Tales from the mat: A look at the MHSAA wrestling state finals.

March 9, 2016
MCC Coach Jim Allen.

MCC Coach Jim Allen.

C Notes: by George C. Wilson.

AUBURN HILLS — The Michigan High School Athletic Association conducts the largest high school individual state  wrestling tournament in the nation every year.  For over a decade the MHSAA has taken over the venerable Palace of Auburn Hills, home of the NBA Detroit Pistons, to put on a spectacle unrivaled by any other state athletic association.  Over 890 wrestlers compete in 14 weight classes in four school divisions.  It is the culmination of the high school wrestling season in Michigan.  And like most spectacles in sports it is made up of thousands of stories told on a smaller scale.  Smaller but no less important to the young wrestlers participating in what they refer to as “states.”

The run up to the tournament is an arduous test of wrestling skill.  Over 400 schools in Michigan field wrestling teams.  Thousands of kids compete in MHSAA district and then regional championships to qualify for the state championship meet.  Four wrestlers in each weight class advance from regionals to form a final 16 man championship bracket to determine the state champion and seven additional all state wrestlers.  The individual tournament events are interspersed with team districts, regionals and state meets.  The last four weeks of the wrestling season is hectic with pressure filled contests at every turn.  It is easy to get swept up in the grand story of it all. A story told every season.  Each season layered on top of each other with legends being born each year.  

The final three days of the season starts with pageantry.  The Grand March of the participants fills the floor of the arena.  It is a sight to see.  Music booming out from the giant Palace speaker system sets the tone.  The wrestlers are lined up by school division.  Some teams send practically their whole squad and many send just a single representative wrestler who has survived the qualifying contests.   The riot of team colors displayed in the wrestlers warm ups adds to the pageant.

The story up close is more intimate.  Just like the sport itself.   In the two toned gray concrete block tunnels in the bowels of the arena the wrestlers queued up waiting for the Grand March.  In those tight confines the antsy participants struggle to find space.  Friendly horseplay among teammates burns off the nervous energy. Some wrestlers close themselves off from the stimuli by plugging ear buds in to their phones.  You can see the faces drawn tight and eyes closed. Some sway gently to the beat of songs the rest of the crowd around them can’t hear.  Heads are nodded at opponents from rival schools recognized at a glance.  Handshakes are exchanged.  Good luck wished.  The minutes seem to slow down.  There are teammates talking of upcoming matches.  There are wrestlers queued up who have marked themselves by bleaching their hair to a brittle peroxide white yellow – three from one school -five from another.  Further down the tunnel there are four teammates who turned the tradition around and dyed their hair jet black.  Some wrestlers sport recently shaved heads.  An old school Mohawk haircut pops up now and then.

Wrestlers can be tribal, social outliers in their own schools and even among their friends and families. Unique individuals drawn to a difficult sport assembled in teams to battle opponents one to one.  Their body language speaks of battles fought –some lost but most won.  Wrestlers usually meet your gaze with confidence because of that.  At a state tournament on the threshold of a long weekend every face tells a story.  For some it is the story of challenges met.  For others it is a story of nervous anticipation.  Others display the calm of a warrior accustomed to battle.  An anomaly catches the eye.  A young woman is queued up with teammates.  She has a small bright face with a confident smile.  Her hair is pulled into a tight braid.  There is a story there.  It is not necessarily a new one. Other girls have made it to this level before.  Some have been very successful.  She is unique enough to draw notice from an outsider but to the boys surrounding her she is a teammate who has earned her place.  

The Grand March is met with enthusiastic cheers from the fans.   A moment is taken to acknowledge the passing of a referee who had been scheduled to work the state tournament.  The referees all have the initials of Michael Young on the number placard attached to the back of their stripped uniform shirt.  A picture of Michael’s confident smiling face is displayed on the massive arena scoreboard.   Michael’s colleagues stand with bowed heads during a moment of silence.  Like Michael they have had many successful seasons officiating the sport that they first grew up in and then returned to as adults. Trying to pay back the gifts the sport has bestowed on them.  They have turned in thousands of hours of exhausting work honing their craft in gyms across the state.   They help carry the sport forward year in and year out. A fraternity of warriors – some past middle age but still agile and enthusiastic. In the next three days a few will test their endurance past the point of good sense and they will have the aches and pains to show for it.  No one can ever question their dedication.  

After the national anthem is sung by student performers the stentorian voices of the announcers ring out as they call the first matches of the tournament.  It has begun. Whistles blow and action is fast and furious.  The crowd is buzzing.  Twelve mats are stretched across the arena floor and matches are being called in quick succession.   It is hard to take it all in.  Occasional cheers ring out drawing attention to one mat or another.  At times loud and sometimes plaintive voices cut through the general roar.  Mother’s voices urging their child to “get up!”  Or sometimes it’s the booming voice of a father offering encouragement.  It is repeated over and over again from every corner of the Palace.  It doesn’t matter that their child is 150 or more feet away locked in combat so personal that most outside noise is drowned out. Wrestlers hear little but their own breath and pounding pulse and those of their opponent.  Parents know that their voice finds its way through that.  They know it in their hearts.   Don’t try to dissuade them of the fact that their child hears every encouragement and command they shout.  

