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Preseason tourney in North Carolina is the place to be despite misinformation
By Willie Saylor, WIN Staff
How often does any institution or entity go from non-existent to ‘legendary’ status? In the business world a parallel may be Starbucks, in the social world, think Facebook, both of which had their rise in the last couple of decades, and now, for many folks, are staples of their day.
In the niche sport of wrestling, emerging entities have an increasingly difficult task if they want to break into the marketplace. But Sara Koenig and Dave Barker have been able to do just that. They’ve turned a small, local tournament into a giant must-follow national wrestling event. The evidence of quality wrestlers that pass through the Super 32 take many forms.
But here’s one, nearly unbelievable nugget: half of the 2011 NCAA Champions competed at the Super 32 when in high school.
The Super 32 now sits as one of America’s crown jewels. Here, WIN will take a look into the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations, of all that has gone into making the Super 32 one of the premier events at any level in amateur wrestling.
Inception and History
In the late 1990s, Sara Koenig and Dave Barker were plugging away as directors of the web resource, ncmat.com, which provided news, scores and rankings for wrestling in the Tar Heel state. The pair decided that they’d like to start a preseason tournament to serve as a tune-up for high school wrestlers in North Carolina and surrounding areas.
In 2000, they renamed it “Super 32 Challenge” to reflect the 32 wrestlers they rank on ncmat. They started out hosting the event in Morehead High School (Eden, NC).
It was a little tournament, and expectations were modest, but a perfect storm of events led to progress.
“Christiansburg and Great Bridge were national high school powers,” Koenig remembers. “They started attending and it really gave us a jumpstart at attracting tough kids from beyond bordering states.”
From their neighbors to the north, Virginia, Christiansburg and Great Bridge featured nationally-ranked individuals like Patrick Bond, Jordan Frishkorn, and Cody Gardner.
At the same time, what was once a fantastic event, the Mat Town Classic in Lock Haven, PA, was struggling. With talent from Pennsylvania looking for a new preseason test, the Super 32 field didn’t escape their notice. Top talent from PA, Ohio, New Jersey, and New York started flocking to the Super 32 in droves.
Koenig speaks of the growth experienced at the time.
“By 2004, our entries were over 700 and we realized we could no longer hold the event in a high school,” he said. “We looked into arenas all over the state and decided that the Greensboro Coliseum Special Events Center was the best option. By moving to the Coliseum, we were able to put down 20 mats, and accommodate over 1,000 wrestlers for the one-day tournament.”
And so the Super 32 was off and running to the mega event it has become.
Logistics and Numbers
“I don’t think there are very many people who understand just how much is involved with putting on an event like this, that it’s a year-round process,” Koenig said.
On the surface, her statement seems accurate to an undertaking as large as the Super 32. But looking deeper at the numbers and sheer volume of athletes, it’s actually an incredible understatement.
The Super 32 is currently seeing just under a whopping 2,000 wrestlers. High school was capped at 1500, while the middle school tournament currently sits at 400 entrants.
To service that many competitors, two buildings and 29 mats are employed. Koenig quickly attributes invaluable assistance from the city (the Greensboro Coliseum, the Greensboro Sports Commission, the Greensboro Convention and Visitor Bureau and the local wrestling community) in helping make such a voluminous event possible.
However, with such a rapid growth, and long before the first bout is even wrestled, just getting admitted into the tournament has been an event unto itself.
“The craziest thing we’ve ever experienced was the 2009 registration, when we sold out in 35 minutes. We made adjustments to our online registration system, with the help of Gimp (Gary Brownell of escapesports.com) and his software, so that the entries would automatically update on our website as soon as online payment was made.
“So the time came for registration to open, and as soon as I updated the link, we could see hundreds of people were already into the registration page. Within a few minutes, I was on the phone with Gimp as we realized at this pace, we were going to sell out within the hour. We frantically tried to keep an accurate count of how many people were mid-way through the process so we would know when to shut registration down, yet allow the people who were already halfway through to finish.
“Sure enough, we reached that point in just over 30 minutes. While we knew we could sell out quickly, I don’t think anyone ever imagined it was at all possible to fill 1,250 spots in half an hour.”
The Super 32 staff realized it was necessary to implement a new registration process for two reasons. First and foremost, so that it wouldn’t result in uncertainty of getting in or not. And secondly, to ensure a more credentialed process.
The registration process now allows for previous Super 32 placers, state champions, and others to pre-register, further guaranteeing a quality field.
