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PIAA got it right with wrestling

Commentary

Making a move that had been long overdue, the PIAA Board of Control recently voted to reduce the number of weight classes for varsity wrestling events from 14 down to 13, effective in the 2020-21 season.

The 14th weight class was added back in the 2002-03 season with the idea of affording more wrestlers the opportunity to compete at different weights, but in the past two decades, numbers in many wrestling programs at schools throughout the state have generally been dwindling.

Wrestling is a difficult and demanding sport, and it’s equally difficult for many high school coaches throughout the state to talk student-athletes into participating.

Even at a school like Bald Eagle Area, which has always been rich in wrestling tradition.

The Eagles had only 17 wrestlers on last season’s roster, and forfeited the 285-pound heavyweight bout in their dual meets.

Overall, there was at least one forfeit in 93 percent of the varsity dual meets held in the state last winter.

“A lot of the schools are forfeiting weight classes,” said Bald Eagle coach Ron Guenot, whose program dropped from the Class 3A to Class 2A level a couple seasons back because of class enrollment. “A lot of the schools in District 6 Class 2A are forfeiting one weight, two weights, maybe three.

“It’s difficult in this day and age,” Guenot said. “You really have to talk to kids and get them to come out, and when you don’t have a lot of kids to pick from, it’s a tough sell. We graduate 120 kids in a class, and some of the bigger Class 3A schools are graduating 800 kids. That makes a big difference when it comes to fielding a full lineup.”

Bellwood-Antis was able to field a full 14-weight lineup last year for the first time in several seasons. For the first time in school history last year, the Blue Devils had two wrestlers qualify for the PIAA Class 2A state tournament in the same season.

Things are looking up for wrestling at Bellwood, after several seasons in which the Blue Devils forfeited a number of weight classes.

But B-A coach Tim Andrekovich still recognizes that there is a numbers problem for most of the state’s high school wrestling programs.

“I haven’t been involved with the program the whole time, but last year was the first year that we’ve had a full lineup since probably 2011,” said Andrekovich, who has been Bellwood’s head coach for the past three seasons, after having served several years as a varsity assistant coach. “There were several years where we were forfeiting four of five weight classes.

“We were able to spread kids out better throughout the lineup and cover all of the weight classes last year,” said Andrekovich, who had 20 wrestlers on his roster last year. “But there has been (an overall) decrease in numbers, no doubt about it. Even programs that traditionally have been pretty strong don’t have as many kids on the roster as they normally do.”

There are two arguments when it comes to dropping or not dropping weight classes. One argument holds that eliminating a weight class means fewer opportunities for wrestlers to compete. But the other argument — in an age in which multiple forfeits create dual meets that last less than an hour and are not spectator-friendly — is that there are simply too many weight classes.

Pennsylvania schools with bigger wrestling rosters favored keeping all of the 14 weight classes. In a story in the Allentown Morning Call newspaper, it was reported that 61 percent of the high school wrestling coaches polled throughout the wrestling-rabid Lehigh Valley of District 11 favored not dropping a weight class.

That’s logical when it’s taken into consideration that an average of less than one forfeit per dual meet took place among the larger District 11 Class 3A wrestling schools last winter.

But, particularly in dual meets involving smaller schools throughout the vast part of the state, multiple forfeits have been detracting from the sport’s appeal for years.

“I know people are saying that if you drop weight classes, that means fewer kids participating and fewer opportunities, but it’s also frustrating when you go to a dual meet and there are (only) five bouts (contested),” Andrekovich said. “That happens quite a bit, and some coaches will sometimes bump guys around to get a forfeit even though the guy could have been wrestling somebody.”

In fact, in May of 2019, the PIAA was getting ready to propose eliminating two weight classes, dropping the number from 14 to 12. Guenot is glad that didn’t happen.

“I was worried about them going to 12 (weight classes),” Guenot said. “There was talk of them going to 12, and I was absolutely against that. I think that 13 is a happy medium. Some of the smaller schools in Class 2A might find it hard to fill a lineup, while your larger schools have a lot more kids. I think this (13 weight classes) is a good compromise for now.”

Nonetheless, it’s not perfect. The changes took place via the realignment of the heavier half of the weight classes.

While there had previously been five weight classes from 170 pounds through 285, now there are only four. Instead of a 170-pound weight class, there will be a 172. Instead of a 182-pound and 195 class, there will now be just a 189.

Heavyweight (285) remains the same, but instead of a 220-pound class, there will be a 215.

The new format could create bouts in which there are significant weight disparities among opponents.

Andrekovich pointed out that a 175-pounder who is too heavy to weigh in at 172 may, in some instances, be bumping up more than one weight class to compete against a legitimate 215-pounder.

“That’s not a fair fight,” he said. “That’s an awful lot of weight (to be giving up), especially (when competing against) a solid 215-pounder.”

No matter what move the PIAA made, somebody was going to be displeased in some fashion. Guenot, for example, was happy that the PIAA didn’t eliminate the lightest 106-pound weight class, while Andrekovich thought that a move to merge the current 106 and 113-pound classes into a single 110-pound class, and keep the heavier weights intact, would have been preferable.

“I think it’s easier to find a bigger kid to fill a lineup than it is to find a smaller kid,” Andrekovich said. “Last year, we had a 106-pounder for the first time in a long time.’

The bottom line, however, was that a reduction in weight classes needed to be made for the general good of the sport — minority exceptions notwithstanding.

“Probably about half the schools that we wrestle can field a full lineup,” Andrekovich said. “There’s at least one weight where they can’t get somebody to wrestle.”

(John Hartsock can be reached at jhartsock@altoonamirror.com)

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