Grappling with a problemSandburg wrestlers hold their trophy for taking 3rd place in the 3A Dual Team 2011 State Wrestling Finals at U.S. Cellular Coliseum in Bloomington, IL on Tuesday February 22, 2011 | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 9, 2012 10:14AM
The IHSA’s dual-team wrestling tournament is pushing 30-years old and to say it’s struggled to find its niche is an understatement.
The dual-meet playoffs were born of a desire to find a better way to determine the state’s top team than the old method of adding up the points scored by individual wrestlers at the state finals. In the early years, though, the team playoffs piggy-backed on the individual tourney with matches held in an almost-empty Assembly Hall late at night after the individual bouts. For competitors in both the individual and team events, it was a brutal endurance test that didn’t always produce the best wrestling.
Eventually the individual and team tournaments were split up, and the event finally has hit its stride in recent years. It’s found a right-sized, centrally-located home at Bloomington’s U.S. Cellular Coliseum. And with five different teams winning the big-school title the past five years —after a long run of Catholic League dominance — it’s as competitive event as any fan or coach could ask for.
But issues remain and they threaten to undermine much of the progress made in recent years. They’re enough to prompt Sandburg coach Eric Siebert to speak out in forceful terms about the changes he thinks are needed to keep the team playoffs relevant.
The way Siebert and a lot of other people see it, there are two problems: the playoff format changes in midstream and the best teams don’t always get a chance to rise to the top.
Here’s how the tournament works now: Teams are assigned to regionals based on geography and the regional winners — based on tournament scoring — advance to the bracketed sectional and state competition. No other sport changes the rules for advancement during the course of its postseason and Siebert doesn’t understand why his sport is the exception to this rule. “I think wrestling needs to be consistent with other sports,” he said.
Which brings us to his other point, that the wrestling playoffs should be seeded at the sectional level, the same way it’s done for basketball, baseball, soccer and other team sports. If that were the case, Sandburg and Marist never would have wound up in the same regional as they did last Saturday at Marist, with the Eagles beating the RedHawks 258-245.5. So Sandburg advances as one of the favorites to win state and Marist — which beat the Eagles 28-24 earlier this season — is out of the team race.
“I’ve been on the other side of the stick when Providence ran through [its] six state titles [in a row],” Siebert said. “Several of those years, we can’t get past the regional. Then we see teams we beat by 40 in a dual [advance]. It’s frustrating.”
But Siebert held his tongue then. “For me to complain about it then would have been sour grapes,” he said. “The fact that we were able to win and win close over a really, really good team gives me an opportunity to speak about it.”
And his voice should be heeded, because it hurts the state playoffs when possibly the two best Class 3A teams wind up in the same regional, meaning only one can even get to the dual-meet segment of the state series. What’s worse, this wasn’t an isolated case. The same thing has happened two straight seasons in Class 2A with the two best teams sent to the same regional: Montini and Marmion last winter, Montini and Lemont last weekend.
None of this is to say Sandburg’s a lock to take state now, or that Marist would have won it all if it was first at the regional. There are other good teams out there, including Oak Park-River Forest and Glenbard North. But we’re not going to get the state tournament we should.
“I think it’s the IHSA’s job to get the best eight teams [to state] for the athletes and the fans,” Siebert said.
A partial fix would be to bring back team regionals, which would have given us the Sandburg vs. Marist and Montini vs. Lemont matchups fans want to see and teams have worked for. But inertia is at work here and some coaches are OK with the status quo because it allows them to avoid the Sandburgs and Marists for as long as possible. Still, the team wrestling playoffs are broken and we can only hope they get fixed.