The arena floor is a place of action. The event is kept running by volunteers known as “Friends of Wrestling” and MHSAA staff as well as the practiced employees of the Palace itself.    The Friends group is made up of retired coaches, wrestling officials not refereeing the event and others.  The MSHAA staff members run the scoring tables and all the peripheral business that needs to be done.  The Palace staff members handle so many events in the building it must be old hat to them but now and then you see that they are bemused at the spectacle and perhaps even drawn in to the emotion of the state wrestling tournament.  

The other constant at the state championships is the coaches.   They range in age from young to old and from lean and athletic to much less so.  In this day and age the vast majority of them are former wrestlers.  In days of old that was not always the case.  But this cadre of coaches in the second decade of the 21st century looks like older versions of the boys on the mats.  They carry the scars of the sport.  Cauliflower ears are common.  Broken noses and old scars on eyebrows mark some of them as well.  The gray haired veteran coaches are well versed in the sport.  They bark out orders in breaks in the action.  With them in many mat corners are younger assistant coaches.  Barely removed from their days of competition by more than a few months it seems.  They are animated. Yelling and contorting as they urge on the athletes.  

By early evening on the first day the first round of the tournament is completed.  The Palace empties out but action starts early on Friday so there really isn’t much rest.  Friday at the state individual wrestling tournament is the day that practiced fans of the sport anticipate greatly.  With each passing round the stakes grow higher.  In early afternoon the first great crescendo of the tournament comes about.  It is the round that will help shape the narrative of the rest of the tournament as well as the following season.  The Blood Round is the round when seasons are made and many end.    The desperation of wrestlers trying to extend their season is palpable.  A loss means the year is done.  Maybe a long prep wrestling career is done.  Lose in the blood round and there will be no medal to mark your effort for the season or in the case of many seniors no medal to mark their career.    Wrestlers are anxious.  Coaches are keyed up.  Even the old pros who have been to this round for many seasons with dozens of student athletes wrestling in their final matches feel the pangs of anxiety.  Parents and teammates in the seats shout at higher volumes.  Officiating calls that turn a match one way or another are cheered or shouted down with a vehemence exceeding the action of the proceeding rounds.  The Blood Round is aptly named.

It takes a tough thick skin to see the aftermath of a blood round loss and not be moved by the disappointment and even anguish of the participants taken out of competition.  The service corridors under the stands are dotted with wrestlers staggered by the end of their passionate pursuit of a medal.  Some weep.  Sobs rack their bodies as coaches circle their arms around their shoulders.  Others curse.  Many sit on the floor with their headgear in their hands. Distant stares in their eyes burning holes in the concrete blocks a few feet away.  Coaches squat down next to them talking in soft tones and offering encouragement to use the experience to come back next year or to quietly thank a senior for their efforts.  There are those that lose in the blood round that dash off seeking to hide away from disappointment.  Watching this is not easy.  Even the ever present and task oriented Palace staff keeps a respectful distance.  

Friday evening is anticipated with excitement by all in attendance.  The championship semifinal round offers what many old hands in the sport say is the best action of the tournament.   The level of competition is high.  Every year sees returning state champions and second place finishers meeting head to head in semifinal matches.  The skills on display are impressive.  The athleticism of the wrestlers at this level is exceptional.  Many matches are not decided until the last seconds of overtime.  Shocking upsets happen and the whole arena can suddenly erupt as an expected champion is knocked off short of the championship match.  It is also a very social time at the tournament.  Gossip runs rampant with young and old alike sharing the amazing things they have seen and or heard.  Snippets of stories are heard in the stands and on the arena floor.  “Did you see that move he made?”  “Wow, he medaled last year and he got knocked out in the bloods?  What happened?”  “He got beat by a kid he beat twice this year, can you believe it?”  “Where did this kid come from? Last year he didn’t even win 10 matches.”   Legends and myths compete with hard truths proved by the updated weight class brackets posted in the arena concourse.  

The tournament resets itself on Saturday morning.  The consolation medal rounds are the order of the morning.  The action is not as electric as the night before.  Some wrestlers disappointed with their inability to make it to the championship match seem to have already left the building and even the sport.  It is the young underclassmen that add the necessary excitement to the action on Saturday morning.  They are wrestling for a medal but they are also wrestling to send a message. “Next year will be my year” they seem to say.

The medals for state placers three through eight are decided in the morning and early afternoon on Saturday.  The Palace is cleared out for a few hours.  Event staff removes eight of the twelve wrestling mats.  When the crowd settles in for the championship finals the four remaining mats are arranged in a straight line up the center of the arena floor.  Each mat is marked with a division sign.  Division 1 and Division 2 mats are on the end of the floor.  Division 3 and Division 4 are in the center.  Tall award podiums are placed on either end of the arena floor.  Tall enough to accommodate eight medalists in each weight class in each division.

