CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois High School Association state wrestling tournament — which starts Thursday afternoon at the Assembly Hall — celebrates its 76th birthday.
The annual event is unveiling a sparkling new look in the fourth year of the three-class state finals.
The small schools, those competing in Class 1A and 2A, will match their Class 3A brethren for the number of medalists per weight class: six.
There are also more competitors than ever seeking individual championships. Since the creation of three classes, a total of 560 athletes were on campus challenging for state titles. That count has risen to 672 this season and is evenly distributed (at 16) for each weight class in 1A, 2A and 3A.
That move creates another major difference. Sectional champions no longer receive first-round byes but must compete in the first round in order to reach the quarterfinals.
Sectional champions, however, were seeded with those earning the first and fourth seeds being assigned to one bracket while the second and third seeds were placed in the opposite bracket.
With more candidates for the coveted top spots, more matches are required and, thus, the event becomes a three-day finale for the first time. Thursday's opening-round Class 1A matches are scheduled to start at 2:30 p.m.
The extra session is not much of an issue, according to Centennial coach Ed Mears, whose Chargers will have three competitors at state.
"The third day is great," Mears said. "All of the teams in the past were in Champaign on Thursday any way."
There also will be champions in six weight classes that have never before been contested. The revised weight divisions for 2012 created competition for the first time at 106 pounds, 113, 170, 182, 195 and 220. The 195-pound class marks the first time in IHSA history that any weight in the 190s was a certified class.
"I am not sure that it is perfect, but I am sure it is a necessary change that should continue to evolve," St. Thomas More coach Cord Schroeder said. "High school boys are just getting bigger. We need to adjust the weight classes accordingly. I love the shift."
Only one weight class (145) has been contested every year since the tournament's inception in 1937.
Four of this year's weight classes are ones that had once been contested but have been dormant for a while. The 120-pound class was last held in 1969. The most recent year for crowning champions at 126, 132 and 138 was 1988.
Three weight classes, in addition to 145, were left unchanged.
The 152- and 160-pound classes have been intact since 1989. The 285-pound limit was raised from 275 in 2007.
"There are a lot of positive changes going on with wrestling right now," Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley/Fisher coach Josh Carter said. "I am 100 percent on board with the changes to the state tournament.
"Increasing opportunities for wrestlers to qualify and place at state is a good thing for them and helps promote the sport to more people."
LeRoy coach Doug DeWald, whose Panthers are ranked second by the Illinois Best Weekly in Class 1A, is among those who are hopeful that more changes will occur.
"I think the next step is to make the individual state tournament a true wrestleback to third place, which would make it double elimination," DeWald said. "I think adding the third day (at state) this year is also a step in the right direction to making double elimination a real possibility.
"I think the IHSA will take a look at the time constraints and, if it can be done, I believe they will do it next year."
Though sectional tournaments this year featured a true double-elimination format, the setup at state is that only wrestlers who lose to an opponent who ultimately advances to the semifinals are allowed in wrestlebacks, where they also are joined by all semifinal losers.
"We (coaches) would like to see the true wrestleback to third instead of the follow-the-leader format," Mahomet-Seymour coach Rob Ledin said, "but we will take what we can get."
Schroeder is an example of a person whose mind-set has changed, and he now embraces decisions he originally opposed.
"At first I hated, but I have grown to appreciate, the change to three classes in Illinois," said Schroeder, a former state champion wrestler at Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley. "I hate the fact that it dilutes the title of 'state champ,' but I understand the numbers and realize several kids now have a chance that otherwise wouldn't."
In the three years since the three-class tournament was introduced, schools that had struggled to compete consistently at the state level are now regularly gaining medalists.
Among the prominent examples are Champaign Central, Carbondale and Lincoln.
Between 1968 and 2008 (the final year of the two-class tourney), Central had four athletes earn state wrestling medals. In the past three years, three Maroons have captured medals.
In the history of Carbondale's program, four Terriers were state medalists through 2008. In the past three years, the school has produced three medalists, including its first state champion last year, junior Zane Richards, who returns as a senior and is top-ranked in his weight class.
