Prep wrestling preview: Move to three divisions draws mixed reviews
On paper, nothing has changed for area schools in wrestling.
The five schools that were classified as Class AA last year in the old two-class system are now in the Class 2A division under the expanded three-class setup.
The 16 area schools that were listed as Class A last season in the former two-class format now are entrenched in the Class 1A division.
In reality, plenty has changed:
– sectional champions will be seeded at state for the first time based on a predetermined formula that features several factors, including wins for the season and previous state placings;
– there will be 50 percent more state champions this season.
There's mixed reaction from coaches.
"The three-class system will give the 2A schools some individual success they wouldn't have been able to achieve in the two-class system," Mahomet-Seymour coach Rob Ledin said, "but it will have some water-down effect for individuals.
"I think the three-class system is fine for dual team but not for individual."
Ledin's preference is to cut back the individual state finals.
"What I would like to see is to make the individual state tournament one class," he said. "That would take the question marks out of the equation and crown a true state champion."
Ledin's point about diluting the competitive field makes sense to Rob Sherrill, who has compiled weekly state rankings for 25 years.
"Class expansion dilutes the talent. This is not open to debate," Sherrill said. "The resulting classes have been weakened everywhere class expansion has taken place, and that includes the other tough states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa.
"What may wind up happening is that it'll be harder for kids in the new 2A to get attention from college coaches, much like it is for the 1A kids now."
To support his contention, Sherrill said this year's Class 2A field will not have a single returning individual state champion. By contrast, the Class 1A field will have nine former state champions. In 3A, four former state titlists return.
Centennial coach Ed Mears said whether the state tournament is watered down will be a matter of perspective.
"Diluted?" Mears said. "As long as (defending AA state champion) Montini is in 2A, it will not be diluted.
"I think downstate Illinois will get a better chance to represent at the state level."
Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley/Fisher coach Ryan Birt believes by the time the three classes reach the matches for medals, there'll be fierce competition.
"The top one to four kids will still be outstanding wrestlers," Birt said. "All divisions should have some great wrestling."
Oakwood coach Dave Markwell doesn't buy the theory that smaller-school wrestlers will be overlooked by colleges.
"If a kid is a good wrestler, he'll get recognized and they'll take him," Markwell said. "Look at Tyrone Byrd (former Clinton athlete who became an All- American at the University of Illinois).
"This (expansion) is a great thing. It gives more kids an opportunity to wrestle at state, and that's a thrill in itself."
Prairie Central's Joe Cliffe appreciates "the opportunity for a greater number of athletes to compete at the state tournament level," but not all of his dreams came true.
"I wish the IHSA chose to expand the number of competitors in all classes," Cliffe said. "I also wish that they went to a three-day state tournament."
The new format will feature 12 qualifiers (and four medal winners) in Class 1A and 2A, but 16 qualifiers (and six medal winners) in Class 3A.
That translates into 40 athletes per weight class competing at state. Under the two-class format, there were 36 combined qualifiers per weight.
The number of additional state qualifiers this year will be 56.
"The level of competition in this state is pretty high," Cliffe said. "I believe this is the right time to expand the classes."
At sectionals, the top three placers secure berths at state in 1A and 2A, but in 3A, all four wrestlers who reach the semifinals will advance.
There are 407 wrestling programs in the state this season. By class, that is 118 in 1A, 129 in 2A and 160 in 3A.
Last year, there were also 407 programs with 113 in A and 294 in AA.
Among area schools, Rantoul (enrollment 805) now will be the ninth-smallest school in 2A while Danville (1,589 students) will be the 10th largest.
"I think the 2A and 3A will be weird at first," said Danville coach George Hiler, "but like everything else, you will get used to it."
M-S' Ledin is optimistic that additional changes could be in store.
"I believe that the dual team should be before the individual state tournament," he said. "In fact, I wouldn't care if you divided the dual team into eight classes, like football.
"The inequalities of wrestling exist more on the team level. A large school will be able to field a stronger lineup than a small school, but a small school could have the best individual on that team, for example (2008 state champion) Jordan Blanton from Richmond-Burton."