They’ve also instituted qualifying tournaments in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida and Indiana to enable athletes who haven’t met pre-registration criteria to win their way in.
Public Relations Trouble
Despite over a decade of positive feedback and putting on a first-class event, the Super 32 were nearly collateral damage of a more sinister opponent to amateur wrestling.
This spring, it was announced that the Division I wrestling program at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro would be dropped.
Wrestling aficionados across the country expressed their disdain, and rightly so. But they also called for a boycott of wrestling events at Coliseum, which included The Southern Scuffle, the North Carolina state high school championships and the Super 32.
In a knee-jerk reaction, many folks were under the impression that the Super 32 and the Greensboro Coliseum were affiliated with the University.
That isn’t the case.
“The Greensboro Coliseum and the City of Greensboro took the brunt of the frustration,” Koenig said. “The misconception on the part of the wrestling public was that UNCG somehow “owned” the Coliseum or had a “deal”, or that somehow, the Coliseum and the City of Greensboro could force UNCG to reinstate the wrestling program. This somehow translated into a belief that the only way to save UNCG Wrestling was to boycott all wrestling events held in Greensboro. But, the reality is, The Super 32 has zero affiliation with UNCG.”
Koenig also pointed out that at a time when the Greensboro wrestling community took a tough blow, the best thing for the area was to have quality events and opportunities for wrestling there to flourish. She also pointed to the commitment that the city has had to wrestling.
“What many people didn’t realize, is that the City of Greensboro and the Greensboro Coliseum purchased 12 brand new wrestling mats several years ago in an effort to solidify their position as an outstanding host city for top wrestling events,” she said.
“It was very difficult to hear about all the backlash towards the city when they’ve really been a friend to wrestling. We’ve already lost the UNCG program and a top collegiate tournament (the Southern Scuffle, a December tournament, moved to Chattanooga), why should the state take another hit and lose the Super 32?”
It took some effort for Barker and Koenig to disseminate the facts; UNCG receives no financial gain from the tournament, the arena, or any wrestling-related revenue from the Super 32.
And, after a little while longer, the angst behind the cutting of another Division I program began to subside enough for wrestling fans to see the true picture and the benefit of a major tournament in an area that’s already suffered a great loss.
“In the months following NCAAs, the emotions seemed to settle down and we were able to talk things out with the college coaches and explain the situation,” Koenig said. “I think some coaches saw it as a victory that the Southern Scuffle was moved to Chattanooga, and they realized that the Super 32 was not affiliated in any way with UNCG, so there was no reason to continue to push for it being moved.
“Additionally, the former coaches of UNCG – Jason Loukides and Daren Burns, have remained in Greensboro to continue their club program – YES Wrestling — and they’ve made statements on their Facebook page asking for support to help keep wrestling alive in Greensboro. Once again, their club wrestlers will be working tables at the Super 32, and we will be making a donation to their club to help keep it going.”
Eventually, the truth came to the forefront and the Super 32 is gearing up for what might be the most star-studded field in its illustrious history.
Ingredients for Success
There isn’t exactly a handbook on ‘how-to-build-wrestling-tournaments’. Surely others around the country have attempted to establish a first-class, national event. But none have been sustained or enjoyed success to the extent the Super 32 has.
In discussing the reasons for their tournament’s success, Barker and Koenig reference several factors. They point to upgrades in venue and to registration process. They cite tremendous support from the local wrestling community and talk about their unique award: “The Belt”.
Certainly all those factors come in to play. The tournament runs without a hitch and offers all the components a quality event should.
But Koenig and Barker are modest. The reality is they built a modern wrestling tradition with success on two fronts: they grow and change based on feedback from coaches and athletes, and secondly, they’ve attracted the deepest and most talented field possible.
These are the intangibles. All of the others are reproducible. It is their receptiveness towards those they service, and the quality of competition that sets the Super 32 apart from other events
2011 and Beyond
The Super 32 is a tournament that just keeps getting better and better. Last year they moved to a two-day event and to longer periods, which coaches, athletes, and members of the media at the tournament confirmed were terrific upgrades to an already fantastic event.
In the future, Koenig and Barker have tinkered with a few ideas: field expansion, more qualifying tournaments, and possibly an elementary age division. But they say, again, that the opinions from coaches will go a long way in determining if those measures are put into place.
Their lifeblood, the talent of the field, continues to get stronger as well.
An almost unimaginable number of top talent will be heading to Greensboro this fall. Over 80 high schoolers ranked in the Top 20 of their respective weight classes are registered; that’s teetering on an amazing one-third of the nation’s top wrestlers.