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If prep football can have fewer athletes in a lineup, why not wrestling?

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Updated: September 22, 2020

Photo: Plainview High School, which has less than 100 total students, has won the last two Class D Nebraska state championships.

Note: The following column appeared in the September 2020 issue of WIN Magazine. Click here to subscribe to WIN, which will publish its annual College/High School issue on Oct. 2.

Click on above image to subscribe to WIN Magazine.

By Rob Sherrill

Call it, “The Great Weight Class Debate, Part 2.”

I’ve written frequently about the problems created by the weight classes instituted by the National Federation of State High School Associations in 2011. It’s become clear that putting weights where the wrestlers aren’t has, at a minimum, increased forfeits. Pennsylvania and New York have answered my call. They’ve adopted 13-man weight class set-ups for the upcoming season, and we’ll be writing about those in detail in future issues.

 

Although this column is also about weight classes, it’s a different side of the argument. What the weight classes actually are is vitally important, but so is how many of them there are. Even after a set of weight classes that accurately reflects the wrestling population has been developed, another question remains: are there simply too many for too many schools to fill?

No line-up in any sport the NFHS sponsors is more difficult to fill than in wrestling. This is not open to debate. Not only does the sport have the biggest line-up — 14 slots, per NFHS mandate — but those 14 slots must be filled by 14 different wrestlers of 14 different sizes with a rule-prescribed range of nearly 200 pounds.

They can’t wrestle four events in one dual meet, as athletes can in swimming and track and field; they can’t play multiple positions, as they can in other team sports. You can take 11 athletes of any size, put them on a field and have a football or soccer team; you can put five athletes of any height on a court and have a basketball team. None of the above is possible in wrestling.

The NFHS has even given football a helping hand, devoting a portion of its Football Rule Book and Case Manual to special-case rules for football played with six, eight or nine players. Twenty states, nearly half of the nation, hold state championships for reduced-line-up football. Seven of those states have 6-man state championships, including football-crazed Texas, where, according to the web site sixmanfootball.com, 6-man football has been played since 1938. The state’s two 6-man divisions will include 154 teams in 2020. Ten states sanction 8-man football, three others 9-man.

Rob Sherrill

And those are just the states that conduct official championships. The sport is catching on in additional states, too, as small schools find it increasingly difficult to accumulate rosters of a sufficient size to conduct 11-man football.

Why are such schools turning their backs on 11-man football, even in states like Illinois, where a state playoff series doesn’t exist for them? Because they can. Even if their state high school association may not sanction reduced-line-up football, the NFHS does. A state association need not be concerned about the potential repercussions of not being “100 percent compliant” with NFHS rules, because the existence of rules addressing 6-, 8- and 9-man football give state associations a convenient get-out-of-jail-free card.

Why has no such assistance has ever been offered to wrestling? Why, in the sport with the most difficult line-up to fill, must the school with 200 students be required to fill the same line-up as the school with 2,000 students or more? Why must the choice for so many smaller schools be “co-op or drop?”

Simple math says the school with 2,000 students to draw from will win the race to 14 over the school with 200 virtually every time. It’s that ongoing battle against the numbers that makes many small schools simply throw up their hands and walk away.

 

Case study: celebrating the big and the small in Nebraska

Wrestling is a thriving sport in the Cornhusker State. With four classes, though — A, B, C and D — the state has one of the most diverse populations of wrestling schools in the nation. Omaha Millard South, the state’s fifth-largest school with an enrollment of 1,881 last year, dominated big-school Class A the past two seasons and merited serious consideration for WIN’s Top 25 teams in 2020.

The Patriots went 19-0 in duals by an average score of 57-14 (53-16 in the dual state tournament), and the lowest margin of victory was 13 points. Millard South finished second to Liberty (Mo.), which did earn a spot in the Top 25, in the Council Bluffs (Iowa) Wrestling Classic and won their other seven tournaments, including the state tournament, by an average of 78 points. All 14 Patriot starters qualified for the state tournament and 10 placed, including five champions, led by North Carolina State freshman 197-pounder Isaac Trumble.

