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West Virginia Mat Lines

by Jenny Sullivan
Here's the line for February 22, 2007:

“PILL” is a four-letter word.

For years we West Virginia wrestling fanatics have lamented the fact that our state’s high school wrestling tournament cannot be seeded. Football has the power rankings to determine the top 16 teams in each division. The state basketball tournament is seeded (finally), although some of the best teams still get eliminated in sectional play. But until some major changes are made with the WVSSAC, the 448 wrestlers (well 445 this year, but that’s another beef….) who are fortunate enough to make it out of their regions are subject to the luck of the draw, literally, of the “pill”.

For those of you newcomers to the workings of the state wrestling tournament, if you haven’t yet had the pill method explained to you, I’ll do my best to explain it briefly. It’s an arbitrary way of determining the pairings for the state tournament using a bracketing pattern consisting of three categories. At the conclusion of the regional tournaments, one of three numbered pills is drawn to determine the bracketing for the state tournament. For simplicity’s sake, the champion from Region 1 is always placed at the top of the upper bracket. Depending on his/her weight class, he/she will likely meet one other regional champion (barring upsets) in the upper bracket, while the remaining two regional champions are placed in the bottom bracket. For the actual formats, go to http://www.wvmat.com/statetour/seeds.htm.

Actually seeding the state tournament could quite possibly become a logistical nightmare due to the number of people that would likely be involved in the seeding process. Also, time is of the essence to get the brackets completed, printed, sent to the media, and printed in program books before the tournament convenes just five days after the regional tournaments. Until a better method can be developed and - even tougher yet - accepted by the WVSSAC, the only fair way to bracket (notice I didn’t say “seed”) the tournament is by using the pill method.

The worst thing about the pill is the number of stellar matches that occur long before the finalists ever set foot on the mat. Granted, more often than not the best wrestler in the weight class prevails as the eventual champion, but he/she may not have wrestled the second-best wrestler in the weight class in the finals. Although there are a lot of wrestlers who would be thrilled with a third-place finish, it’s no consolation (pardon the pun) for a wrestler who had perhaps been ranked second all year but lost a heart-breaking overtime decision in the semifinals to the eventual champion.

Fortunately, for the wrestlers in the AA/A division, the pill method worked out pretty well this year in all but three classes. Looking at the February 7 Individual Rankings, the #1 and #2 seeds are in opposite brackets in 11 weight classes. Two weight classes in particular fall into this category, and several fans are relieved. Top-ranked Cameron Gallaher of Grafton brings a 46-0 record to the state tournament, where he finds himself in the bracket opposite defending state champion James Casto of Point Pleasant. Gallaher defeated Casto by a 4-3 decision at the Braxton Big 16, so fans are highly anticipating a possible rematch.

Similary, at 171 undefeated Nick Hylton (42-0) of Liberty Raleigh is bracketed opposite #1 ranked T. J. Osbon of Oak Glen. Hylton and Osbon have been the subject of a debate that’s been going on for years over record versus schedule. No one can deny that Hylton is a good wrestler. Five tournament titles and 42 wins without a loss adds up to an impressive resume. On the other hand, Osbon has wrestled the tough Oak Glen schedule and has brought a 33-7 record to the state tournament. I saw Hylton wrestle at the WSAZ and state tournaments last year, and I saw Osbon earlier in the season, so I know both wrestlers are talented. If they both make it to the finals, it should be a match worth watching.

Of the seven undefeated wrestlers in the AA/A division (Dirk Bauer of Wheeling Central, John King of Philip Barbour, Zach Basich of Wheeling Central, Gallaher, Hylton, Trent Walker of Greenbrier West, and Brian Barnhart of St. Marys), six were ranked among the top two in their weight class prior to the final poll. And although an undefeated wrestler puts his record on the line every time he steps on the mat, all of the division’s undefeated wrestlers could conceivably reach the finals before wrestling their toughest match (on paper, at least). Interestingly enough, King is undefeated but ranked fourth at 135. However, the three wrestlers ranked above him in the February 7 rankings (Cody Moore of Herbert Hoover, Aaron Hinzman of Ritchie County, and Tyler Cumpston of Cameron) are in the opposite bracket, so if he wrestles according to the rankings, he could take an undefeated record to the finals as well.

The 135-lb weight class is one example of how the pill method did not work out according to the rankings. Top-ranked Moore and second-ranked Hinzman are in the same bracket and could possibly meet in the semifinals. Cumpston, the #3 wrestler in the February 7 poll, finished fourth in Region 1 so he will have to face Moore in his very first match on Thursday night.

