Dreaming Of A Team Mat Tournament

More Than a Game

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With Payson kids ready to begin their quest for individual state wrestling glory with the sectional tournament at Winslow High on Saturday, I can’t help but express my disappointment in the absence of a team state tournament in Arizona.

The individual tournament is great, to be sure, but it’s just not the same.

Before moving to Arizona, I grew up and worked in Michigan, where high school wrestling is big. And one of the highlights of the year for me was covering the state team tournament.

I was the head wrestling writer at a large daily newspaper in Flint, Mich. Our coverage area was a hotbed for high school wrestling with teams in every division vying for, and many winning state titles on a yearly basis. So there was a lot to keep up with, but I thrived on all that action. It was an adrenaline rush.

The team event began with district tournaments on either Wednesday or Thursday, depending on the division, with one team moving on to the team regionals the following Wednesday or Thursday, with the regional champ advancing to the state quarterfinals nine or 10 days later, with the semifinals and finals the following day.

Meanwhile, the individual tournament began with district action two or three days after the team districts, with the top four there moving onto the individual regionals the following Saturday and the top four there advancing to the 16-man state tournament two weeks later. Many had to put their individual goals on hold for a week while they tried to help their teams win titles.

The four-team regional champions converged on Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek for the quarterfinals on Friday and the semifinals and finals on Saturday. Since all four divisions were wrestling in the same place, Kellogg Arena was sold out every year. It was the hottest high school sports ticket every year.

In all my years of covering high school sports, there was nothing quite like the team wrestling finals. The atmosphere was absolutely electric inside a packed Kellogg Arena as teams battled for state championships.

Individual state tournaments pale in comparison to the team event. You may have a pretty good following for some of a school’s individuals, but it doesn’t compare to the enthusiasm and support a student body has for an entire team.

And those team tournaments provided countless moments of drama that I’ve rarely seen rivaled in the Arizona high school wrestling scene. That’s because, rather than the normal handful of standouts, if a team is lucky, every kid on the team plays a key role in any team winning a state championship.

I’ve seen kids who failed to qualify for the individual state finals for one reason or another wind up being the hero in their team winning a state crown by either upsetting an individual state qualifier, perhaps even a defending individual state champion, or merely staying off their back against a two-time state champion and keeping his team close enough to prevail at the next weight.

Imagine a kid getting mobbed by his teammates for simply not getting pinned with his team up a point with one match to go. So, instead of giving up six points, he loses by major decision (8-14 points) and surrenders four team points. So, the other team goes up three points (instead of five). But he kept the score close enough for his stud teammate to go out and clinch the title with a major decision.

There really is nothing quite as much fun. You have eight teams battling for state championships on four mats in front of maybe 4,000 spectators. And sometimes nearly all of them are cheering on one kid because the other three matches have ended and it’s the only bout still going.

I wrote a similar column while working at the White Mountain Independent in Show Low and I had someone with the Arizona Interscholastic Association ask me how they could hold the team state finals a week before the individual state finals. He asked what if a kid got hurt competing in the team tournament and couldn’t wrestle in the individual finals?

My response was simple: what’s more important, the team tournament or the individual tournament? To me, it’s clearly the team tournament. He didn’t see it that way.

I don’t understand that kind of thinking. A team is always more important than an individual. At least, that’s how I see it.

But I really don’t even see that as a concern. In my 14 years of covering the Michigan High School Athletic Association team wrestling tournament, I don’t remember an instance where a kid on a team I was covering got hurt in the team tournament and was unable to wrestle in the individual finals. It may have happened; I just don’t recall such an occurrence.

I was also told coaches and athletic directors would never go for it because it would push the start of spring sports back a week and that wouldn’t work because the spring sports need to get started early so they finish before it gets unbearably hot outside.

To me, that’s a situation that can be worked around. Anything can work if you want it to.

The AIA has sanctioned team state wrestling tournaments in the past, but haven’t since 2010. A Class 3A team tournament was held in 2010, with Safford beating Holbrook 40-25 in the final right here at Payson High’s Wilson Dome.

Unfortunately, there just didn’t seem to be enough support behind the tournament and it ended after one year. I’m sure the state tournaments for the larger schools, which were held every year, were more successful. But those have ended, as well.

Maybe there simply aren’t enough schools in Arizona and enough parents, coaches and athletic directors who are passionate about seeing a team tournament work to make it a reality.

But a guy can dream, can’t he?

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