One of the things I missed about my old sports writing job in Ohio was the opportunity I had to cover the high school state wrestling tournament at Ohio State University’s Schottenstein Center.
So, when I was asked to go for the last day of Missouri’s state tournament this year, I certainly didn’t mind having to wake up at dawn Saturday morning after the usual late Friday night of work in order to make the drive to Mizzou Arena.
While there are some differences between Ohio and Missouri’s state tournaments – chiefly that Missouri has four classes and just one set of qualifying tournaments, whereas Ohio has three classes and wrestlers have to get through two tournaments before state – I was pleasantly reminded of the reasons I enjoyed the last weekend of the wrestling season so much and why the sport is unique.
One gets to glimpse the best from all over the state, and in the case of area athletes, see them one last time – sometimes as they’re making history. To witness the mat artistry from the likes of Blue Springs’ Daniel Lewis and Michael Pixley is to see something you don’t forget for a long time.
Not only does wrestling put an individual in the spotlight for one-on-one competition more so than any other high school sport – in track or swimming one individual is against several others at once – but perhaps no other sport puts one athlete’s emotions display as much, or produces such range of emotions.
That’s not to say other sports don’t produce lots of emotion. But fans can’t see it as much through the football helmet, and one person’s display isn’t likely to stand out amongst a basketball, baseball or softball team.
From a single bout, you might get one person on their knees or their back, hands covering the head; and another person doing some combination of yelling, flexing or pointing to acknowledge the support of his school’s pocket of fans somewhere in the arena.
As members of the media, we sometimes get to see these athletes underneath the stands as well. It certainly isn’t fun to see them trying to hold back tears, but we know that unless it was their last match, tomorrow or later even the next hours bring a chance to completely reverse that emotion.
One particularly memorable bout was the Class 4 220-pound championship matchup between Blue Springs South’s Christian Boyles, a state qualifier last year at 195, and McCluer North’s Travon Butler, last year’s third-place finisher at 220.
Boyles forced overtime with a takedown in the waning moments of the third period. During the extra minute, both wrestlers appeared to have a good grasp of each other as they fell on their shoulders. Around the arena it might have appeared to still be a stalemate. But the referees ruled Boyles had more control for the takedown, giving him the title.
While Boyles – with blood and sweat dripping down his face like a boxer after a dozen rounds – yelled in ecstasy and pointed to the combined Blue Springs cheering section nearby, Butler was on his knees in agony and disbelief, thinking the match should either still be going or that he should have won instead.
As Butler unshouldered his singlet and stormed off the arena floor to a chorus of boos, while Boyles received some congratulatory hugs from teammates. When Boyles got off the arena floor, deep underneath the stands, he let out a couple primal screams of joy, eliciting some grins from other wrestlers who had witnessed the match’s end.
When it came to stride atop the podium and receive medals, the crowd could see Butler’s failed attempt to hide back tears, and gave him only a warm round of applause for his effort. After Boyles took his place up top Butler, a look of appreciation on his face, offered a handshake that doubled that applause.
Just two athletes – equally valiant in their efforts and separated by a single ruling – displayed about as variance of human emotion as one could imagine in a short time span. It was a great sight to help end a fun assignment.
Mike Genet is the assistant sports editor for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 816-350-6319. Follow him on Twitter: @genetEJC