At the other end of the spectrum is Plainview, which similarly dominated Class D, Nebraska’s smallest class, in 2019 and 2020. Without reduced-line-up football — Nebraska sanctions both 8-man and 6-man, based on enrollment — the Pirates, with an enrollment of just 66 students a year ago, and almost all of their Class D brethren, would not be playing that sport.

Of the 81 schools that competed in Class D wrestling in 2019-20, only six played 11-man football last fall. Two of the six did so only because co-op arrangements with other schools elevated their football enrollment to Class C-2, the smallest 11-man division. Fourteen of the 75 played in the 6-man division. Meridian, with a 2020 enrollment of 58, placed the highest of the 14 in the individual state tournament, finishing 24th. Just three placewinners came from the classification’s 6-man contingent.

The dual state tourney offered further proof that reduced-line-up wrestling could be useful. A Nebraska State Activities Association rule requires Class D teams to be able to field a team consisting of at least eight wrestlers to compete in the event. Nevertheless, five of the 11 duals in the Class D state tournament in February had seven forfeits or more. In all, 60 of a possible 154 matches — 39 percent — were forfeited, including three double forfeits.

Talk to NSAA assistant director Ron Higdon about these issues and you’re preaching to the choir, by our standards. Not only is Higdon a supporter of reduced-line-up wrestling, but if it were up to him, the number of points for a forfeit would be raised from six to eight. It’s a sensible incentive to put a wrestler on the mat at every weight — or as many weights as possible. Additionally, dual-meet wrestling is a momentum sport. Rather than firing up the opposing team by giving up a pin, coaches quietly forfeit matches without additional penalty.

“If you’re giving up two extra points, you don’t think a coach would work a little harder to recruit a kid to fill that weight?” Higdon said. “I guarantee you he would.”

Another NSAA rule allows Class D teams to enter two wrestlers at each weight class for the individual state series. This rule, which does not extend to the three larger classifications, helped five Class D schools enter 14 wrestlers at the district tournament, the state’s lone qualifying level. None of the five, however, filled all 14 weight classes. Only Plainview and Maxwell, which finished fifth in the dual state meet, managed to fill as many as 13.

By the conclusion of the state tournament, though, Plainview’s resume rivaled Millard South’s in some respects. The Pirates lost only one dual meet, to Class B Pierce, and won handily over two of the top five Class C teams. After winning their three state tournament dual meets by an average score of 60-13, Plainview dominated Class D’s deepest individual district, winning by 83 points. They placed seven in the top four at the state tournament, three of them champions, and both Pirate state qualifiers at 106 placed, finishing second and third in state.

But for every success story like Plainview, there’s a school that may not even have 14 boys in the student body; Nebraska had 17 such schools in 2019-20, and has 15 this year. Fourteen able-bodied wrestlers at 14 different weight classes? No chance. What’s the classification-wide impact of that? See the chart below, which compares Nebraska’s Class D to some other states and their smallest classifications.

As you can see, Nebraska is not alone. In these 12 states, 11 of which conduct state championships in reduced-line-up football, the average wrestling line-up entered at the initial state qualifying level was just about half of the 14-man line-up mandated by the NFHS.

In Nebraska’s Class D, only 28.4 percent of the classification — just over one in four teams — fielded a line-up of wrestlers that numbered in the double digits (10 wrestlers or more). The numbers for the other states in the chart are similar, even though four of them, Idaho, Michigan, Montana and Oregon, also allow two wrestlers to be entered at a weight.

Full line-ups? Forget it. Only 32 of the 840 schools in the smallest classifications in these 12 states managed to enter a wrestler at all 14 weight classes. That’s a miniscule 3.8 percent – less than one in 20. And half of the 32 came from one state, Wisconsin, where a paltry 15 percent of Division 3 teams filled all 14 weight classes at the sectional level.

Only half of the 52 schools in Class D-2, the smaller of Nebraska’s two 8-man football divisions, have wrestling programs, and just 40 percent of the 35 schools in the 6-man division have the sport. Such schools can take refuge in reduced-line-up football. Wrestling, however, offers no safe haven. It’s 14 or bust.