Lincoln's ascension is similar. The Railsplitters had seven state medalists between 1965 and 2008 but added three more during the past three years, including the first athlete from the school to earn two medals (Nick Haferkamp).
No 'guaranteed' wins
In the tweaking of the sport, a significant change occurred with the elimination of "walkover" matches. Those were the ones where individuals might find themselves paired up with someone they had previously met in the tournament.
The historical solution was to advance the previous winner without the other athlete having the chance to make amends for the earlier outcome. That policy has gone by the wayside.
"It just makes sense," Schroeder said. "Why not let them wrestle again? Wrestling is a sport built around the idea that we settle everything on the mat. Just because you beat someone once doesn't mean they shouldn't have to wrestle you again."
Is it all good?
Not all changes will be welcomed by the fans. A byproduct of extending the state finals to three days is that the semifinals now will be contested Friday night. They always have been a staple of the Saturday morning session.
While some folks will support the idea of giving the semifinal winners virtually a 24-hour break before returning to action — which is standard procedure in states such as Iowa and Wisconsin — it will create hardships for working parents.
Until now, they could work their regular shift Friday and arrive in Champaign from any part of the state to see the semifinals and finals on Saturday. Now, to see the semifinals — especially if their interest is in the lower weights — long-distance commuters may be forced to take at least a half-day off from work, if they come to the tournament at all.
There's less incentive for anyone — except parents and the most ardent wrestling fans — to attend the Saturday morning session en masse. None of the championship-match wrestlers will compete.
One overlooked aspect — except by coaches and wrestlers — is that qualifiers who continue winning will be required to make weight three consecutive days, instead of twice.
"It is going to be difficult for some guys to watch their weight from Thursday to Saturday with all of the long waiting times between rounds," Centennial's Mears said.
It is probably a coincidence, but wrestling participation among state high schools is at its highest level in more than two decades. This year, there were 440 teams that entered the state series.
By contrast, the total in 2010 was 393 schools. In 2005, there were 383 prep programs in Illinois.
Unity coach Bob Case doesn't wonder why there's an increase. Instead, he wonders why there aren't more.
"The better question," he said, "is why would anyone not want to wrestle? Wrestling is a great sport. If you do the same thing at any other time, you get detentions."
Schroeder believes the sport has helped clean up its image and alter the public impression of it as an activity where teenagers were underfed and going to great lengths to lose dramatic amounts of weight, often in a short time.
"Wrestling has successfully addressed the ridiculous over-dieting and starvation that used to occur," Schroeder said. "The body-fat testing system is not perfect, but it definitely has had a huge impact on the amount of extreme dieters and the overall perception of the sport."
'The few and the proud'
Other factors can be traced to the revitalization of wrestling.
"It's a sport that teaches self-discipline and that hard work is the answer," Urbana coach Charles Trabaris said. "An athlete doesn't necessarily have to be the quickest or the strongest, but it is generally the athlete in wrestling who is the hardest working that will win, which mimics life to some degree.
"A lot of times for the people who succeed at what they do, it's because of how hard they work at each aspect of their job."
Hoopeston Area's Ryan Morehouse elaborated on the same theme.
"Wrestling is the best sport to teach young boys how to become men," Morehouse said. "It takes discipline, desire and determination. Wrestlers are the few and the proud."
Wrestling is more accepted by coaches in other sports.
"Football coaches at all levels are supporting wrestling programs," Schroeder said. "College football coaches are recruiting wrestlers that star in football. NFL teams have listed wrestling backgrounds as a huge positive.
"High school coaches have seen the results that small, elite wrestling schools are having on the football field and know that it is not a coincidence."
A prominent example is Dakota's Jake Apple. Last November, he rushed for a football championship game state-record 373 yards at Memorial Stadium.
He returns this weekend to compete next door to the stadium. Apple brings a 28-0 season record and the No. 1 ranking into the Class 1A 182-pound division.
What the future holds is purely speculation, but according to M-S' Ledin there's one thought he considers fact.
