By Rob Sherrill
High school wrestling has lots of fans throughout the United States. But where is it the biggest?
Since the word “fan” is short for “fanatic,” every fan considers his or her team the biggest and the best and every fan could probably construct a pretty good supporting argument. Name a good team anywhere and you’ll likely find plenty of people in the gym for home and away meets, good (if not always prolific) media coverage and an otherwise positive image for the program in the school and the community.
The real hot spots of wrestling in this country are almost as diverse as the teams the fans in those areas root for. That’s why it was difficult to reduce this list to the nation’s top 10. What criteria rank as the most important?
Is it sheer numbers? Most major cities, thanks to their wide reach and population base, have solid bases of wrestling talent and support. Our Top 10 list includes three such areas, the Twin Cities (Minn.), the Cleveland-Akron corridor of northeast Ohio and Chicago (Ill.). All three areas have produced multiple teams that have become national powerhouses, have traditions that reach back generations and are the base for the strongest wrestling in their respective states. But we considered many others. Virtually every major city has some of the same characteristics.
Is it because wrestling is the only game in town? Mention the Lehigh Valley (Pa.), which actually includes a slice of New Jersey as well, and wrestling is the first topic that generally comes to mind. But while the Valley is a region, encompassing many schools, Owatonna (Minn.) … one school … one community…also made this list.
How about sheer success? California’s Central Section, anchored by the Clovis and Bakersfield areas, has led the California state tournament in state champions, place- winners and team placings in the recent past. On a smaller scale, the Brandon (Fla.) program has completely transformed a suburban town located in football-crazed and beach-friendly Florida.
The presence of an elite collegiate program … see the Twin Cities and the Cedar Valley-Iowa City (Iowa) region … may help. But the loss of one (Central Section), while temporarily devastating, clearly didn’t bring down the ship. Perhaps the adage “What doesn’t kill us will make us stronger,” has some truth to it.
And one of our picks is all about a cross-town rivalry. In Parkersburg (W.Va.), the Parkersburg High-Parkersburg South rivalry defines local athletic life three seasons a year. However, that rivalry takes on added significance in wrestling.
So … how do you define a wrestling hotbed? In more ways than one, as you’ll see from examining our list. Enjoy!
1. Lehigh Valley, Pa.
Located on Pennsylvania’s eastern edge, the Lehigh Valley still comes to more minds than any other. It’s not the biggest area as population goes, but no area has more programs with traditions established generations ago that continue to this day.
Easton High, Nazareth High and Northampton High have been the region’s “Big Three” for the past two decades, but other teams have been in the mix, too: Allentown Parkland High, Bethlehem Liberty High, and most recently, Pleasant Valley High, located in Brodheadsville, on the northern edge of the region. All compete in ultra-competitive District 11, and Liberty’s spacious, centrally-located gym, which hosts the area’s 3A district and region meets, as well as other big mat events, has become known as “District 11 Way.”
Media coverage of Lehigh Valley wrestling reflects its popularity. With no professional sports teams in direct competition for the space, the Allentown Morning Call and the Easton Express-Times are all wrestling, all the time in season, and the season’s major matches are staples on local cable.
Anchoring the area’s wrestling fanaticism: Bethlehem’s Lehigh University. Like the area’s high-school programs, Lehigh boasts a tradition that goes back generations.
And no discussion of Lehigh Valley wrestling would be complete without mentioning Phillipsburg (N.J.) High, which makes the aforementioned Big Three a Big Four. No matter the sport, the Easton-Phillipsburg rivalry is one of the best. The two schools meet annually on the football field every Thanksgiving Day, and their annual wrestling showdown is contested at Lafayette College in Easton.
2. Twin Cities, Minn.
In an area with lots of professional sports and entertainment options, the Twin Cities area scores on a variety of wrestling levels. It’s home to one of the nation’s top high school programs, Apple Valley High; one of the nation’s top Division I collegiate programs, the University of Minnesota; and one of the nation’s most active USA Wrestling state organizations, Minnesota/USA Wrestling.
