A need for dialogue

At first, I didn’t completely understand – or wholeheartedly agree with – the approach head coach Bobby Thompson and the Fort Dodge wrestling team took to their regional dual situation on Wednesday night.

You know who else didn’t particularly like it? Head coach Bobby Thompson and the Fort Dodge wrestling team.

Rather than using all of their horses in an attempt to qualify for Iowa’s heavily-scrutinized state dual tournament, the third-ranked Dodgers employed a junior varsity-dominated lineup and bowed out of the field to better prepare themselves for traditional state.

Thompson’s decision instantly became a topic of conversation on call-in shows, message boards and social media. Iowa’s state dual event – which has faced intense criticism for the last five years because of its close proximity to the individual competition – takes place on Wednesday at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, with traditional state running Thursday through Saturday.

”I’ve received a lot of calls, texts and e-mails about it, and I want to make one thing clear: this wasn’t a conclusion we, as a program, came to lightly or hastily,” Thompson said. ”It’s not that we don’t care. It’s not that we think state duals is irrelevant. This is a calendar issue. Nothing more, nothing less.

”This weighed heavily on me. It still does. I don’t want the perception to be that I’m some arrogant, heartless coach who wasted an opportunity just to make a point. We collectively came to this conclusion as a program, and it’s something we’ve been talking about and communicating with the kids since day one.”

Until 2012, the state dual tournament was treated as a separate entity from its traditional partner. The single-day format gathered Iowa’s best dual squads at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids one week after the individual state championships concluded.

The event’s date and location changed five years ago, though, during a renovation period for the 7,000-seat arena in the City of Five Seasons. The Iowa High School Athletic Association moved the dual tournament to Des Moines, using the same location which houses the traditional competition during the three subsequent days.

Thompson’s concerns ever since have been echoed by most coaches throughout the state.

”I’m not going to pull any punches – first and foremost, these kids are training and preparing for getting on that podium (at traditional state),” Thompson said. ”That’s just the way it is. That’s what it’s all about, and what it’s always been about.

”With that being said, there are other issues with (the current format). I don’t know any tournament in the United States or the world – at any level – where a wrestler has to weigh in and wrestle four days in a row. At state duals, you have three matches and spend all days there, until 9 or 10 at night. We ask the kids to do that, then turn around and compete individually for three straight days?

”(Dual qualifiers) miss an extra day of school. It’s also an extra day of expenses for the program, during the week, to cover food, travel, hotel costs and everything else. (Under the old rules), you’d have traditional state, then get ready and head to Cedar Rapids the next week. It was on a Saturday, and if you wanted to make it a day and not stay overnight, you had that option.

”Was that a perfect (sequence of events)? I’m not saying that. You’re never going to please everyone. But I know for a fact that it worked much better than what we’re doing now. Trust me, I’m not alone in feeling this way.”

The numbers support Thompson. According to a survey conducted by Andy Hamilton and the Des Moines Register in 2013-14, an overwhelming number of coaches – 82 percent of the 192 contacted – oppose having state duals the day before traditional state.

Thompson offered a slew of suggestions as alternatives.

”Hold regional and state duals in January before conference, sectional and district meets – kind of like what the NCAA does,” Thompson said. ”That would be my personal preference. But we could go back to having it the week after again, or even move (traditional state) up a day and have duals on Saturday.

”You won’t necessarily get everyone to agree on what we should do, but you will see almost every coach say that whatever (the solution) may be, it would be a welcome change.”

Fort Dodge’s strategy on Wednesday wasn’t unique. The Dodgers used a junior varsity-laden lineup at regional duals last season as well, and other programs – including Southeast Polk and West Des Moines Valley – have gone the same route once they reached state.

”From our own personal experience, we didn’t want to have a full lineup (at regionals), qualify for state, then turn things upside down,” Thompson said. ”Every coach and every program has a different approach. We didn’t want to take something away from a deserving team just to say we made it, and then pull the plug.

”There’s no right or wrong answer here. We did this with the best intentions in mind. It wasn’t to draw attention, support or criticism. Trust me, when some of our kids don’t make it (Saturday at the district meet), not being able to extend their season (at state duals) will be a huge disappointment. But this is the decision we made together as a program. We’re standing by each other.”

This is a topic of conversation that won’t go away anytime soon. There are a wide range of opinions, which is often the case when both philosophies and protocol are in play.

Given the strong support for finding a more viable solution from those who know the situation best, the IHSAA would benefit from seriously considering other options. I hope the words of Thompson and his fellow coaches don’t fall on deaf ears moving forward, because it shouldn’t be about their actions – or reactions, for that matter. A state event in a popular sport like wrestling deserves better.

As it stands, there’s way too much gray – and green – clouding up an area where the frustrations are so black and white.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net