Two other weight classes that were not smiled upon by the pill are 160 with #1 Tyson Bennett of Berkeley Springs and #2 Anthony Jeffers of Point Pleasant both in the bottom bracket and at 189 with #1 Cody Reed of Berkeley Springs and #2 Frankie Treadway of Oak Hill both in the bottom bracket.

AAA fans are singing the blues just a little more as the pill was not kind to the AAA ranked wrestlers. Nine weight classes have #1 and #2 ranked wrestlers in the same bracket positioned to meet in the semis, where one weight class (140) has the #1 and #2 wrestlers scheduled to meet in the quarterfinals. Either the coaches underestimated several wrestlers or there were a number of upsets in the regions, because if the regional results had played out according to the rankings (meaning had the wrestlers placed in their regions according to how they were ranked in the state), five more weight classes would have put the top two wrestlers in opposite brackets.

As the old saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining. Last Saturday, East Fairmont’s Jobey Knapton and Parkersburg’s Ryan Ewing were ranked in the top two in their weight classes in the February 7 poll and were expected to win their respective regions. However, both wrestlers were upset in the regional finals by unranked wrestlers as Jefferson’s Garrick Skubon won the Region 2 130-lb title and Parkersburg South’s Jesse James won the Region 1 160-lb title. As disappointed as the Knapton and Ewing may have been on Saturday night, all was well on Sunday morning when they looked at the pairings and discovered that the combination of the pill draw and their upset actually worked to their advantage. Knapton is now in the bracket opposite #2 Brandon Wilson of Parkersburg and Ewing is in the bracket opposite #1 Drew Retton of Fairmont Senior.

AAA has five undefeated wrestlers - Colton Gustines of Jefferson, Seth Easter of Nitro, Wesley Byard of North Marion, and J. D. Ramsey and Alex Neal, both of Cabell Midland. With the exception of Ramsey, who’s ranked second to Parkersburg’s Andy Thomas, all wrestlers are #1 in their respective weight classes. Unfortunately, each wrestler is in the same bracket as the #2 wrestler, and in Ramsey’s case, he’s in the same bracket with Thomas. On paper, it appears as though each wrestler will face his toughest opponent in the semifinals. And even though longtime fans know that’s not always the case as heart and determination take the lead role come state tournament time, the point I’m trying to make is that these wrestlers all fell victim to the pill, and odds are that not all five will make it to the finals unscathed.

This year will be the 30th state tournament I’ve attended (I’ve missed only three since 1975), and I’ve seen some heartbreaking losses and some amazing upsets. There hasn’t been a year that someone hasn’t fallen victim to the “pill”, and until someone finds a better way, we’ve just got to accept it as the best way at the moment to bracket the tournament.

I would just like to ask that fans, coaches, parents, and wrestlers themselves refrain from putting too much emphasis on the outcome of these matches. Take a moment and reflect – it’s only high school wrestling. In the larger scheme of things, there are far worse things that could happen to a young man or woman than losing a high profile wrestling match. Ripley’s Mitch Smith suffered probably the most stunning defeat in state wrestling history when he lost in the finals to Parkersburg South’s Shaun Smith, ending his chances of becoming a 4-time state champion. But Smith didn’t wallow in self-pity. Instead he came back to finish his senior year with a third state title. And although Shaun Smith didn’t repeat as a state champion, he too fared pretty well in the long run as both Smiths are now wrestling in college. Mitch Smith is wrestling for Hofstra and Shaun Smith is wrestling for Liberty University in Virginia.

I spoke recently with a defending state champion about pressure, rankings, and brackets. He spoke with wisdom far beyond his teenage years. He said, “I already have what I wanted, and that’s a state title.” Although I’m sure he’d love nothing more than to repeat as a state champion, he’s putting no pressure on himself to do so

To all the state’s wrestlers, whether you’re participating this weekend or not, if you get the chance to talk to some of the former state champions who will be honored this weekend, try to do so. I’m sure they’ll agree that winning a state wrestling championship has been just a small part of their life accomplishments.

Good luck to all the wrestlers this weekend and remember to have fun and enjoy yourselves. Before you know it, 28 of you will be joining that group of “former” state champions, so enjoy your moment in the spotlight while it’s yours to enjoy.

Contact Jenny Sullivan at sullivj2@ohio.edu

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