Sherrill, meanwhile, believes area schools can quickly become players on the state scene in 2A.
"Mahomet-Seymour (currently ranked third) will certainly be a factor in the new 2A," Sherrill said. "The same is possible for Champaign Central (ranked 11th) and some of the other Big 12 schools.
"In the new 2A, most of the teams are schools not in the Chicago area."
Milestones looming. Twenty-four area athletes enter the season with the prospects of reaching 100 career victories. Included in that group are Mahomet-Seymour teammates Andrew Brewer and Jared Ernst, who started the season with 98 varsity victories.
Others within 40 wins of 100 include LeRoy's Tyler Wilfley (92 wins), Salt Fork's Caleb Williams (88), Oakwood's Austin Patton (84), Champaign Central's Aryn Gilenson (82), LeRoy's Cory Matlock (82), M-S' Zach Ochs (79), Westville's Dusty Zaayer (77), Centennial's Nick Congdon (75), GCMS/Fisher's Guy Kirby (74), LeRoy's Dan Monical (73), St. Thomas More's Stephen Montez (73), Salt Fork's Timmy Thomas (69), St. Joseph-Ogden's Brytt Hallowell (68), GCMS/Fisher's Stephan Birt (65), Clinton's Cody Haas (64), Champaign Central's Brandon Ward (64), Centennial's Cam Pickett (63), M-S' Cody Briggs (61), SJ-O's Josh Johnson (61), Argenta-Oreana's Cody Sleeth (61), Urbana's Caleb Blaney (60) and M-S' Branden Harvey (60).
At the outset of the season, two area seniors were already members of the 100-win club.
GCMS/Fisher's 160-pound Colten Unzicker started the season with a 110-15 record. Argenta-Oreana's 215-pound Cody Force began the season at 100-14.
State recognition. Sherrill's Illinois Best Weekly rankings this week include five area athletes in 2A and four in 1A.
Those receiving recognition in 2A are M-S' Brewer (first at 171), Central's Ward (fourth at 171), M-S' Jason Cleary (third at 189), Urbana's Blaney (second at 215) and M-S' Ochs (second at heavyweight).
In 1A, LeRoy's Wilfley (second at 135), GCMS/Fisher's Kirby (fourth at 135), GCMS/Fisher's Unzicker (first at 160) and A-O's Force (fourth at 215).
In last season's state meet, Wilfley (third at 140) was the only area underclassman to earn a medal.
A call to the Hall. Oakwood's Markwell will be among the people enshrined in the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association Hall of Fame on April 18 at the annual banquet.
"It was a dream of mine, but I never thought it would be a reality," Markwell said. "What a thrill. I couldn't be any happier."
He retired as a teacher after 35 years last spring but continues to coach the Comets. This is his 21st year coaching Oakwood and 25th as a high school wrestling head coach.
Entering the season, Markwell's teams were 307-155-8 overall and 277-107-8 at Oakwood. He has coached 33 state qualifiers and 10 state placers while winning eight conference titles, eight Vermilion County titles and four regionals.
Quick hits. The GCMS/Fisher cooperative program will hold its one dual meet at Fisher on Tuesday against Shelbyville, starting at 6 p.m. The program includes 10 squad members from Fisher. ... Danville's Hiler is in his first year at the school. The Rantoul native coached the last six years at Crete-Monee, which increased its participation from 20 to 60 in his final three seasons. ... Hoopeston Area's new head coach, Ryan Morehouse, was an assistant the past two years at Marion (S.C.) High School. ... Oakwood retains 12 starters from last season, M-S has 11 regulars back and LeRoy has 10. ... LeRoy's Wilfley came into the season needing 35 wins to break the school's career record. A-O's Force entered the season 38 wins from the all-time wins mark. ... Salt Fork's squad is down to seven this season. ... If St. Thomas More's Montez reaches 100 career wins, he would be the first wrestler in the 7-year-old program to achieve that mark. ... Urbana's Blaney set the school record last season for wins by a 215-pounder (35) and could break it this winter.