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Ah one, ah two, ah three. Ah four?

 

By Reid Hanley

 

I admit I’ve been away, but that point was driven home when I received my first copy of Illinois Best Weekly and saw something called Class AAA on the first page.

 

While I was  covering college football and basketball, the Illinois High School Association and its member schools sliced the wrestling pie into three pieces. I’ve got mixed feelings.

 

Many of you know Class A is for schools with 754 or fewer students. The next break-off point is 1,652 for Class AA. Anything over that is in Class AAA. If you’re going to split things up, this seems fair enough.

 

After all, this is a state that has EIGHT classes in football. Three doesn’t seem too bad. The thought is the bigger schools have more students, more athletes and the potential for better teams. When you are talking about the dual team championship, it’s hard to argue those points. No too many smaller schools have backups at every weight, plus a sophomore and/or freshman team.

 

What about the individual? It’s been proven every year that you don’t need to go to a big school to become a standout in an individual sport, especially wrestling. Today’s wrestler has many avenues to become better. Not only are there spring and summer freestyle and Greco-Roman competitions, but there are also opportunities for private instruction.

 

While I was covering wrestling for the Chicago Tribune, I focused most of my attention on Class AA wrestlers because that’s where our subscription base was. We covered Class A, but not with the intensity or  space of the bigger schools. At the state tournament, I wrote the AA  tournament story while my partner took the smaller schools.

 

As a result, while I was working on Joe Williams’ third state title in 1992, Sterling Newman's Mike Mena was winning his fourth Class A title. I never saw the Mena match. Williams went on to become a four-time Class AA champ from Mt. Carmel. The duo went on to become teammates at Iowa.

Mena was a very interesting, innovative wrestler and was a four-time All-American. I wrote more about him during his career at Iowa than at Newman.

 

It’s hard to say if Mena would have been a four-timer in Class AA, but he might have. David Douglas and Chase Beebe have proved that you can have large talent while wrestling at a smaller school. Douglas won a Class A title in 1994 at Luther South and then reeled off three straight while attending Thornridge. Beebe won a title in 2000 when Montini was in Class A and won three more when the Broncos moved up to Class AA.

 

Splitting into three classes means there will be 13 more state champions each year. The positive is there will be 26 more participants in the Grand March, which I think is the best tradition in Illinois High School sports. That’s a good thing.

 

But in my view, having another class of champions isn’t a good thing. It devalues the concept of s state champion. While there will be more championship matches, there won’t necessarily be more matches of championship caliber. How many fans will walk away from Assembly Hall on the night of Feb. 21 wondering what would have happened if the Class AA 103-pounder had wrestled the Class AAA 103-pounder?

 

Maybe we will have a good idea who the best 103-pounder is. The regular season has a lot of tournaments where the top competitors in the state are entered like the Dvorak Memorial. The fact that some wresters won’t meet in the state series might make these regular season tournaments even more interesting.

 

Still, the state tournament is the measuring stick and one more class waters it down. I’m not sure that’s in the best interest of the sport. We live in a youth sports culture that gives out trophies for participation rather than excellence, but high school wrestling is beyond that. It's about competing to be the best.

 

Three classes will deny some wrestlers a chance to prove they are the best in Illinois This may only be the start considering that has happened in football. There is no turning back. How soon before four classes?

 

 

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