"In my opinion, wrestling is the greatest and fairest contact sport," he said.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A complete schedule for this week’s IHSA state wrestling tournament at the Assembly Hall:
Noon — Weigh-ins
2:30 p.m. — Class 1A preliminaries (six mats)
4:30 p.m. — Class 2A preliminaries (six mats)
6:30 p.m. — Class 3A preliminaries (six mats)
6 a.m. — Weigh-ins
8:30 a.m. — Class 1A, 2A, 3A quarterfinals (two mats each)
1 p.m. — First-round wrestlebacks (two mats each)
7 p.m. — Class 1A, 2A, 3A semifinals (two mats each)
6:30 a.m. — Weigh-ins
9 a.m. — Class 1A, 2A, 3A quarterfinal wrestlebacks (two mats each)
11 a.m. — Class 1A, 2A, 3A semifinal wrestlebacks (two mats each)
1 p.m. — Class 1A, 2A, 3A fifth-place matches (two mats each)
5:30 p.m. — Class 1A, 2A, 3A third-place matches (two mats each)
7 p.m. — Grand March of Finalists
7:30 p.m. — Class 1A, 2A, 3A championship matches (one mat each)
$10 per person per session reserved seating; $8 per person per session general admission
$50 per person for tournament pass reserved seating; $40 per person per session general admission
Best of the best
Top-ranked wrestlers, according to Rob Sherrill from the Illinois Best Weekly:
WEIGHT NAME SCHOOL YR. RECORD
106 Matt Rundell Oak Park-River Forest Fr. 41-3
113 Mark Duda Chicago Marist So. 33-22
120 Jered Cortez Glenbard North So. 43-0
126 Eddie Klimara Providence New Lenox Sr. 39-1
132 Mike Mizaur Chicago Mount Carmel Sr. 32-5
138 Matt Ornoff Mundelein Sr. 39-0
145 Bryce Brill Chicago Mount Carmel So. 42-1
152 Brian Murphy Glenbard North Jr. 27-0
160 Shaun’Qae McMurtry Lockport Sr. 41-1
170 Ricky Robertson Sandburg Jr. 40-0
182 Sam Brooks Oak Park-River Forest Sr. 34-1
195 Brad Johnson Lockport Sr. 33-0
220 Josh Marchok Schaumburg Sr. 39-1
285 James Buss Chicago DeLaSalle Sr. 38-0
WEIGHT NAME SCHOOL YR. RECORD
106 Nkosi Moody Rich Central Jr. 30-1
113 Johnny Jiminez Aurora Marmion So. 19-1
120 Matt Garelli Fenwick Sr. 19-0
126 David Pearce Civic Memorial Sr. 22-2
132 Zane Richards Carbondale Sr. 43-1
138 Clayton Lutzow Crystal Lake Central Sr. 34-4
145 Connor Bass Yorkville Sr. 34-4
152 Jason Fugiel Crystal Lake Central Sr. 27-2
160 Dylan Reel Washington Sr, 44-2
170 Nate Jackson Marian Catholic Sr. 35-1
182 Jack Dechow Richmond-Burton Sr. 30-0
195 Gage Harrah Crystal Lake Central Sr. 37-1
220 Malcolm Watson Nazareth Academy Sr. 34-4
285 Jeremy Brazil Vernon Hills Sr. 41-1
WEIGHT NAME SCHOOL YR. RECORD
106 Gunner Wenger Lena-Winslow Fr. 36-4
113 Mitch Mallary Erie/Prophetstown Sr. 11-2
120 Josh Alber Dakota So. 40-0
126 J.J. Whaley Stillman Valley Jr. 35-2
132 Maxx Hubbard Sterling Newman Sr. 38-2
138 Alphonse Vruno Sandwich Sr. 33-0
145 Mark McDonnell Morrison Sr. 22-1
152 Zach Nelson Mercer County Jr. 39-0
160 Trace Engelkes Winnebago Sr. 14-1
170 Dan Stott Harvard Sr. 40-3
182 Jake Apple Dakota Sr. 28-0
195 Matt McDonnell Morrison Sr. 39-2
220 A.J. Dobson Stillman Valley Sr. 30-1
285 Reid Sealby Byron Sr. 39-1