A second Grand March starts the final round of the tournament.  This time it is only those wrestlers who will take home an all-state place medal participating.  The crowd is on its feet cheering as the student athletes in the most physically demanding sport offered for interscholastic competition slowly march in and circle the arena floor.  The diversity of the medalist is still broad.  Wrestlers from inner city schools march next to athletes from giant suburban schools.  Boys from far flung villages in the Upper Peninsula parade shoulder to shoulder with kids from schools nestled in cornfields next to farm towns in Michigan’s thumb.  Most of the wrestlers in the Grand March are already done.  They have wrestled their final matches of the year and are present for the march and medal presentations.  But two from each weight class in each division have a date with destiny; a destiny which will play out in the next few hours.  

Once again it is the intimate smaller stories that are noteworthy.  In this assemblage of wrestlers is a small young man from Hart, Michigan.  Only hours before Robert Altland proudly announced after winning a seventh place medal in the 103lb weight class in Division 4 “I’m the smallest kid entered in this tournament!”   And indeed at 93lbs the freshman was the smallest but with practiced technique like his it is likely he will be back to medal again.

The procession for the Grand March was led by a highly decorated senior from Grand Rapids Catholic Central.  Devin Schroder had the honor of carry the U.S. flag in the final Grand March.  On this evening he would be wrestling for his fourth consecutive MHSAA individual wrestling championship.  A feat only accomplished by 21 wrestlers in state history.  

Also in the Grand March is Ali Wahab of Dearborn Heights Crestwood.  Ali is on the opposite end of the spectrum of Robert Altland. Ali is a giant of a young man.  Wrestling in the heaviest weight class, 285lbs, he looks all of that and more as he towers above most of the rest of the athletes present.  Not far from him is Dan Perry of Lapeer Highs School.  Perry defeated Wahab in the championship final in the 2015 season and most people in attendance expected a rematch.  It was not to be.  Dan Perry was upset by a wrestler from Temperance Bedford in the early rounds of the tournament but he wrestled back to a third place finish.

There are others in the Grand March each with their own special stories.  Young men representing schools that had never produced a state champion wrestler.  Two wrestlers present would be the first champion in decades for their school should they indeed win their match.  There was even an exchange student from Finland among the medalists on parade.  

The finals started with a bang with an overtime match deciding the championship at 152lbs in Division 2.  The fans from each school alternately cheering and then booing calls made by the official. It was just the start. In fact there would several more overtime matches in all divisions the remainder of the evening.  Each overtime match brought the crowd to its feet.  Other matches ended in regulation but with surprising results.  The 125lb championship match in Division 2 had the arena buzzing after two time defending champion Lucas Hall of state powerhouse program Lowell was defeated by Drew Marten of Tecumseh.

The Division 1 championship at 285lbs featured the aforementioned Al Wahab of Dearborn Heights Crestwood battling Nicholas Jenkins of Detroit Catholic Central.  The match was tight; tied 1 to 1 half way through the final period.   In the last moments of the match Jenkins secured a takedown and near fall points to win 5-1.  Ali Wahab, a giant among boys, buried his head in hands and balled up on the mat as if trying to hide away from his failure two years running to secure a championship.  The crowd quieted and watched.  True to the spirit of the sport, however, Ali pulled himself up and stood tall once again.  He walked to the center of the mat and shook Nicholas Jenkins’ hand just before the referee raised it signaling the new champion.

Later in the tournament came a final match that most in attendance had marked as the match of the night.  Devin Schroder of Grand Rapids Catholic Central would be going for his fourth and final state championship.  In his corner his father and head coach, B.J. Schroder, sat next to assistant coach, Kyle Waldo, a man who was one of the 21 wrestlers in state history to secure four state championships.  In the opposite corner the coaching staff of Lake Fenton stood next to their wrestler, Jarret Trombley.  He too was a returning champion but only a sophomore.  The match started with Devin Schroder taking command with a takedown and a two point near fall.  Trombley fought off his back and began to set about neutralizing the senior from GRCC.  He score four unanswered points to tie the match up and the crowd was treated to a see saw battle for control in four overtime periods.  In the ultimate tie breaking period Trombley reversed Schroder to secure the win.  The crowd roared.  Jarret leaped into the arms of his coach after having his had raised.

The match was symbolic of the tournament.  Unexpected outcomes and hard fought victories were the norm.  Legendary wrestlers fell short of goals.  New legends were born.  And already anticipation is growing for the next season.  And no doubt the MHSAA state individual wrestling tournament will again produce the stuff of legends.  

George C. Wilson has been a high school wrestling coach and educator for 25 years. He is the Media Specialist for Rockford High School and has most recently coached wrestling there. George grew up in Scottville and graduated with the Mason County Central class of 1979. 

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