New York State is holding the first ever team dual state championship tournament January 27th in Syracuse, a move that may help save the sport from extinction. Participation in high school wrestling has been on the decline nationally since 2011 and the average size of a team has dropped from 37 to 23 participants. In Western New York I would guess the numbers are even lower.

high school wrestling

Pioneer won the 2017 Section Six Div II team championship

Saturday, January 20th Lancaster will host the 2018 Section Six dual championships. Last season Section Six held the first ever team dual championships at Starpoint high school to prepare for the state wide tournament being held this year. The tournament was a huge success as both Division I & II championship matches went down to the final bout. Niagara Wheatfield won the Div I Championship and Pioneer won the Div II title. The level of excitement was far beyond what one could experience at any individual tournament. It is that lack of excitement I would guess that has hurt the level of participation among high school age students.

In the 1960’s and 70’s the dominant teams such as Niagara Wheatfield, Iroquois, Pioneer, Olean, Portville, Tonawanda and others carried long win streaks and had fierce rivalries for league championships. A Wheatfield/Tonawanda match would pack the gymnasium with fans from both schools ringing the mat until the bitter end. Those days are gone, but are they gone forever?

Today many high school programs have chosen to wrestle both Junior Varsity and Varsity matches on two mats and at the same time. Parents there to see their son or daughter wrestle JV may not even watch any of the Varsity action going on the second mat. Matches are often over by 6:30 PM when most high school basketball games would just be starting. The fun has been taken out of the team competition part of the sport.

In my opinion high school wrestling changed greatly when coaches and booster clubs decided to use tournaments as a fundraiser. Inviting twenty to thirty-six teams to a two day tournament meant cash for boosters running food stands and selling tee shirts. The shear number of teams meant full stands during the day and hopefully enough hung around to make the finals interesting. However, the people in the stands were family members or teammates of the wrestlers for the most part. The students from the various high schools did not attend and cheer on their team as they would at a Friday night football game.

Because of all the weekend tournaments high school wrestlers today also wrestle their top competitors in each weight class several times before the class and state qualifying tournament. This also leads to an anti-climatic finish as familiarity breeds caution among wrestlers who have already been beaten two or three times by the same competitor.

Two day weekend tournaments make being a coach a tiresome grind. It is getting harder and harder to find qualified high school wrestling coaches in Section Six and very tough to find them among the teachers working in the schools. Young coaches without families can handle being away four or five weekends during a season, but once their families grow the sports becomes a demanding side job.

Cultivating a full roster and seeking team dual match success creates a loyal fan base and in turn a draw for recruitment. Kids want to be acknowledged by their classmates and be a part of a successful and exciting team.

My sons and I have been fortunate that we have been a part of a successful wrestling program at Niagara Wheatfield, albeit decades and decades apart. For whatever reason Wheatfield has always had winning teams and few forfeits or holes in their lineups over the years. Yet, this season the first match of the year, which was against Grand Island and would turn out to be for the championship, had a very average crowd.

Grand Island is the best team in the Niagara Frontier League this season, but from my observation only parents sat in the stands that night for both teams. No students carrying signs or shouting encouragement for their school mates, no sense of anticipation for a battle of two premier teams in the league facing off. Had it been a football game the stands would have been packed.

Youth wrestling is also a culprit of sorts in thinning the heard. True, most of the best wrestlers today are the product of starting the sport at the age of six or seven and competing year round. However, for the youngster who has wrestled between the ages of eight and twelve and already has a bedroom dresser covered with ribbons, medals and trophies high school wrestling can be unappealing. Getting beat in practice everyday by older classmates can be a real turn off to a kid who won his weight class each weekend, competing against the same five or six ten year olds regardless of where the tourney was held. 

Finally and maybe most importantly, weight loss has always been a problem for the sport. Wrestling is tough enough with the one on one competition and grueling practices, but throw in drastic weight loss and you lose most kids today. Sure, the guardians of the sport have tried to remove most of the dangers of severe dieting to make weight, but lets face it, even cutting four or five pounds for the smaller kids can make them lose interest.

Armand Cacciatore, the original architect of the Niagara Wheatfield program has always felt that the high school wrestling season is too long. Cacciatore believed that competition shouldn’t begin until after the Christmas holidays so kids could eat and enjoy them with their families. Then have two months of tough competition ending with the various post-season tournaments. I know the NCAA has looked at the same concept of beginning the season after the first of the year and going into April. 

If you have stayed with this article this far then you probably love wrestling. I love wrestling which is why I wrote it. I only hope there are enough people out there who will continue to love it and find a way to bring it back into the mainstream so it can be enjoyed for generations to come. I believe a true state team championship is a step in that direction.


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