Some call Apple Valley’s most recent standout, senior 152-pounder Destin McCauley, the nation’s top recruit this year. Though the Eagles will be loaded again this year, they’re not the entire Twin Cities show. In the past decade, Inver Grove Heights Simley High, Hastings High and St. Michael-Albertville High have made multiple appearances in WIN’s Top 25 teams, and Anoka High, Plymouth Wayzata High and Forest Lake High also have made appearances. Anoka’s Jake Deitchler, the first wrestler in 33 years to become a U.S. Olympic Team member while still in high school, will return to the Gophers’ starting line-up this year.
Thanks to a loyal fan base and aggressive marketing, University of Minnesota meets are among the biggest draws in college wrestling. Ditto at the Division III level for Augsburg College, which annually battles Wartburg College for national supremacy.
And on the first weekend of March, downtown St. Paul becomes a wrestling mecca as one of the nation’s best-run state tournaments takes over the state-of-the-art Xcel Energy Center. Minnesota was the first state to introduce the dual-meet state tournament — in 1975 — and to this day, no state embraces the team concept more firmly.
3. Fresno-Clovis, Calif.
Fresno State University’s wrestling program, a nationally-competitive program that produced Olympic silver medalist Stephen Abas and numerous All-Americans, shone like a beacon over this closely-knit region for generations. The loss of that program devastated wrestling fans in the region…and across the nation. But the Central Region — still known as the Central Valley — has kept on rolling. The section now has a stranglehold on state wrestling.
The annual battles between cross-town rivals Clovis High and Buchanan High, both of which have spent considerable amounts of time in WIN’s Top 25, have become the stuff of legends. Then there’s the state tournament. Here’s the Central Section report card for the past two years: in 2009, three state champions, and were runaway leaders in the numbers of state finalists (11) and place-winners (37). At least two Central wrestlers placed at each of the 14 weight classes. Six of the top nine team placings also went to the section. Buchanan, Clovis and Selma combined to score 375 points in the tournament. In 2010, Bakersfield High, Clovis, Selma High and Lemoore High made it a 1-2-3-4 Central team sweep, and the section also claimed six state champions and 33 place-winners. The section also hosts the state tournament, at RaboBank Arena in Bakersfield. Alex Cisneros (119) of Selma and Bryce Hammond (160) of Bakersfield, who have combined for three state titles, were ranked No. 1 by WIN in September.
4. Cedar Valley (Waterloo-Cedar Falls), Iowa-Iowa City, Iowa
Cedar Rapids is at the center of two Iowa hotbeds, located an hour or so apart, that are home to the two high school programs that have defined the landscape of big-school wrestling in Iowa for the better part of a decade: Waverly-Shell Rock High (Cedar Valley) and Iowa City West High (Iowa City). Iowa City West has advanced to the 3A dual state final eight consecutive years, and for five years in a row, three-time defending champion Waverly-Shell Rock has been their finals opponent. Expect the two teams to make 2011 the sixth straight year, which makes it only fitting that Cedar Rapids is the site of the dual-meet state tournament.
Of course, it helps to have Big Brother looking over your shoulder. The nearby University of Iowa has become the standard by which collegiate programs are measured. Recently, however, the bond between the Hawks and this hotbed has become stronger than ever. Never has Iowa’s roster contained more standouts bred in eastern Iowa than it does today. From this hotbed alone: brothers Mike, Mark and Jacob Ballweg (Waverly-Shell Rock); Dylan Carew, Grant Gambrall, Derek St. John and brothers Nate and Nick Moore (Iowa City West); and defending NCAA champion Matt McDonough (Marion Linn-Mar High).
