A/AA state tourney adds fans plus wrestlers

A/AA state tourney adds fans plus wrestlers

February 17th, 2014 by Ward Gossett in Sports - Preps

Wilson Central's Austin Richards competes against Cleveland's Austin Stevison, foreground, during the state individual wrestling finals on Saturday.

Photo by The Tennessean /Times Free Press.

FRANKLIN, Tenn. -- TSSAA executive assistant Mark Reeves said early in the weekend that he felt excitement at the state wrestling tournament that he hadn't felt since the event moved to the Williamson County Agricultural Expo several years ago.

It could have been Division II's wrestle-in in each weight class to fill the eighth and final spot in each of the 14 brackets, although few DII coaches were thrilled with the idea.

However, it was most likely the addition of a Class A/AA tournament and its field of 70-plus teams with many small-school fans seeing the state tournament for the first time.

The TSSAA added the A/AA field after coaches pushed for it the last several years, and most likely the association will cement the addition after getting a look at weekend gate receipts. Attendance was definitely up, but coaches are seeking to grow the sport, encouraging smaller schools to start or at least bolster their wrestling programs.

A number of Chattanooga-area programs benefited from the tournament.

Brainerd had two medalists, Denzell Robinson and Sedric Jordan, and they were the Panthers' first since 1986 heavyweight champion Sterling Featherstone.

"I think the new classification will promote the sport across the state and will give small schools a chance to compete at the state level," Brainerd assistant coach Stanley Jackson said. "When you do that, you will see more schools beginning to participate."

Said Central coach John Lennon: "We want [the field] to get bigger: Go from 12-man brackets to a full 16. We want more participants, but I guess it's a good start."

The last time before Saturday that Central had two finalists was in 1991 when Kevin and Ricky Johnson, now Silverdale Baptist's coach, won championships. The Purple Pounders' Xavier Norwood and Trumon Martin each placed second and were part of Central's quartet of medalists.

Hixson won a state championship in 1973 when the tournament was all-inclusive, counting the private schools (it was Gordon Connell's only year to coach there), so the Wildcats had to be elated with the first A/AA state title. And they did it without a single state champion, the first time that's been accomplished since Cleveland won the overall title in 1994.

Hixson won it with a strong showing in Saturday's consolations.

The success stories didn't stop there.

Notre Dame, like Hixson a AAA contender years ago, had three state champions (Luke Mullin, Packy Mullin, Noah Bankston) for the first time since 1978 (James Jabaley, Robbie Gaddis, Art Johnson).

Red Bank had three finalists for the first time since the early 1990s and got its first champion, Gabe McDuffie, since Jonathan Taylor won in 2009.

Trent Walliser was Lookout Valley's first finalist since Tim Voiles' championship in 1996, and Signal Mountain gained its first state champion: Cale Shelton.

Among the Class AAA schools, Cleveland has won both dual and traditional titles for two straight seasons, adding to a lengthy run of Chattanooga-area teams bringing home the championship hardware. Only one team outside of this area has won the traditional team title this millennium, and that was Clarksville in 2000, so area coaches scoffed at a proposal submitted by Region 6-AAA representatives that called for a change in qualifiers, suggesting it be based on the number of teams in each region rather than four per region.

When that was called for a vote at the coaches' state meeting, only two voted for it. If it had been taken seriously, area coaches would have countered, according to one, with a proposal that qualifiers be awarded on the basis of state medals won by each region. That is an area that southeastern Tennessee long has dominated.

Contact Ward Gossett at wgossett@timesfreepress.com or 423-886-4765. Follow him at Twitter.com/wardgossett.