Youth clubs give wrestling much-need shot in the arm
It is the ultimate paradox.
There are fewer opportunities for wrestlers to earn scholarships at Division I colleges than there were 10 years ago, yet there is an increase in participation in the sport at the high school and youth levels.
The logic is hard to understand for those who view high school athletic programs as feeder systems for the nation's universities. For coaches who have worked with or followed high school or youth wrestling programs, however, the interest is not difficult to gauge.
"I truly believe that high school athletes are not necessarily in the sport just because they think they will be doing it in college or as a professional," said Merle Ingersoll, whose involvement with the Champaign's kids' club program for students from first through eighth grades spans the past 18 years.
"Very few of them have this actual dream. They are doing it because they love the sport and they want to participate in something in their school. After that, they become more career-focused and are going after different dreams."
Whether at the youth or high school levels, wrestling is flourishing.
The Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation has seen an increase of more than 2,200 wrestlers in the past decade.
According to the National High School Federation, there's an additional 28,070 wrestlers since the 1997-98 school year.
John Gillis, who tracks participation numbers for the National Federation of High Schools, isn't surprised by what the data reveals.
"Sports participation in all high school sports has increased the past 18 years," Gillis said, "so it stands to reason that wrestling participation has commensurately increased."
Among Division I colleges, barely one-quarter now offer wrestling. According to the NCAA Web site, 88 schools (roughly 27 percent of the membership) are competing in wrestling this year. Interestingly, 74 of those schools had at least one NCAA qualifier last season.
With schools limited to 9.9 scholarships, that would mean about 861 wrestlers receiving aid, if each was on full scholarship (which most aren't).
Research done by Leo Kocher, from the University of Chicago, several years ago showed that for every one college wrestling program [dash] at any level [dash] there are 32 high school programs.
Rob Sherrill, who wrote a book on the history of high school wrestling in Illinois and has compiled state rankings for the past 24 years, sees the same trend nationally that Ingersoll cited within Illinois.
"Compare two states that almost border each other," Sherrill said. "North Carolina, amazingly, has six Division I wrestling programs and high school wrestling, understandably, is doing very well there in terms of numbers.
"Then look at Georgia. Zero college wrestling programs at any level. The Atlanta area is a great wrestling area. The state's population is growing and all the new schools there have wrestling. Those statistics tell me that the lack of college programs isn't having much of an effect on whether or not wrestling is growing at the high school level and below.
"Schools recognize that kids have to have an option in the winter other than basketball, in which kids have to be tall to succeed and you can only put five on the court at once."
Former Urbana High School and Illinois State University wrestler Mark Mammen has been a coach in the Tiger Wrestling Club for 15 years. He has made an effort to keep his numbers steady.
"We've not done everything we could to advertise for our club," Mammen said. "I've had a problem with getting enough parents to help as coaches.
"During the years I feel we can handle it, we've generally had very good numbers."
Sherrill doesn't see gloom and doom in the future for wrestling.
"The bottom line is this: Wrestling is a sport that is growing and surviving on its own merits because it has a solid history and a solid constituency. Though it appears there aren't enough college spots for all of those wrestlers, the fact is that college wrestling takes as much heart and desire as it does talent and ability, and if a kid is really committed to finding a place to wrestle in college, a place will open up for him."
Mammen is convinced that wrestling as a sport is not hurting or facing extinction.
"By people who know wrestling, it remains a highly respected sport," Mammen said. "The interest in wrestling is very high, and it will continue to thrive."
Perhaps for the true diehards, there will be more opportunities sooner than later. If participation is the bottom line, students at Illinois State University, in Normal, came up with a solution in October 2006.
They formed the Redbird Wrestling Club, which competes in open tournaments (such as the Midlands) as well as against other club programs nationally.
It's a concept that is mushrooming in popularity, though ISU's is the only one in existence within Illinois.
"There are over 200 (club) teams in the U.S.," ISU club president Jeremy Edward said. "We're going to Ohio State (March 2) to compete in a 20-school conference tournament, and those who finish high enough will go to the nationals in Florida (March 14-16)."
The Naperville Central graduate was a sectional qualifier in high school and was pleased he didn't need to leave the sport behind when he enrolled in college.
"Next year, we're getting our first person who is coming here to wrestle," Edward said.
The team worked out informally last year, but this season has a volunteer coach in Mike Manahan, a Hall of Famer from Olympia High School.
"We train at (Normal) University High School (at 9 p.m.), but we're looking for a place we can call our own," Edward said.
Former ISU wrestling club president Jon DeLashmit said the squad members are charged $100 apiece but added "that doesn't begin to cover the expenses of medical supplies, mat cleaner, travel and tournament expenses."
To make ends meet, he said, "we've had some generous contributions from members of the wrestling community."
Mammen said the interest in ultimate fighting or mixed martial arts could be a boon for wrestling.
"A lot of wrestlers have done very well in it and have gotten their names elevated to heights wrestlers had not seen in the mainstream," Mammen said. "They are sports celebrities now.
"Wrestling is like a martial arts. Kids are understanding that some of these mixed martial arts champions started off as wrestlers and that was their primary base of training. A lot of kids are watching that and are motivated to get into wrestling."
Nationally, high school wrestling ranks as the sixth-most popular sports for boys, trailing (in order) football, basketball, track, baseball and soccer, but coming in ahead of (in order) cross-country, golf, tennis and swimming.
From Ingersoll's point of view, the state of wrestling at the collegiate level doesn't need to be a precursor of a possible trickle-down effect in the younger divisions.
"Why do you think that it has to go downward instead of upward?" Ingersoll said. "Have you ever thought that maybe the growth at the lower level in youth and high school wrestling may trickle up and increase the number of collegiate programs?"
Earlier this week, the IHSA perhaps helped to promote future growth in wrestling in the state [dash] or at least to avoid a decline [dash] by increasing the number of state champions by 33 percent for the 2008-09 school year.
The current state tournament, which concludes Saturday at the Assembly Hall, will be the final one under the two-class format. A three-class event has been approved for next year.