5. New Jersey
We make the Garden State a hotbed as a state because of its unique geography … and unique media structure. Small in area but big in fan base, New Jersey has pockets of intense interest throughout … from the northwest part of the state, where Phillipsburg High, Sussex High Point High and their rivals along Interstates 78 and 80 can be found … to Bergen County, outside New York City, where the Bergen County Coaches Association Tournament captures the interest of the locals over the Christmas holidays; to southern New Jersey, where people love to hate small-school powerhouse Paulsboro High; to the Shore area, which, thanks to teams such as Jackson Memorial High, Long Branch High and Manahawkin Southern Regional High, just to name a few, has become the state’s wrestling powerhouse over the past half-decade.
Though the nearby New York City and Philadelphia areas generate plenty of professional sports buzz, no state’s print media cover wrestling — from one end of the state to the other — as completely as New Jersey does. The Newark Star-Ledger has been the newspaper of record for decades. The Star-Ledger’s statewide rankings are eagerly anticipated and the newspaper is a co-sponsor of the state tournament. It’s not all about the state’s flagship publication, however. To be completely well-versed of Garden State wrestling, a dozen other newspapers … from the Bergen Record in the north to the Trentonian in the south and … are must-reads.
6. Cleveland-Akron-Canton, Ohio
Thanks to the influence of the new elite — programs like defending WIN Top 25 champion St. Paris Graham High, located in the western part of the state — this area isn’t everything today, but the area known as “Northeast Ohio” still comes to most people’s minds when the heart of wrestling in Ohio is the topic of discussion. From Cleveland schools West High and West Tech, which established the earliest standards for the sport in the 1940s and 1950s, to the Maple Heights High teams that won 10 championships from 1956 to 1974, to the powerhouse of the current generation, Lakewood St. Edward High, which had state-record title streaks of 10 and 13 straight en route to 25 Division 1 state championships in a 32-year span. Cuyahoga Falls Walsh Jesuit High interrupted St. Edward’s domination in the 1990s, winning eight state titles from 1991-2000 — five in Division 1, three in Division 2 — as well as three consecutive mythical national crowns.
It was a St. Edward wrestler, Alan Fried, who became the first to win four Junior National freestyle titles. Talent from the area has been critical to Ohio State’s resurgence as a national power this decade and has kept Ohio in second place behind its neighbor to the east, Pennsylvania, in producing the most NCAA champions and All-Americans from year to year.
7. Chicago area, Ill.
Many metropolitan areas have great wrestling. Like the other two major cities in the top 10, the Twin Cities and Cleveland, the Chicago area has long been known to have the state’s best wrestling throughout its history. The area’s roster of top teams reads like a litany of regulars in WIN’s Top 25. Lombard Montini High, Orland Park Carl Sandburg High, Carol Stream Glenbard North High, New Lenox Providence High, Chicago Mount Carmel High, Chicago St. Rita High, Oak Park-River Forest High, and last year’s newest entry, Minooka High, have made multiple Top 25 appearances. No state regularly has more teams contending for top honors from year to year, a testament to the area’s balance.
Local support also has been a key to the continuing success of one of the nation’s top collegiate tournaments, the Midlands Wrestling Championships, which has helped put Northwestern University on display since 1963.
8. Owatonna, Minn.
The clear winner of the one-town, one-team hotbed sweepstakes, Owatonna’s inclusion on this list is a tribute to Owatonna High head coach Scot Davis, the undisputed leader in program promotion.
Under Davis’s guidance, Owatonna’s myriad of promotions include a great brochure, a colorful team poster, a newsletter … and even trading cards! The Huskies’ home meets are broadcast on two local radio stations — one AM, one FM — and on channel 20, Owatonna’s local Charter Communications channel. And each week during the season, local broadcaster Dale Benjamin and Davis produce “The Owatonna Wrestling Show,” a half-hour show which is broadcast on Channel 20 twice daily, five days each week.
Oh, and the gym is normally full, too.
It’s fitting exposure for a program that Davis has coached to 858 dual meet wins since 1986 and made 10 dual-meet state tournament appearances, including the Class 3A state title in 1998, two runner-up finishes and two third-place finishes, most recently last season.
9. Brandon, Fla.
Whereas Owatonna is a big fish in a small pond, Brandon is a 500-pound gorilla in a major metropolitan area. The Eagles are located in suburban Tampa’s Hillsborough County.