Considering that the enrollment cutoff for Class D is just 105 students, it makes perfect sense to offer the options of 8-man football, and even 6-man football, to schools in the classification. If those options did not exist, there likely would be no football in the classification at all. Given how much more difficult it is to fill a line-up in wrestling than in football, doesn’t it make sense to offer a reduced-line-up wrestling option to the Class D’s of the world?

 

In Missouri, they forfeit, but they wrestle — dual meets, too

Fielding a wrestling line-up of any kind is also a difficult task for the smallest schools in Missouri, Nebraska’s neighbor to the southeast. The Show-Me State has 27 schools in its 8-man football division, which is limited to schools with enrollments of 150 or less. All are in the northwest corner of the state, north of the Kansas City area. Only five, Albany, Rock Port, Rosendale North Andrew, Stanberry and Tarkio, have wrestling programs. Given that the size of Missouri’s smallest classification, Class 1, includes schools with enrollments as high as 341 students, they’re up against it.

Despite having only eight wrestlers on its roster — and six district entries — North Andrew posted the highest finishes of the five schools both in District 4 (seventh of 16 schools) and the state tournament (26th). The five entered a total of 36 wrestlers — like Nebraska’s Class D, an average of just over seven per school. Although their enrollment was less than half that of the biggest schools in their classification, the average number of entries throughout Class 1 is similar, as the table above shows.

In many of the states listed in the table, the smallest schools don’t wrestle many dual meets. The difficulty of filling a 14-man line-up, which results in many forfeits, along with what may be the lack of proximity to opponents of a similar size, are reasons many such schools focus their schedules on tournaments instead.

That doesn’t stop these five Missouri schools, though. Their schedules average 18 dual meets. And, predictably, most pile up the forfeits. Rock Port, for instance, wrestled 18 dual meets, despite having only four wrestlers on the roster. Every dual the Blue Jays wrestled included either 10 or 11 forfeits. North Andrew’s 17 duals featured eight, nine or 10 forfeits; Stanberry had seven or eight forfeits in all of its 23 duals. Tarkio fared the best of the five; the Indians had just two or three forfeits in 13 of their 16 duals. When it’s that hard to fill a line-up, filling it is a crapshoot.

 

Iowa’s smallest struggle, too

Wrestling is king among Iowa high schools. But even in the Hawkeye State, small schools struggle to fill line-ups. The biggest schools in the state’s smallest classification, Class 1A, have an enrollment of just 205 students. Although more than half of Iowa’s 1A schools (51.6 percent) managed to enter double-digit line-ups in the sectional tournaments, the state’s initial qualifying level, only 18 of the 128 schools entered full line-ups of 14.

Let’s zero in on the 33 1A programs that played 8-man football in Iowa. The only school among those 33 to enter a full sectional line-up was Gilbertville Don Bosco, the eventual dual state runner-up and individual tournament team champion. The overall average of 7.52 entries per school was consistent with other states on the chart above, and the 12 double-digit line-ups also produced a similar percentage (36.4). Finally, seventeen of those 33 teams had fewer than 14 wrestlers on the roster last season, making it mathematically impossible to field a full line-up.

In Iowa, as across the country, the numbers speak for themselves. Yes, coaches need to recruit harder. Yes, we need to make the sport more attractive at the grassroots level. But the sport also needs help from above — help that it’s not getting. Why do we continue to put weight classes where the wrestlers aren’t? Why do we force every school of every size into a one-size-doesn’t-really-fit-all box, leaving the smallest schools laboring in vain to fill a line-up that is getting harder to fill even at the biggest schools? Why must Pennsylvania and New York go it alone, risking the lost influence of not being “100 percent compliant” in doing so?

For decades, the NFHS has boasted that wrestling is the sixth-biggest sport it sanctions. However, the systemic issues we’ve identified fall squarely in the federation’s lap. So does fixing them. How about taking a page from the football rule book in the process? Some simple steps could help take wrestling from No. 6 to No. 5 on the NFHS list in the coming years. Now that would be something to brag about.

 (A native of Chicago’s south suburbs, Rob Sherrill has been covering high school wrestling on the national level since 1978 and has served as WIN’s high school columnist since 1997.)

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