It wouldn’t be summer if we weren’t debating the differences in play today versus the Golden Era of wrestling in New York State: the ‘70s. Yeah, I hate to do it. It’s the summer. What else is there to do than stir it up? A lot changed since.
There was the North Shore tournament in Section VIII serving as an additional qualifying event for section. Only the top 3 competitors in the section earned a medal: bronze, silver, and gold. There was a huge middle school tournament held every year at Nassau Community College. It was essentially a Long Island Freshman championship tournament. The middle school team was a freshman team having 7, 8, and 9th graders competing. There was the annual summer Newbridge Road tournament held in Bellmore. It wasn’t very big when I began attending, but it had a reputation for being popular. Seventh and eighth graders never competed on varsity. Few ninth graders did. There were fewer events during the season than today. A wrestler averaged around 20 matches per season unlike today where it’s easily in the 30’s and as high as the 40’s. And there was more.
Section VIII won the state title 3-times in the 70’s so did Section XI. Since then, Section VIII won the state title once, in 1987, and Section XI proceeded to dominate. Something changed for Section VIII. Obviously, winning state titles did. Some have suggested changing demographics contributed. Maybe. However, there was one change that’s little discussed today: Section VIII revamped its end of season tournament structure while Section XI’s remained unchanged. Was it possible this change contributed?
The qualifier for the Section VIII tournament was similar to what Section XI’s is today, but we called it the division tournament instead of league tournament. During the season, a wrestler competed in dual meets against all of the teams in their division and ended the season in a qualifying tournament for the section with the same teams. It was a bigger deal winning your division in a dual meet and placing in the division tournament back then. It had a similar sense of accomplishment and pride that the wrestlers in Section XI take in their Leagues today.
Somewhere along the way, Section VIII decided to seed the qualifying tournaments. I’m guessing the purpose was to give the most qualified wrestlers a chance at the big dance. From analyzing the 2010 Section results, it was hugely successful. Really! One could not have expected a more successful outcome. Each qualifying tournament had equal numbers of wrestlers placing in the section.
However, this change combined with the dual meet tournament attenuates the significance of the division structure. It no longer has the same level of rivalry, tradition, and toughness. Promising young wrestlers aren’t having the experience of putting it all on the line to qualify like happens every year in Section XI’s League V and VI tournaments. Too often athletes are tested for the first time at the section tournament when it means the most.
There’s less emphasis on winning the qualifier. I’ve heard some say, “It doesn’t matter if you win. It’s just a qualifier.” Of course, they want to win, but when there’s less significance on winning, there’s less intensity. When there’s less intensity, there’s less growth and preparation. Think of the study intensity when preparing for a difficult exam versus an easy one. It’s different, right? I know; you don’t study regardless. But what if you did?
There’s a motivation factor too. Think of the determination that builds in an athlete who loses to the same foe in the early season tournaments, then in the dual meets, and then the only way to get to the most prestigious tournament of the season, he must finally defeat him. There’s positive emotion all wrapped up there that builds determination and resolve – qualities necessary for building champions. Some may find this demotivating, but would a wrestler having what it takes to be champion one day?
On the other hand, excellent athletes from Section XI’s League V watch from the stands as wrestlers they’ve easily defeated qualify for Stony Brook’s big stage. One could argue, that’s the price that must be paid to be the best. And no doubt the numbers bear this out. League V had the most Section place winners in 2010 with nearly 30% placing and 40% of the champions. They had more than 5 times the number of place winners than the lowest performing league.
There’s a positive aspect to Section XI’s approach that may have contributed to Section XI’s New York dominance for the past 3 decades. The competitive Leagues raise the bar. People require high standards to fulfill their potential, whatever the pursuit. Like water seeking its own level, so does man. Raise the standard and people rise to the occasion to exceed it. Lower the standard and people fall to the level to greet it. We grow when we are pushed to improve. It’s why records are broken and why we marvel at the athletes who surmount them.
Tradition and league rivalries (inter and intra) contribute towards excellence. Think John Glenn wrestling with regard to tradition. With the winning legacy established over the past few years, it creates an expectation for this year’s team to meet. It changes everything: the attitude of the team, the practice intensity, and the coaches’ approach. And won’t the top competitors aim their sites on knocking off John Glenn from their newly established throne? Won’t their intensity be greater when facing John Glenn? Tradition and rivalry feed each other.
Think of the sense of accomplishment that comes with defeating a team with a history of success. We saw that in December of 2008 when a packed gymnasium of local wrestling fans lined up to witness Wantagh defeat MacArthur in a non-division event. On a cold December evening just before the Christmas Holiday turnout was amazing: standing room only. Youth wrestlers sat around the mat to watch; adults were standing behind the benches with some peeking in through the doors. That’s the atmosphere that brings out the best in competitors. It happened again in 2010 when Rocky Point faced off against John Glenn in an intra league dual meet.
The sections have a legacy of change. Maybe it’s time to make another. Should Section XI find a way to punch a ticket for the competitive athletes who don’t qualify from the tougher leagues and /or weight classes while maintaining the competitive league structure? Should section VIII bring division rivalries back while maintaining fairness? I’m not sure if it’s possible, but I’d like to the see the sections try.
Yet, some won’t want to change for many reasons. Some would say, “Why mess with tradition?” Others would say, “This is working well enough.” Still more would say, “It’s not possible.” But if those voices prevailed, there would be no wild card births for the state tournament, and who would argue against that now? I know… you’ll find people to argue against eating.
Let’s hear your thoughts. Should it change? How? Why? Why not?