By Andrew Oberlin
It’s that time of year again here in Indiana, February Madness, and I’m not talking about basketball. There is a very strong community of diehard wrestlers, fans, and coaches in Indiana for whom late January and early February is a time of excitement, anxiety, and sleepless nights. Those involved know what is at stake this time of year and for many it has been a 13 year journey . I’m going to attempt to give you some insight. In my humble opinion, Indiana’s state wrestling tournament is the toughest in the nation for a wrestler to punch a ticket through to the Indiana high school state because of the number of wrestlers in the state, the single class system for wrestling, and the lack of wrestlebacks. Indiana competes well at the national level and is one of only 5 states that has a single class for their state tournament. Furthermore, Indiana is the only state that doesn’t have wrestlebacks in their State High School Tournament.
There are a lot of wrestlers in Indiana. This year, Indiana has nearly 10,000 USA Wrestling (USAW) cardholders, which earns us the rank of 5th in the nation for the number of USAW participants. USAW is the largest national organization that governs folkstyle, freestyle, and Greco-Roman wrestling in the United States; it is a separate entity from the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA). This figure doesn’t include the middle school and high school wrestlers who do not compete in USAW events. In addition, the number of wrestlers in Indiana continues to grow as girls wrestling gains popularity.
Seedings and Wrestlebacks
At most top-level tournaments, wrestlers are seeded so that the best wrestlers don’t face each other early in the tournament. Seeding is not an exact science, and many times decisions are based on opinions. Whoever is seeding the tournament can use things such as results of past head-to-head matches, common opponents, or individual win-loss records to determine placement.
Head-to-head is the best way to seed a tournament but many times head-to-head matches haven’t taken place, so organizers look for a common opponent and how each wrestler did against that opponent. This can be a valid way to seed, but does not always take body type and wrestling styles into account. Individual win-loss records are generally given the least consideration when seeding wrestlers because schedules and levels of competition vary greatly. There is no perfect way to seed wrestlers.
Wrestlebacks allow a wrestler to prove a seeding wrong or provide a second chance to overcome a mistake. Wrestlebacks are done at almost every tournament wrestlers will participate in from the time they are 5 all the way through college; however, because of Gene Hackman and the movie Hoosiers, Indiana is only concerned with crowning the state champion and our state wrestling tournament does accomplish that. I kid about the movie Hoosiers... kind of.
To be clear, my point is not to go on a rant about why Indiana needs to have wrestlebacks (which I strongly believe we do). That is a battle the coaches association and wrestling community has fought ad nauseam for decades and at this point it just doesn’t look like it is going to happen. I am explaining the factors that go into the emotions our wrestlers, coaches, and fans experience every year at this time.
Indiana High School State Wrestling Tournament Format
To understand the passion that goes on at the state tournament, one must understand what it took to get there. Many wrestlers in Indiana start their wrestling journeys between the ages of 5 and 8. They likely had thousands of hours of year-round training and more than 500 youth matches. High school wrestlers survived the gauntlet of youth wrestling and continued intense training into high school... This requires a lot of blood (literally), sweat, and tears on the part of the wrestlers, their families, and their coaches. By the time a wrestler is in high school, there is an entire support system that is emotionally invested in that wrestler’s career. There are only 14 state champions out of thousands of high school wrestlers, so the majority of wrestlers will not end their careers reaching their ultimate goal.
If you understand how our Indiana state wrestling tournament is run, you can skip this part. There are 315 schools in the state that participate in wrestling. The state tournament is 4 weeks long. Competitions take place each Saturday during the first 3 weeks and on Friday and Saturday during the 4th week. Week 1 is sectionals which consists of 8 to 10 teams with 14 weight classes. Week 2 is regionals which combine the top wrestlers from 2 sectionals. Week 3 is a semi-state which combines the top wrestlers from 4 regionals. Week 4 is a state which combines the top wrestlers from 4 semi-states. Sectionals is the only part of the tournament that uses the seeding process. After sectionals everything else is based on how the wrestler placed the week before. For regionals the first place sectional winners wrestle the 4th place winners from the opposite sectional. Second place sectional winners wrestle 3rd place sectional winners. Since there are no wrestle backs if a wrestler loses the first round of regionals they are done for the season. If a wrestler wins at regionals they advance to semi-state. Things start to get tricky at semi-state.. With 4 regionals feeding into semi-state there are a total of 16 wrestlers in each weight class and 4 different regional champs for each weight class. It’s the same formula as regionals with 1st place wrestling 4th and 2nd place wrestling third but since the pool of wrestlers has expanded match-ups are drawn at random every year. To advance from semi-state to state a wrestler must win their first two matches. For every semi-state mini bracket of 1st through 4th place regional placers only one wrestler will continue to state by winning their first two matches. The state finals are Friday and Saturday of week 4. The same type of formula used for semi-state is applied to state. At state Friday night the walk of champions takes place where they announce all the schools that have a wrestler represented at the meet. Wrestlers all wrestle once on Friday; if they don’t win that match they are done and do not advance to wrestle on Saturday.
Here is an example random Semi-State bracket that could be used:
I hear the term March Madness all the time when they talk about the NCAA basketball tournament. For me it pales in comparison to the February Madness that happens right here in Indiana during our high school wrestling state tournament. If you have the opportunity to watch any part of the 4 week state tournament know that with every win and loss, especially when the wrestler is a senior, you are seeing the hopes and dreams of a small community either being fulfilled or coming to end after thousands of hours of hard work. In the end winning doesn’t care about you and neither does wrestling, but those that have been part of a wrestler’s journey do and that is what matters. If you truly know what wrestling is about you know the wrestler has become a better person because of it and that is something to be proud of.
I wish you all the best during this post season and know that wrestling is training for the life that follows.
Indiana wrestling has been a part of my life for over 35 years. I had my high school dreams come to end without reaching my ultimate goal. I have now coached for 27 years and I have been a part of this walk and moment more times than I can remember. The photo below captures it all, a wrestler and part of his support system walking off the mat for the last time while coming to terms with the finality of it.
Austin Farris, the wrestler in this photo, first stepped on a wrestling mat at 4 years old with his father by his side. This is a picture of Austin walking back to the bleachers for the last time in his high school career after losing a close match. Dee Farris, his father and coach, has his hand on Austin’s back; following behind the father and son are coaches that have been with Austin on his journey since he was young.