In a state where football — at any level — is king, Brandon is a wrestling oasis, thanks to the tireless efforts of Brandon High head coach Russ Cozart. His gym is always open, and plenty of wrestlers take advantage on a year-round basis. Though “The Streak,” which defined Brandon for nearly two generations, is now ancient history, the program … and the improving quality of its schedule since … is on more solid footing than ever.
Because the Tampa-St. Petersburg area has lots of entertainment options, Brandon wrestling doesn’t make the sports pages as frequently as it would if it were located in, say, New Jersey. But the sheer quality of the program has made it the kind of hotbed that now attracts wrestlers from inside and outside Florida’s borders.
10. Parkersburg, W.Va.
It’s all about the rivalry in this town, located in the northwest corner of the state at the intersection of Interstate 77 and the Ohio River. Any contest … in any sport … between Parkersburg High and its cross-town rival, Parkersburg South High, is a big deal for all involved.
The Battle of Parkersburg takes on greater significance in wrestling, however … because as Parkersburg goes, so goes the rest of the state. Tough schedules — the teams have frequently competed in events such as the Walsh Jesuit Ironman Invitational and the Powerade Tournament over the years — have been a major factor.
Name the era, and one or both of the Parkersburg schools have dominated it. Parkersburg High won the inaugural West Virginia state tournament in 1948, and through 1975, its final year as a one-class system, the Big Reds won 11 state titles – no other school won more than three over the same period. In 1975, South broke into the win column for the first time.
One of the two Parkersburg schools has won 25 of the last 29 Class 3A state tournaments, with two-time defending champion South winning 15 of those.
They also combined to claim five individual champions last year. It’s no wonder the state tournament is often referred to as the Parkersburg Invitational.
• Bennington, Vt. — Mount Anthony High is the only game in town and the Patriots have responded with 22 consecutive state championships, the longest active state high school association streak.
• Chattanooga, Tenn. — the center of Tennessee high school wrestling with powers Cleveland Bradley Central High and Soddy Daisy High (public) and Chattanooga rivals Baylor School and McCallie School (private), with positive leadership from Tennessee-Chattanooga coach Heath Eslinger, an area native.
• Harrisburg, Pa. — Central Dauphin High, Mechanicsburg Cumberland Valley High and others have contributed to the South Central region’s recent rise to Class 3A power.
• Lawrence, Mass. — strong bi-state media coverage in an area recently made famous by New England’s top program, Plaistow (N.H.) Timberlane High, located just across the state line.
• Long Island, N.Y. — few areas have as much history or tradition as Nassau County (Section 8) and Suffolk County (Section 11), which are covered like a blanket by Newsday, the island’s newspaper of record. Your father and grandfather are as likely to be in the crowd at places like Massapequa High and Huntington High as you are.
• Perry, Okla. – as the hometown of Dan Hodge, in whose name WIN’s Hodge and Junior Hodge trophies are presented annually, Perry is a small town virtually unparalleled by wrestling standards. The school hosts the Perry Tournament of Champions each December, and has won 45 state titles, including double titles five of the past six years.
• Pittsburgh, Pa. — the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) is a powerhouse in every sport, and as the home of the Powerade Tournament and the Dapper Dan Classic, wrestling is a shining example.
• Rio Rancho, N.M. — at one time, Aztec High dominated the mats in this state. Now it’s the Vikings, who are clearly the big men on campus. Not only have they won the last four 5A state titles, but they host the state tournament as well.
• State College, Pa. — in the shadow of powerful Penn State, small but storied powers Clearfield High, Philipsburg-Osceola High, Wingate Bald Eagle Area High and Mill Hall Central Mountain High pack them in.
• Wausau-Kaukauna, Wis. — in 2009, no rivalry was closer or more heated than the one between local rivals Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln high and Wausau West High. Nearby Kaukauna High has made the area — as well as its own program — the state’s hotbed, thanks to the steadily-growing Cheesehead Invitational.