Huntley graduate who now plays at McHenry County College.
“They have the same build. Their offensive approach [is similar], the way they are aggressive on the bases,” Jakubowski said. “They both have a little edge to them. They drive the ball in the gaps with power.”
Henkle loves it.
“Jeff is a really good player and to be compared to him is kind of cool,” Henkle said. “I remember when I was younger watching him play on varsity. He was one of the best players. That [comparison] is pretty awesome.”
The Raiders right fielder is one of the area’s top returning players after hitting .342 and knocking in 26 runs for the Class 4A state runners-up. He is one of five starters returning in the regular lineup for Huntley, which was 33-7 and won the Fox Valley Conference.
Henkle is different than Heinrich in one way. While Heinrich devoted all his time to baseball, Henkle has always played multiple sports.
This year, he took that to an extreme when he squeezed the second half of the Raiders’ wrestling season between football and baseball.
Henkle started at strong safety in football but missed the last three games with a broken foot. He had just started winter baseball workouts when he was watching his freshman brother Tim wrestle on varsity.
Henkle had wrestled through his freshman year, then worked on his other two sports. Watching his brother got him thinking.
“I really missed it,” Henkle said. “I wanted to finish out my senior season doing something fun. It turned out good, I’m happy about it.”
Henkle strengthened the Raiders’ lineup at 195 pounds. He even qualified for the Class 3A State Tournament.
“He had to ask the team,” Raiders wrestling coach B.J. Bertelsman said about Henkle joining midseason. “I think everybody said, ‘Yes,’ at once, even the kid who was wrestling at 195. His first match was a pretty critical one against Crystal Lake Central and he tech falls [a 15-point win] a kid. I’m like, ‘OK.’”
Bertelsman actually felt badly for some of Henkle’s opponents, who came into matches with sparkling records and were pinned or lost on technical falls.
“We always knew Aj was a good athlete,” Bertelsman said. “The past three years, we were trying to get him to come back.”
On some days, Henkle went to baseball open gyms before school, attended wrestling practice after school, then headed to Pro Player Consultants in McHenry for more baseball work.
“Those days were really busy. It was tiring,” Henkle said. “But it got me in better shape. I hadn’t worked out after football much. I needed to get into better shape and it helped.”
Jakubowski was proud one of his players helped out another program. The Raiders won the FVC title, advanced eight wrestlers to the individual state tournament and nearly reached the Class 3A State Team Dual Wrestling Tournament for a second straight season. Several injuries made it tougher on the Raiders, who lost their team dual sectional match to Prospect.
“Aj is the consummate team player,” Jakubowski said. “Lo and behold, he ends up going downstate as an individual and they come up a little bit short [as a team] of getting downstate. To do what he did to help out the wrestling program was an awesome thing on his part.”
So in the past 10 months, Henkle played on a team that nearly won the Class 4A baseball state championship (the Raiders lost a tough game to Plainfield North, 4-3), helped Huntley (6-4) reach the Class 8A playoffs in football and was a wrestling state qualifier.
“I’ve known Aj since he was a little kid, we’re good family friends with the Henkles,” Huntley football coach Matt Zimolzak said. “He’s just a competitor. He always finds things to compete at. He doesn’t like to sit around and relax. With his competitive spirit, he’ll do well with whatever he wants to do.”
Next year, he will head with teammates Hunter Rumachik, Jason Peters and Kyle Maurer to McHenry County College. Heinrich, a sophomore at MCC, will be gone however.
Before that, the Raiders, who have won two sectionals in the past three seasons, want to make another run.
“I’m looking to be a leader and set the example of hard work and doing what’s right, on and off the field,” Henkle said. “Play hard all the time. My goal is to make it to state and focus on getting better every day to achieve that.”